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Anek review: How to generalize a conflict

Anubhav Sinha's fatally vague film agonizes over the Indian government's treatment of the northeastern states   

Ayushmann Khurrana in ‘Anek’
Ayushmann Khurrana in ‘Anek’

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At one point in Anubhav Sinha’s Anek, talk turns to the princely family of Yashodhara, Rahul and Siddhartha. The point of this conversation escapes me now, but Buddha being referenced in a film by this director-actor duo seemed apt. After all, if Article 15 taught us anything, it’s that many must suffer before Ayushmann Khurrana gains enlightenment. 

Khurrana plays, not for the first time, a somewhat heartless person who gradually develops a conscience. The lectures start late, but when they begin, you’ll regret bringing your prejudices to a Sinha-Khurrana joint. The last scene is Khurrana talking directly to camera about the sins of this nation. But wait, there’s more. As the end credits roll, Khurrana, in a completely different setting, continues with his sermons. Anyone hoping for a mid-credits Easter egg – a Bhumi Pednekar cameo, maybe – must instead settle for Khurrana moaning, “We must listen to them, we must feel their pain...”

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‘They’ are the seven states clumped together as ‘the northeast’; ‘we’ are the rest of the country. I wish I could be more specific, but Anek makes a curious choice. While scolding an imagined viewer for not being able to identify the seven states on a map, the film itself never pinpoints which state the action is taking place in (it’s not Assam, because Khurrana says “Go to Assam”). Sinha mentioned on a TV show that the film was inspired by someone from Nagaland whom he knew; actor Andrea Kevichüsa, who plays Aido, is also from that state. Is the film set in Nagaland, and if so, why not say it? By removing the specificity of localized history, conflict and social makeup, Sinha and co-writers Sima Agarwal and Yash Keswani paint the region with the same broad strokes as the people they’re criticising for doing so. Moreover, it just sounds dumb to have everyone—locals, Indian forces, TV newsreaders—repeatedly refer to it as ‘the state’.

Aman (Khurrana) is an undercover cop on a mission to weed out Johnson, a rebel figure created by the Indian government to destabilize longtime actual rebel Tiger Sanga (Loitongbam Dorendra Singh). Even as Sanga is considering signing a peace accord that’ll give him a hold over the region, an unknown figure has started operating as Johnson, running rehab centres and garnering local support. Aman suspects it’s quiet elder Wangnao, and has entered into a relationship with his daughter, Aido, who wants to represent India at boxing. “When I win, then they will listen to me,” she says—a reasonable, if often thwarted, expectation.

Something you don’t see in many Hindi films is a density of political crosscurrents. Anek allows for varied and often conflicting interests: the Tiger Sanga militia, the shadowy operatives under Johnson, ‘Indian’ agents like Aman, local police doing their own thing, a special forces unit (almost a parody of Uri), and a ragtag armed group that fascinates teenager Niko, the son of an informant, whom Aman has sworn to keep safe. Connections are made with other conflicts. Abrar (Manoj Pahwa), a high-ranking officer in Delhi whom Aman reports to, is a Kashmiri Muslim—he’s pointedly asked by Sanga how he felt when Article 370 was abrogated.

Anek joins a select group of films—Haider, Newton, Mukkababaz—that are openly critical of the nation-state and the state of the nation. The film has no hesitation in pinpointing India’s sins in the seven northeastern states: propping up one local faction against another, turning the other way when atrocities are committed, sometimes committing atrocities itself. Aman’s change of heart starts when he sees a prison camp, dozens of young men in wooden cages, hands tied, tortured and dehumanised. Later, we see villages being burnt, summary executions—the implication is this is happening because of Delhi, or India. Yet, there are significant omissions as well. Delhi's history of interference in the region's politics is folded into a few vague statements. I did not catch a single mention of the dreaded Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), an inexplicable miss in a film about conflict in northeast India. 

When Aman talks about the “people’s voice”, Abrar reminds him that they're both complicit in snuffing out those voices on several occasions. “The people’s voice can be heard once every five years,” he tells him, “not every day.” I’d imagine that many across India—the kind who think there’s such a thing as ‘too much democracy’—would agree with this statement. Anek takes a brave swipe at the New Hindi Military Film with a surgical strike sequence at the end, complete with squadron leader yelling about the glory of the nation. It’s not insignificant that a Hindi film clearly shows India sending its forces to another country to assassinate one of its own citizens. It’s also telling the censors had no problem letting this detail through—the idea of surgical strikes in our cinema has been normalized to the point where they aren’t even questioned anymore.

Hindi film has also become startlingly adept at the visual grammar of war. Sinha and cinematographer Ewan Mulligan use long, unbroken shots to good effect in the action scenes, though also in quieter moments, like when Niko says goodbye to his mother. There are several pitched battles that thrust us into the mud and the chaos. Thankfully, only one sequence uses gratuitous slo-mo. 

“Peace is a subjective hypothesis”, Chakravarthy’s forest officer explains to a bemused local. So is solidarity. From the maker’s viewpoint, they are standing up for the people of the northeast. But for people from there, this film—in which locals speak in Hindi even when a native Hindi-speaker isn’t present—might look like another generalisation, another obfuscation. The northeastern states are severely underrepresented in Indian cinema. Yet, in recent years, there have been some incredible films from there, which define the region in terms other than its relationship with the rest of India. Anek might be a starting point, but it's no place to settle. 

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