Director: Anubhav Sinha
Writers: Anubhav Sinha, Sima Agarwal, Yash Keswani
Cast: Ayushmann Khurrana, Andrea Kevichüsa, Manoj Pahwa, Loitongbam Dorendra Singh, Mipham Otsal, J.D. Chakravarthy, Jatin Goswami, Kumud Mishra
Cinematographers: Ewan Mulligan, Dhananjay Navagrah
Editor: Yasha Ramchandani
Anek is a confused and confusing political thriller. It is the fourth film in writer-director Anubhav Sinha's 2.0 avatar – the first, Mulk, dealt with communalism, Article 15 with casteism and Thappad with sexism. In Anek, Anubhav turns his camera to the North East, the region's troubled and violent history, which goes back to the colonial era, its contentious relationship with India and the virulent racism that people from the region face in their own country. The intent is noble and timely but the outcome, less so.
Anek begins with the dedication: 'With love to the people of North East India'. The film is set in an unnamed state in the region. Ayushmann Khurrana plays an undercover officer who has been assigned there to help broker peace between the many warring separatist groups and the Indian government. Anubhav's long-standing collaborators Manoj Pahwa and Kumud Mishra play key roles and DOP Ewan Mulligan, who shot both Mulk and Article 15, is also on duty.
'Anek' means many and it seems that the writers of the film – Anubhav, Sima Agarwal and Yash Keswani, with Anjum Rajabali as a script consultant – took this title a little too seriously. Because the film is a muddle of undercooked threads that never coalesce into a whole. For starters, there is Ayushmann's character Aman's story. His name for this mission is Joshua. Aman starts out as a business-as-usual, ruthless and cool spy – he even has a signature line about not venturing into places that he can't get out of. But then, inexplicably and suddenly, he becomes more invested in trying to do the right thing, and in the relationships he has built with the locals.
This includes his love affair with Aido, a boxer, whose ambition is to play for India. This allows the screenplay to make room for training montages and to establish the routine racism that Aido and her coach face. He is told that if she gets selected for the National team along with another girl from the North East then the team might become Chinese.
In addition to the leads, there are warring revolutionaries, the story of Niko, a teenager who picks up a gun, the power-mongering and opportunism of the political establishment and the consistent inability of all the players to foster peace in the region. As a character says: Peace maintain karne se aasan hota hai war maintain karna.
There are too many narratives jostling for prominence and what further compounds the problem is that the thorny, complex reality of the region needs to be made easily digestible for viewers in the rest of the country. To achieve this, Anubhav adds voiceovers from both Aman and Aido and reams of exposition. Characters repeatedly spell out moments. And though the film aspires for realistic textures, the dialogue veers toward flamboyantly dramatic. Characters say lines such as: I'm not in the business of trust. And: Peace is a subjective hypothesis. And: Main mere constitution ke liye kaam karta hoon. Basically, utterances that you are unlikely to hear in real life.
The busy nature of the plot doesn't allow the characters to develop with conviction. Ayushmann, with a beefed-up physique and close-cropped hair, looks the part but the character remains opaque. Aman has presumably been on-duty and served the political establishment long enough to understand their devious machinations so why is he so disillusioned by their decisions? Also, why does he sniffle at regular intervals – the trait seems to be a stand-in for depth. To Anubhav's credit, most of the actors in the film are from the region – this includes Andrea Kevichüsa as Aido and Mipham Otsal as her father Wangnao. Their performances are solid but the writing undermines their efforts. The ideological conflict between Aido and Wangnao had the potential to evoke emotion and anchor the film but it needed to be fleshed out better.
Anek poses the critical question of: Who is Indian? At one point, Aman rails into the divisions of North, South, East, West and asks: Sirf Indian kaise hota hai aadmi? The sequence reminded me of that powerful moment in Article 15 in which the cop Ayan Ranjan, also played by Ayushmann, tears into the absurdity of the caste system. But in this film, the anger is less blistering because the narrative is too didactic and the messaging overwhelms the storytelling.
Moreover, the messaging itself seems contradictory. Thankfully, Anek doesn't subscribe to the shrill jingoism that is all the rage currently. The film doesn't valorise the Indian forces or label the rebel groups as terrorists. We see how oppression and subjugation by the state leads men and women to violence. There is a horrifying scene in which we see locals bundled into cages like cattle. But later in the film, this gets turned on its head with a surgical strike which is staged with smoke, big guns and slow motion. Ayushmann is very much the heroic figure going in as a saviour.
Anek also repeatedly conflates the North East with Kashmir. Manoj plays Abrar Bhat, Aman's boss, who hails from Kashmir. When Abrar sees the North East region from his plane, he utters the famous couplet Emperor Jahangir is said to have uttered for Kashmir: agar firdaus bar ru-ye zamin ast, hamin ast-o hamin ast-o hamin ast. The implication perhaps is that both parts of the country have been historically oppressed and alienated. And peace seems to be an impossibility because war is so much more profitable. Abrar's roots eventually colour his decision-making.
But again, these larger questions of geo-political manoeuvring don't land with enough force because the storytelling lacks clarity. There are stray sequences that have power like one in which a rebel group is decimated – the bullets fly fast and ruthlessly.
Largely, however, Anek is undone by trying to be too many things. The film is a welcome step towards more diversity and representation in mainstream Hindi cinema. But now we need deeper dives.