(Published in City Express, The New Indian Express, on 27 October, 2012, retrieved from http://newindianexpress.com/entertainment/reviews/article1315667.ece)
Cast: Arjun Rampal, Om Puri, Manoj Bajpayee, Abhay Deol, Anjali Patil, Esha Gupta, Kabir Bedi
Director: Prakash Jha
Rating: 3.5 stars
Chakravyuh begins with a disclaimer – that the song Mehangai, which speaks of Birla, Tata, Ambani and Bata, isn’t a reference to real people. And this is quickly followed by a claimer-of-sorts, saying the film is based on real people and events. To be honest, I expected very little sense from a Bollywood film set in the Maoist strongholds of Madhya Pradesh. And I expected even less nuance. Happily,Chakravyuh surpassed my hopes. While the film does indulge itself in melodrama, it chooses to place the onus on the actors, who turn in arguably career-best performances. Leading the way are Arjun Rampal, who looks every bit SP Adil Khan, and Om Puri, who plays the quintessential first-generation Naxal leader, toting ideological books and divorced from the real world.
To the film’s credit, it portrays Naxals as a cruel force whose original welfare-oriented intentions have been misguided by the allure of power. It brings out the bleakness of a situation where no one is allowed to be straightforward, where vested interest and fear psychosis stoke a cycle of violence every time it appears that it can actually be slowed, if not stopped. The film is brutal in its awareness of the realities, and refrains from offering us escapist fantasies.
But it’s also a big-budget film, made for the theatre, with hordes of extras to play to the gallery. That works too. The songs make us tap our feet, the cry of “Laal Salaam” stirs us, and the off-screen savagery makes us shudder. It rests on the actors’ capabilities in complex moments – Abhay Deol, playing Kabir, makes palpable the terrible guilt of being forced to betray either your best friend or the people who have grown trust you. It’s paced well, with covert comic interjections to break the tension, such as a scene where Adil Khan heads to a police station in a remote Maoist-controlled area. “Yeh police station hai ya chor bazaar?” he mutters, in an aside, as obsequious constables search for a key to let him in.
However, the film does get lax with its script at times. Kabir’s induction into the Naxal group is unconvincing, and one wishes the filmmakers had given it a few more minutes, instead of wasting that time on yet another item number. While the dialogues are often brilliant, they’re sometimes mundane. This inconsistency undermines some of the best scenes in the film, as do outdated cinematic devices such as “The Flashback”. Now, Arjun Rampal does age like good wine, but it’s a little much to ask us to believe he’s a college student.
A film that has done its homework doesn’t need to prop itself on the token independent wife. And if it did, its makers should have chosen a better actress than Esha Gupta, who is unable to handle her role. The filmmakers themselves seem to be stumped by her character, and they respond by throwing her into random shots where she has no place; so, she heaves and pants her way through a fight with her husband, a dressing-down her husband receives from a senior officer, and a helicopter chase. Sadly for her, a lovemaking scene from the trailer seems to have been cut out in the final product.
The Verdict: Despite some flaws, Chakravyuh is an addictive drama, bolstered by very good acting.