In his post-Tum Bin avatar, Anubhav Sinha is like an intrepid reporter on ground zero who negotiates multiple points of view, but lets the reader know which side he is on. This week, he completes his trilogy on the issues that go against our credo of unity in diversity. After addressing religious rancour in Mulk and the caste cauldron in Article 15, he turns his sharp gaze to regional identity in Anek.
Over the years, the North East has remained out of focus of not just policymakers, but also Hindi cinema. Apart from a stray Tango Charlie (2005), one doesn’t remember any mainstream Hindi film that addressed the insurgency in a part of the country that didn’t get into a “happy marriage”, as one of the characters says in the film, with India in 1947.
Anek is a deeply-political film that asks why people of certain parts of the country have to repeatedly prove their love and worth for the country, and echoes the deep-seated distrust that a section of the Northeast people have for Delhi. “Are we going after guns and ignoring the shoulders that are being used?” wonders the morally-ambiguous protagonist.
Sinha is not keen on finding a foreign hand; he is interested in looking within. Drawing from real images and events, Sinha smartly unscrambles the politics of bluster and questions whether we really respect and celebrate the idea of India as envisaged in our Constitution.
Hard-hitting has become a cliche but Sinha’s dialogues consistently hit the nail on the head, at times letting his pen bleed. Smartly juxtaposing the North-East issue with the Kashmir imbroglio, the film delineates the difference between peace and control, the ambiguous meaning of special status, and how vested interests are keeping the fire burning.
On the surface, it follows an undercover agent Joshua/ Aman (Ayushmann Khurrana) whose goal is to bring the biggest insurgent group, that indulges in violence and drug trade, to the table for peace accord. For this, he creates a fictitious rival group called Johnson, but, in the process, discovers that there is another organisation by the same name that is quietly working to educate children, nurture the natural resources and rehabilitate the youth addicted to drugs so that they don’t remain dependent on the ‘mainland’ for jobs and ration.
Aman feels the government should talk to the group that is the people’s voice, but finds that his boss Abrar Butt (Manoj Pahwa) is more interested in winning over the group that creates the most noise and bloodshed. Following his political boss (Kumud Mishra), he is keen on sharing power with its leader Tiger Sangha (Loitangbam Dorendra). The talk of building a statue, a film on surgical strike, and having momos in the conflict zone makes you chuckle.
But when Abrar tells Aman that in a democracy, people’s voice could be heard only once in five years, it feels like there is dynamite beneath the seat. A Kashmiri, Abrar brings his personal peeve to his job. He suspects that Aman is also doing something similar, as the agent is in a relationship with Adio (Andrea Kevichusa), the daughter of a school teacher (Mipham Otsal) who is running a covert operation against the State.
In a parallel track, Adio, a champion boxer, wants to win a medal for the country despite being discriminated against because of her regional identity. If we can root for Adio in Indian colours, why do we call girls like her Chinese? The question keeps troubling our conscience, long after the credits roll.
In a way, Anek is a counterpoint to The Kashmir Files kind of cinema because it doesn’t demonise a particular section of people of the country and holds the politicians and bureaucrats — and not people — to account, without a cut-off date.
Ewan Mulligan’s kinetic cinematography guides our gaze. After Article 15, this is Mulligan’s second film with Sinha and one could say the two have arrived at a common point of view. Similarly, Mangesh Dhakde’s background score, which has become a constant feature in Sinha’s films, lends the film its action-thriller tag.
It is good to watch Ayushmann Khurrana flexing his muscles and get out of the boy-next-door parts. The beard suits him, as one of the characters in the film compliments him. But as Aman gets embroiled in a moral battle, Sinha doesn’t provide Ayushmann with enough material to chew on. The relationship between Aman and Aido remains hanging in the mountain air. Andrea, with her innocent yet incisive gaze, shines as the naive Aido, but eventually, her story reduces to a box that needs to be ticked if you are discussing the Northeast.
No such issues with Pahwa. The consummate actor once again pitches in a well-rounded performance. His ‘ifs and buts’ sound casual and cruel at the same time. In fact, it is his conversations with Mishra and Deorendra that form the believable crux of the narrative. They remind us of some of the real-life characters that populate our socio-political universe.
Sinha has also respected diversity in casting. Besides the strong North Eastern cast, it is good to see J. Chakravarthy back in an interesting cameo as a police officer from Telangana.
However, over the course of the trilogy, the urge to editorialise his stories seems to have seeped into Sinha, the reporter. There are passages when it seems the characters are reading out effusive edit pieces, than being part of a cogent story. At times, the director seems to be using them to tide over the gaps in the storytelling.
The strand of how a young boy Niko (Thejasevor Belho) turns into an extremist is poignant and heart-rending, but when it is stretched beyond its potential, it stops working. Even some of the action sequences, including the one towards the end, feel overwrought. Somehow, the combination of the text and the subtext doesn’t turn out to be as seamless as it was in Mulk and Article 15.
Still, Anek needs to be watched for its incisive inquiry into a disturbing truth that needs to be faced.
Anek is currently running in theatres