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
I was dreading this day. But it's here. Since 2014, it's been getting steadily harder to craft sociopolitical stories critical of the State without inviting the wrath of the right-wing faithful. The freedom to dissent – especially through mainstream Indian cinema – is all but extinct. The careers and livelihoods of most artists cannot afford indefinite bans and lawsuits. As a result, a lot of left-liberal filmmakers have been forced to think out of the box and circumvent systemic radars. Whether it's through radical genres (the Dibakar Banerjee short in Ghost Stories), documentaries making a splash abroad (Writing With Fire, All That Breathes, Vivek, A Night of Knowing Nothing), narrative subterfuge (Love Hostel) or deep-rooted subtext (A Family Man, Paatal Lok, Thar, Newton, Sherni), most filmmakers have thrived on this challenge.
But Anubhav Sinha is a curious case. He made powerful statements with Mulk and Article 15, though his style can be accused of lacking nuance. Much of his exposition could be defined as: An enlightened person lectures ignorant people. At the time, I reasoned that perhaps the patronizing tone is necessary to counter the Islamophobic overtures of commercial Hindi cinema. In that sense, Anek is a natural progression – it is the consequence of that style imploding in its pursuit of clever critique. It's one thing to make a movie that escapes the scrutiny of a particular side; it's another to make one that escapes the scrutiny – and understanding – of all sides possible. The film is a sloppy and incoherent mess; it's so busy taking veiled digs at the powers that be that it ends up digging its own narrative grave. If Anek were a person, it would be that smug crusader at a party who imposes his densely worded opinion on anyone who offers him a beer. And that's a tragedy. With Bollywood on the brink of turning into a cultural echo chamber, I believe we need movies like Anek to stand out. But being sensible – or even right – is no license to be illegible.
Centred on the insurgencies of Northeast India, Anek buries itself under the privilege of having to explain – and accessorize – a decades-long conflict in 148 minutes, which somehow feels like 200 minutes and 48 minutes at once. This in turn leads to a premise teeming with relentless exposition, voiceovers, on-the-nose dialogue, conversational drama, frantic intercutting, loud symbolism and an endless background score. The perspective is of an undercover police officer, Aman (Ayushmann Khurrana), who has integrated himself into an unnamed Northeastern town as cafe owner Joshua. My first grouse is that the town stays deliberately unnamed to mirror Aman's – and by extension, the rest of India's – ignorant clubbing of the Seven Sisters under one umbrella. While I get the metaphor, the 'NE' number plates are plain pretentious. In doing so, the film begins to reflect the gaze it set out to dismantle. The sarcasm of the world-building might have looked smart on paper, but it's over-smart on screen. (Thankfully Aman does not have a sister named Asha). The tagline of Anek ("Jeetega Kaun? Hindustan!"), for example, is a war cry used by the military in the film – which makes it not a genuine tagline but a swipe at the state-sponsored violence that divides a region reluctant to identify as Indian. The message: When India's biggest rival is India, there's only one winner. Again, this would have been a smart tweet.
Aman is a commando-style cop who reports directly to a Delhi minister called Abrar (Manoj Pahwa). His job is to supply information to the centre and fuel the internal war between separatist and revolutionary outfits, so that his government can corner the old separatist leader while negotiating a Peace Accord. As Joshua, he is dating a local girl named Aido (Andrea Kevichusa) – a national-level boxer fighting her own battles against racism (she is called "chilly chicken" and "Bangkok parlour girl" in the opening scene) – because her father might be the low-profile leader of the revolutionary forces. Soon, three parallel dimensions of the conflict emerge: Outsider Aman's coming-of-rage journey, Aido's story as an athlete at odds with the India that hesitates to claim her, and a teen boy Nico's descent into the depths of rebel violence.
At a broader level, I like that Aman doesn't lash out the way most movie heroes do. He stops short of being a saviour, without going totally rogue. But Aman's imminent transformation from Center bot to 'NE' sympathizer feels anything but earned. By all accounts he's a hard-hearted chap who doesn't mind exploiting the friends he's made, so it has to take more than the sight of locals in cages to shake his core. Almost overnight, he starts sounding like a woke keypad warrior, musing about perspectives and democracy and victimhood with his irritated seniors. Khurrana has owned this arc several times, but he looks lost as Joshua/Aman, mostly because the writing turns him into an errant student with a penchant for verbal sly tweets. His wisdom reeks of what the film's writers are thinking, not what his character – a robot finding a heartbeat – is feeling. And Aman's tics (the sniffing and eye-twitching) are more distracting than disarming.
It doesn't help that the staging of most scenes is jarring, with an early news interview of the separatist leader bringing to mind the post-Sarkar excesses of Ram Gopal Varma. Aido exists for a reason, but she is reduced to a series of random training montages and poorly written conversations, with the music often going from tense to tender in the middle of a moment. The biggest offender is the ominous background score reserved for the Delhi ministers: a weird symphony of typing noises. The allegory is so obvious that it's silly. Aido is also a device of some student-film-level symbolism; an early scene shows her walking towards the camera while a bunch of boxers in India sweatshirts stride in the opposite direction. (She is even given a voiceover for a hot minute, because the writers run out of ways to express her thoughts that don't involve punching). The boy Nico is trapped in a bunch of badly choreographed gunfights. Only Manoj Pahwa comes out of this with passing marks. But his character, like the others, talks too much – because how else are we supposed to understand such a complex setting? (Yet, we don't).
Watching Anek is not a pleasant experience. Viewers don't like to be talked down to when they look up at a screen. I felt alienated for most part, not because I'm barely acquainted with the situation, but because the film goes out of its way to look like it knows what it's talking about. At some stage, I started to rationalize the chaotic exterior, wondering if this was actually a Kashmir film. Heaven knows there are enough like-for-like comparisons made by the makers. The role of the army is similar. As is the inner conflict, and the chess-like politics in Delhi. The term "surgical strike" is used for the climax. There's even a pointed threat to cut the internet and phone connections in the region for 'peace'. The Manoj Pahwa character is a Kashmiri Muslim who, in one heavy-handed moment, closes his office windows to block out the evening call to prayer (azan) while his TV flashes images of separatist violence in Srinagar. At another point, while surveying the North East from a helicopter before landing, he mutters poet Amir Khusrau's famous words ("If there is paradise on earth, it is here") about Kashmir. Which is to say Anek tries to kill two birds with one stone. But in the end, it retains the identity of neither. That the otherness of one place acts as a surrogate to reveal the other is an irony as old as war. And as fragile as peace.