Have our filmmakers become wary of emotion? Or are they just not that good at depicting it anymore? Last week, we saw Karan Johar, in Student of the Year, toy with ripely melodramatic constructions – the sense of betrayal by one’s best friend (aka the dost dost na raha syndrome); the one-sided yearning for a woman by fixating on an item of her jewelry – before reining himself in, even with a joke in the latter situation, as if to announce that he’s too cool for this stuff. The problem, though, is that these contrivances need the scaffolding of a certain pitch, and when treated lightly, they collapse into nothingness. Prakash Jha, in Chakravyuh, seems similarly caught between the material he’s working with and the mortification of being labeled a melodramatist. How do we know he’s already in that territory? Because of the scene where Kabir (Abhay Deol) sneaks into the room where his best friend, Adil (Arjun Rampal), is recovering from a gunshot wound. Adil, an SP, picks up his gun, and later relaxes when he sees it’s Kabir. What if he’d shot him, he asks. Kabir declares that he’d gladly lay down his life for his friend: “Jaan haazir hai miyan. Jab chahe le le.”
Why not give us some scenes that plant this friendship in our mind? Take Namak Haram, for instance. We know, early on, that Amitabh Bachchan and Rajesh Khanna wear the same type of shirts and that the former considers the latter’s family his own. What do we have here? An abbreviated flashback that positions Adil and Kabir as friends before splitting them up, but nothing that tells us they’d lay down their lives for each other. Jha gives us a many-years-later reunion, where Adil is still angry with Kabir, and instead of cashing in on the inherent drama – okay, melodrama – of the situation, we get the scene where Kabir jokingly falls at Adil’s feet, after which they laugh and embrace. Years of bad blood are washed away with exaggerated humour. When you have five minutes to spare for a Sameera Reddy item number – a truly terrible one, and a neon-lit pointer that this isn’t quite uncompromised art cinema – can’t you spare a minute or two to flesh out this relationship at this point?
The Namak Haram example isn’t accidental. That’s the template through which Jha tells this story, where the psychological conflict from earlier explodes into physical warfare. As Rajesh Khanna’s equivalent, we have Kabir, who allies himself with Naxals in order to function as a mole for Adil and later discovers that his true sympathies lie with them. And Adil is the Amitabh Bachchan part, right down to the stubbornly one-dimensional thinking. When Kabir, after becoming a Naxal sympathiser, protests that innocent villagers were killed in a police raid, Adil replies, “Masoom bandooki training nahin lete,” that innocents don’t learn to wield guns. It’s as black-and-white as that. Even the story follows the trajectory of the earlier film. We first see things from Adil’s point of view – cops good; Naxals bad – and slowly, as Kabir is exposed to the plight of the Naxals and the predations of the System, we begin to see their side.
For a while now, Jha has been coming off like a more high-minded clone of Madhur Bhandarkar, picking up a hot topic and embedding his research in creaky subplots. Here, too, he comes at the Naxal issue through all angles – the beleaguered cops; the industrialists who make big promises about development but who are really only interested in plundering the natural resources in the villages abutting the encampments of the Naxals, with their lal salaams and hammer-and-sickle flags; the local businessmen who are bullied by the Naxals; and the adivasi villagers torn between submitting to the System and rebelling with the Naxals. But the focus on the relationship between Kabir and Adil prevents these tangents from veering off too wildly. This – and not item numbers and a heroine in backless blouses (Esha Gupta, as Adil’s impossibly shapely colleague and fiancée) – is the real sugar-coating, allowing us to swallow the bitter pill of political realities through the story of a dramatically charged friendship.
There are times Jha’s low-key approach works, as when the Naxal ideologue played by Om Puri is apprehended by Adil in a stretch that unfolds calmly. (We would not have bought it had the older man made a dash for it, just for the sake of amped-up excitement.) But many scenes suffer from not having enough drama. Rajesh Khanna simply stepped into a blue-collar work environment, but here Kabir needs to become part of rebels who think nothing of slicing someone’s throat. Surely his singing Woh subah kabhi to aayegi isn’t enough. Where are his doubts, his fears? And why shortchange us by not investing more in Juhi’s (Anjali Patil, as a Naxal who develops feelings for Kabir) sense of betrayal? Even Kabir’s rise to the top of the Naxal outfit’s hierarchy is laughably outlined. The conflict, I suppose, is between doing justice to the subject and not driving away a modern-day audience that flinches from heavy-duty emotion, and we’ll sooner see a solution to the Naxal problem than a way out for filmmakers who want to say something in an age that values nothing.
Copyright ©2012 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.