Writer-director Prakash Jha comes to CHARKRAVYUH with earnest good intentions. He wants to focus attention on India's Naxalites - Maoist rebels from the poorest tribal areas who use violence to protest against the poverty and exploitation of the region's resources. (It's a situation broadly equivalent to the UK's struggle with the IRA.) The problem is that this political commentary is introduced with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer and sits uneasily with the movie's typically crass Bollywood sensibility.
Arjun Rampal plays a straightforward police chief who goes to the Naxalite region to win over the hearts and minds of the villagers and root out the Maoists. His formerly estranged college friend, played by Abhay Deol, volunteers to infiltrate the gang and feed the police with information. This set up takes a good hour of the two and a half hour run-time. Thereafter we are in action thriller mode as the Maoists start having their hideouts blown, and the infiltrator becomes attached to one of the rebels (Anjali Patil) and swayed by their plight.
|Abhay Deol, Prakash Jha and Arjun Rampal brave the rain
at the World Premiere of CHAKRAVYUH
To begin with the good, I am sure this is the first time that a big Bollywood movie has spent any time on the Naxalites and made a decent attempt to be even-handed in showing both the violence they use but also their motives. I appreciate that if you want to get a mainstream audience to listen to all that, you have to dress it up in the clothes of a big brash action movie.
But for an audience used to the typical, more subtle Festival fare, the movie sits uneasily in the wider programme, and is ultimately a deeply frustrating watch. To give you an idea of some of the issues: early scenes are dominated by "Basil Exposition" type Politics 101; Prakash Jha uses a push-in on practically every scene of early dialogue giving the movie the look of a cheap soap opera; he literally colours his flashbacks in sepia tones; the combat sequences are absurd, with a Rambo style shot of Arjun Rampal wildly shooting a rifle out of the window of a car; the special effects are cheap - notably a scene where Abhay Deol throws a body off a ridge, which is clearly a dummy....
Overall, I admire the intentions of this film, but the direction, writing and acting (with the exception of the venerable Om Puri) are all straightforward old-fashioned Bollywood and not really suited to the London Film Festival. One can only hope that next year the programmers decided to choose movies from India's vibrant arthouse scene.
CHAKRAVYUH is released in the UK and India today. The running time is 152 minutes with one interval.