Bastar: The Naxal Story Review: A Simplistic Take on a Complicated History

The film sees the team behind The Kerala Story reunite, this time to flatten the complexity of the conflict between Naxals and the state.
Bastar: The Naxal Story Review: A Simplistic Take on a Complicated History
Bastar: The Naxal Story Review: A Simplistic Take on a Complicated History

Director: Sudipto Sen, Vipul Amrutlal Shah (creative director)

Writers: Amarnath Jha, Sudipto Sen, Vipul Amrutlal Shah

Cast: Adah Sharma, Indira Tiwari, Yashpal Sharma, Raima Sen, Shilpa Shukla

Duration: 124 mins

Available in: Theatres

In the interviews given ahead of the release of Bastar: The Naxal Story (2024), creative director, writer and producer Vipul Amrutlal Shah rubbished the idea that his film may be made with the intention of promoting a political point of view. “Today, the way BJP is poised in this election, do they really need our film to win the election? That’s the most stupid and bizarre thing that I have heard,” Shah told India Today. 

Yet at multiple points in Bastar: The Naxal Story, Raima Sen as the sari wearing, Arundhati Roy-reading, wine-and-espresso chugging, anti-national, left liberal Bengali (is there any other kind of Bengali? Not if you believe this film) Vanya Roy tells us that using “Bollywood” is key to “narrative building” and pushing a political agenda with the Indian masses. Who should we believe? Surely, we should trust the film that begins with a notice that asserts Bastar: The Naxal Story is based on facts and “corroborated by” experts, administrators, historians and various news reports? Unless something changed between 2010, when most of the film is set, and 2024 — other than the political party in power, I mean.

Bastar: The Naxal Story
Bastar: The Naxal Story

A New Axis of Evil   

Loosely inspired by the 2010 attack in Dantewada in which 76 personnel of the Central Reserve Police Force were killed, Bastar: The Naxal Story would have you know that it’s delivering to you hard-hitting truths. Like, for instance, that in a tent, in a Naxal camp in the depths of Chhattisgarh, there is an espresso machine so fancy and gleaming, that the sight of it would make any self-respecting barista feel weak at the knees. And that every now and then, the aforementioned camp becomes an offsite for banned and terrorist organisations, including members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), Liberation of Tigers of Tamil Eelam, and “Ronald Johnson of the Spanish Communist Party”. And that activism for human rights, exercising the democratic right to dissent, and demanding accountability from those who abuse their powers is all a spectacle that can be put together (like a film?) at a cost — Rs. 600 crore to be precise. (Just like that, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s lavishly over-budget films seem so much more economically viable.) 

Also that Naxals make for terrible poets, spouting lines like “Tum sach mein thak gaye ho torture man/ Relax, relax, relax.” Leaving aside the fact that revolutionary ideology has inspired many powerful and moving works in modern Indian literature, from the subtitles of Bastar: The Naxal Story, it’s evident that if anyone is tired, it’s those involved in the making of this film — because no one noticed that “fertile” becomes “fartile”, “warrior” becomes “worrior”, “stealing” becomes “steeling”. They’re almost like the Freudian slip of typos.

There are more than three spelling mistakes in Bastar: The Naxal Story, but let’s leave the errors and fact-checking aside for now because ostensibly, this is a movie not a history lesson. Director Sudipto Sen, riding high on the unexpected success of The Kerala Story (2023), has teamed up with Shah and Adah Sharma again to tell the the story of a woman CRPF officer named Neerja Madhavan (Sharma, with freckles) who is determined to erase Naxals and their ideology from India. Her opponents are many. In Bastar, her chief rival is Lanka Reddy (Vijay Krishna), with his Veerappan-inspired moustache, who opens the film by hacking a man to death. Further away in Delhi, there is the left liberal Vanya Roy and her Machiavellian lawyer Neelam (Shilpa Shukla). Also in the national capital is a Home Minister who speaks with a slight south Indian accent and who doesn’t grant Neerja the resources she wants. In addition to the Naxals and their stunts, there are the following: A court case, an enquiry, a “Gandhian activist” who is a front for funnelling money into the Naxal movement, and a short detour into the campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU)  “the most prestigious university in the world” (Shah and Sen’s words, not mine). 

Bastar: The Naxal Story
Bastar: The Naxal Story

Less Plot, More Shorthand

There’s no room for either subtlety or nuance in this film and to call the incidents of Bastar: The Naxal Story a plot would be unfair because to do so would raise expectations that there be narrative elements like character arcs and logic. Sen’s film is more of a shorthand. For example: Reading a book = Bad guy. Reading a book titled Mao Zedong = Ideologue. Reading Arundhati Roy’s Walking With Comrades and drinking wine = Arch villain. That there is the first act of Sen’s film in a Naxal, sorry, nutshell.

Mostly, Bastar: The Naxal Story is an excuse to depict activism as morally corrupt, Leftist ideology as dangerous and foreign, and Bengalis as untrustworthy intellectuals. Vanya Roy could easily be the alter ego of the idealistic, sari-flaunting journalist Rani of Rocky Aur Rani kii Prem Kahani (2023) and if you want to know how difficult it is to succeed as an actor, keep in mind that Raima Sen is the granddaughter of the legendary Suchitra Sen and has worked with a director as gifted as Rituparno Ghosh in the past. Neerja is pitched as the nationalist hero, which means Sharma gets to swear from time to time and say dialogues like, “Main in left liberals ko chhodungi nahin (I won’t let these left liberals off the hook).”

Throughout the film, Sharma directs her unblinking stare at various insipid opponents, as though she’s in a staring contest and one can only imagine what the budget for eye drops must have been for Bastar: The Naxal Story. In the second half, she appears in dark glasses, a bandanna and camouflage gear, as though Neerja has dressed up for a Sylvester Stallone fan meet. It’s not every day that a living breathing woman can come across as flat as a cartoon, but Sharma rises to that challenge with all the energy of a cardboard cutout. 

Bastar: The Naxal Story
Bastar: The Naxal Story

The One Silver Lining

To be fair to Sharma, the acting in Bastar: The Naxal Story is as uniformly cartoonish as the storytelling, with the only exception being Indira Tiwari, who plays a widow and CRPF collaborator. Traumatised by the horror of having to watch her husband being hacked to death, Ratna (Tiwari) works through her grief by training herself to become a special police officer (SPO). There are less than a handful of moments in which Bastar: The Naxal Story is able to make you feel for the characters on screen, and all of them feature Tiwari. Her shell-shocked face packs more of a visceral punch than the gratuitous gore that Sudipto Sen lavishes upon us to show Naxals are heartless and violent. If Bastar: The Naxal Story had truly been interested in talking about the plight of those who are the actual victims of the tangled, blood-drenched politics of the region, Ratna and her family’s story would have been the focus of the film. Instead, their tragedies are used as excuses to glorify the good and demonise the bad. 

Bastar: The Naxal Story is only interested in those civilian casualties which can be used to show Neerja in a good light and Naxals as irrationally evil and corrupt. One of the greater failures of this film is its single-minded and ruthless campaign to simplify a complex situation into its most simplistic version, and then present that as a retelling grounded in truth. The bile that Bastar: The Naxal Story has for left liberals, intellectuals and anyone who reads a book is arguably not surprising, but the astounding lack of empathy that it shows by insisting that the real tragedy is that of the CRPF (because its officers were hamstrung by politicians and courts) is deeply insensitive.

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