North East India, barely and poorly represented by mainstream Hindi cinema, is the stage for Anubhav Sinha’s latest conscience-pricking drama. Anek is set in an unnamed section of the North East that has witnessed a secessionist movement for decades.
It could be Manipur. It could be Nagaland. Although this part of the country has a staggering range of cultural groups, faiths, languages and histories, not to mention diverse disenchantments with the Indian Union, all of them get thrown into a common pot of discontentment for the purposes of the plot.
Undercover agent Joshua (Ayushmann Khurrana) is both stirring this pot as well as trying to cool temperatures. Under the guise of running a cafe, Joshua is aiding the efforts of his bosses in Delhi to negotiate a peace plan.
Talks with militant leader Tiger Sanga (Loitongbam Dorendra Singh) are at a delicate juncture. The Union government is keeping the heat on Sangha by arming a breakaway group led by the mysterious Johnson. High-ranking Delhi official Abrar (Manoj Pahwa) is pushing Joshua hard for results.
Joshua is veering towards his own private secession. He has become close to the talented boxer Aido (Andrea Kevichusa) in order to keep an eye on her father Wangnao (Mipham Otsal). However, Joshua begins to doubt the true purpose of his mission.
Into an over-written and often didactic script, writers Anubhav Sinha, Sima Agarwal and Yash Keswani inject stylised violence and tense gun-battles. The hills have eyes in these parts and nobody is who they claim to be. If locals in troubled regions are seldom trusted, in Anek, the outsiders are the shady ones.
Anek makes a big pitch for diversity in representation – best represented by Aido, who wants to participate in tournaments wearing the colours of the country seen as crushing her people. Yet, Anek opts for the age-old trick used by films set outside the comfort zone of the average mainland Hindi viewer: elision.
Erase the particulars. Replace cultural markers with generalities. Get characters to speak in local languages but don’t identify them. By refusing to deal with specifics, Anek ends up portraying the entire region as one big Kashmir-like site of conflict.
It’s hardly the first movie to do so. Rather than backing local filmmakers who may better reflect the North East’s realities, directors from Mumbai and elsewhere have insisted on parachuting into the place and offering outsider perspectives on its histories of dissent.
Anek’s provocative polemics are always stronger on the side that Sinha understands better: his own. If Sinha’s Mulk exposed Islamophobia and Article 15 was aimed at conscientising upper-caste viewers, Anek works best when examining the security establishment in Delhi that rules from on high and causes havoc on the ground.
From exploring meaningless jingoism to political cynicism, Anek is sharper playing principled dissenter than uninvited saviour of the North East. The most enduring idea in a muddled and middling 147-minute narrative is that Indians must agree to disagree if democracy is to be meaningful.
The Union government’s duplicity in addressing self-rule struggles is conveyed through Manoj Pahwa’s chilling Abrar, a Kashmiri Muslim bureaucrat whose personal ambition helps him overlook the humiliation of his own people.
Sharply attuned to the photo-op and the grand gesture, Abrar contemptuously manipulates Tiger Sanga and complicates Joshua’s mission. Kumud Mishra plays Abrar’s ministerial boss with a sinister smile and immeasurable murkiness.
The most impressive among the actors is Andrea Kevichusa, who depicts Aido with sensitivity and raw power. Ayushmann Khurrana is a hard sell as Aido’s lover. Of all the cafes in all the towns in all the North East, Aido had to walk into Joshua’s...
Although Khurrana is a slightly better fit as a conscientious objector, Joshua is too much of a one-note worrywart to be endearing. Prone to passionate debates, even in the middle of gun-fights, Joshua’s angst is barely credible.
Control is often mistaken for peace, Joshua is told. Anek too confuses intent with impact. If the idea was to make mainlanders understand why some Indians reject the flag and the Constitution, a less bombastic and more coherently plotted film was needed.
Joshua’s patronising lectures on Indiannness, possibly to balance out the film’s subversions, don’t even spare Anjaya, a forest officer (JD Chakravarthy). Anjaya gets a tutorial on how residents of the Southern states should regard the North-South divide.
Is Telangana a “northern” state because it’s above Tamil Nadu on the map? It’s a debate fit for an inter-collegiate debating competition, rather than a film that wants us to see a history of disagreement with unprejudiced eyes.