About halfway through the fourth episode of Partho Mitra’s new ZEE5 series Naxalbari, a revenge drama set against the backdrop of the Naxalite movement in Gadchiroli, Maharashtra, the writers do something cynical with a hitherto interesting character, an activist called Sudha (Narayani Shastri). Until this point, Sudha is the only character who speaks up on behalf of the Naxalites without condemning violence. On a TV panel debate, we see her urging the audience to think about the systemic injustice that leads people to armed resistance in the first place, about the countless ways in which India has failed its Adivasi populace. This is a line of thought unlikely to come from the story’s designated “super-soldier with a conscience”, Special Task Force agent Raghav Joshi (Rajeev Khandelwal), or the villainous tycoon Keswani (Aamir Ali), whose billion-dollar infrastructure project is being questioned by Sudha on environmental grounds.
In the fourth episode, however, we see that Sudha, who had previously convinced the environment minister to go against the party line and block Keswani’s project, is trending on Twitter. Keswani leaks a video of her wining and dining businessmen from China who stood to benefit from FICA (an industrial consortium represented by Keswani) losing the project. Soon, #UrbanNaxalSudha and #SudhaAntiNational take over the internet.
The speed and writerly confidence with which this sequence of events happens tells us the recall value of the phrase “urban Naxal”, a one-size-fits-all neologism deployed in recent times to target political dissent in India. Bollywood has engaged with this trope, directly or indirectly, for over a decade now, in films like Sudhir Mishra’s Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi (2005), Kabeer Kaushik’s Chamku (2008), Prakash Jha’s Chakravyuh (2012) and several others. Perhaps the first mainstream Hindi film in this space was The Naxalites (1980), directed by K.A. Abbas and starring Mithun Chakraborty alongside Smita Patil, Dina Pathak and Jalal Agha.
Film-maker Vivek Agnihotri is generally credited with popularising the phrase, and his 2016 film Buddha In A Traffic Jam is an often unintentionally funny extension of this paranoia—in Agnihotri’s world, “urban Naxals” are hidden in plain sight everywhere, a loose (but somehow super-organised at the same time) group of journalists, students, professors, artists, activists and so on. This film would have you believe that urban Naxals are supremely influential at every level of society and yet somehow, they have made barely a dent in the state they profess to be fighting. Naxalbari seems to build on this ridiculous premise; it has a professor who appears to have radicalised his city-slicker students. And by collaring Sudha, the show’s writers double down on their “everyone’s in on it together” conspiracy theory—just about every major player, whether journalist, activist, politician, police officer or local busybody has malafide intentions.
It wasn’t always this way, however. Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi (set in the 1970s, at the height of the Naxalbari movement) is an example of a story that humanises its college-students-turned-Naxal-ideologues without ever glorifying their violence. Mishra retains a wry sense of humour even in intense situations, like the opening scene of the movie where the charismatic Siddharth Tyabji (Kay Kay Menon) is exhorting his fellow students to join the revolution. He appeals to their love of Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix by reminding them that they, too, spoke up for the oppressed; it’s a cute way of communicating both ideology and youthful naiveté.
Before the shift to “urban Naxal”, Bollywood was content with the narrative of Adivasis living in the verdant forest. In The Naxalites, Chakraborty’s character, Amor Kal, is introduced as a traumatized youngster found by local authorities, with only one word on his lips—the name of his village, Naxalbari.
When Amor Kal is finally aboard a homebound train and the train enters Naxalbari, all we see in the frame is a sea of ridiculously bright green. And suddenly, the traumatised boy perks up and exclaims with pleasure, “Itnaa haraa (So green)!” In Mani Ratnam’s Raavan, cinematographer Santosh Sivan’s camera paints so many relentlessly aesthetic frames in green that Apocalypse Now feels like a home video in comparison.
The centrality of the urban-dwelling Naxal, however, has changed this equation forever as far as Bollywood is concerned. Naxalbari, for instance, has a Mission Kashmir-esque twist wherein we discover that Raghav’s real parents hanged themselves in Gadchiroli (the same place where Raghav is fighting the Naxalites now). We also learn that his (step) dad, a veteran cop, was indirectly responsible for their death. Raghav’s status as the outsider entering the heart of darkness is thus forever altered.
A better show than Naxalbari would have acknowledged that Raghav’s parentage might lead him to question whether his unshakeable cop ethics are largely propaganda fed to him since childhood. The “performative” aspect of the anti-Naxal soldier was central to Chakravyuh too—Abhay Deol’s character Kabir, a city-dwelling engineering graduate, infiltrates a Naxalite group to help his injured super-cop friend Adil (Arjun Rampal). Through the course of the film, however, he “becomes” Comrade Azad, now fully identifying as part of a group whose colonisation he set out to hasten. In other words, he goes full Avatar.
Of course, this also has to do with the fact that Bollywood has no Adivasi representation to speak of. How can it be expected to produce stories that centre the Adivasi experience when it refuses to engage with any actual Adivasi? Instead, the locus of oppression that Bollywood seeks to sketch with shows like Naxalbari has now travelled to the city. At one point in Naxalbari, the commander of the Naxal militia even admits to his colleague, “You know as well as I do that the one who sits in the city orders, and we obey.”
It’s classic Bollywood condescension: Not only is your revolution second-hand, we were controlling it from our ivory towers all along.
Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer.