Anek Movie Review: The weakest of Anubhav Sinha’s recent films

Ayushmann Khurrana stars as a covert operative stationed in the Northeast in this feeble, didactic film
Anek Movie Review: The weakest of Anubhav Sinha’s recent films

Anubhav Sinha can direct. His last three films—Mulk, Article 15, Thappad—were robustly argued ideological statements, but one could also find in them moments of genuine cinematic merit. In Anek, however, I could only find one. It comes too late in the film: a band of rebels picking their way through a dark forest, and dying one by one. For once, Anubhav is in his element, using movement and imagery to convey a thought. The rest of the film shows little and tells a lot.

It’s a coup of a subject matter. Aside from Dil Se.. many years ago, the political conflicts of Northeast India have rarely filled a mainstream Hindi film. Anubhav, teaming with co-writers Sima Agarwal and Yash Keswani, condenses a lot—“There are 30-40 rebel groups in the North East,” says undercover cop Aman (Ayushmann Khurrana), tacitly acquitting the film from dealing with a single state or event. The pivot is a peace accord the Centre is bound to sign with separatist leader Tiger Sangha (Loitongbam Dorendra). Aman has been sent in to ensure its smooth execution. However, in the run-up to the big day, a new group has mobilised—‘Johnson’, actually contrived by Aman and his bosses as a political ‘pressure point’, but now usurped by unseen rebels.

Anek parallels these conflicts with the abject racism Northeast Indians face in the mainland. This is portrayed in no subtle terms; they’re called things like ‘chinki’, ‘Chinese’, ‘chilli chicken’. In a telling scene, Tiger Sangha is driven to a Delhi meeting and sees the passing monuments in harsh horror-film light. No direct connection is drawn, but it’s evident how years of alienation, mistrust and socioeconomic disenfranchisement can fester into militancy. Not everyone is picking up guns; Aido (Andrea Kevishusa), a boxer, wants to represent India so she can voice the discontentment of her people. She’s being wooed by Aman (under a phoney name, Joshua) to get close to his targets. “I wish she had never walked into my café,” he says, in voiceover, with none of the caustic heartache of Bogart's Rick Blaine.

The poor suffer in a conflict zone, we’re told. The film, smartly, gives several human faces to this reality: a widow eking out an existence at Aman’s café, her son falling in with rebels, faceless men held and tortured in makeshift prison camps. The ordinary population is caught between the violence of the insurgents and the brutal crackdowns of the state. While not lacking in empathy, the film fails to give these characters some interiority. Aido and her father, a suspected rebel, are always fighting. There is a mechanized rhythm to their lives, drawn along political lines. Emotions always get short shrift. Even the scene where Aman finally comes clean to Aido ends with him telling her, “You have to fight.”

If you thought the ‘Stand Up For National Anthem’ promotional campaign was a bit much, wait till you see the whole film. Anubhav never misses a chance to preach. Hectoring an audience—whether right-wing, left-wing or apolitical—is never correct. Aman comes across as less a spy, more a Liberal Arts graduate looking for someone to banter with. His growing cynicism, meanwhile, is betrayed by the nationalistic packaging of his overall arc. Ayushman is greatly wasted in the part, sniffling instead of seething. The only kudos goes to Manoj Pahwa, entertaining as a government brute, and JD Chakravarthy in his Bollywood return. “Peace is a subjective hypothesis,” he says calmly, much mellowed since the days of Satya.

In films like Haider, Madras Café or the relatively recent Sardar Udham, the politics of a world gradually gives way to a sustained character study. It’s people—with their flaws, contradictions and less-than-perfect humanity—that ultimately tether us to the screen. Anek’s foregrounding of the issues of the North East is commendable. But without great characters, without evocative detail, it’s no better than the usual eyewash.

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