Spearheading the Thrill section of this year’s Festival as its Gala screening, Prakash Jha’s new film Chakravyuh is an example of Bollywood cinema at its most politically engaged. Peppered with action, emotional drama and even musical sequences, it’s set against the backdrop of the Naxalites, a militant revolutionary group that emerged in the late 1960s in support of poor farming communities who felt sidelined by land distribution laws.
Attempting to curb the faction’s violent activities on his patch, local policeman Adil Khan (Arjun Rampal) enlists his brother Kabir (Abhay Deol) to go undercover and infiltrate one of the group’s encampments deep in the forests of central India. But the two siblings come to blows as Kabir is increasingly swayed by the Naxalites’ defence of the disenfranchised rural populations, and as he falls for their leader’s second-in-command, the beautiful Juhi (Anjali Patil).
With films such as Damul (1985), Gangaajal (2003), Apaharan (2005) and the huge commercial hit Raajneeti (2010), Prakash Jha is a director with a proven track record of tackling socio-political themes on film without sacrificing the entertainment factor. His latest presents a typically expansive canvas to tackle a thorny terrorist-or-freedom-fighter issue head on, bringing a struggle that is barely known about in the west – or even in metropolitan India – into the light.
How did you first find out about the Naxalite movement?
This subject has been with me for quite some time. In fact when I was in college way back in the early 70s, this was very hot. It had just started in Bengal. 1967 was the year when the Naxalbari village in Bengal had gone up in flames because the peasants there united together to claim their land from their landlord. They lost their case in the high court, but they weren’t giving up. They got together and killed him. And this sent a signal to the whole area, because land distribution and land settlement hadn’t really changed since the [feudal] zamandari system. So it really flared up, and Charu Majumdar, who was the ideologue [at the centre of the movement], started talking about a classless society and the socialist movement. And those of us in college [at the time] were very romantically attached to this.
[The uprising] was of course very brutally suppressed in Bengal by the then-government. But over a period of time, it spread to the fringe areas in different states, especially Telangana, which is in Andhra Pradesh. The whole struggle was for land. So I’ve kept up to date with this people’s movement, especially the Maoists and the Leninists – there were several different splinter groups functioning in different areas.
You can draw a line from the north of Karnataka, going into part of Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, and parts of Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Jharkhand, Bihar. This whole area is a hilly, tribal area, which is full of forests and also full of minerals. And the tribals there have suffered ever since we got our independence. They were deprived of their livelihood from the forest because of the Forest Act – you could not pick up wood or leaves. This was an area that was ready for some form of revolution, so the Maoists found it easy to spread their ideology and they armed these people. In the last eight, ten years, it has spread into 200 districts of India. At this point of time, more than 100,000 of our army and airforce are surrounding these forests, in a very organised way, using landmines, using arms, and killings are happening every single day. Sometimes when there is a mass killing, it becomes big news.
So why is it happening? Why is the prime minister of this country proclaiming it to be the greatest internal security problem India has ever faced? Why is there so much bloodshed? What can one do about it? Most of India doesn’t even know about it. They just think the Maoists are terrorists; they are not. The police who are fighting them day in day out are also at a loss to understand why they are doing this.
When did you first decide to make a film about this?
In 2003, my co-writer Anjum Rajabali told me about this story idea which was set against the background of the Naxali movement, and I found it very interesting. So last year, when we thought of doing the film, we got together and we went into the area, and started to research. We spoke to a whole lot of people in the forests, prisons, and those who have left the movement, given it up. What we found was ‘chakravyuh’, a word referring to a kind of war formation from which there is no escape. It’s a kind of deadlock, in which society finds itself today.
The film is actually the story of two friends, and they begin to work together but through their work they take different positions. One tries to understand why these positions have changed. The emotional story turns into a bloody saga, which is what Chakravyuh is all about.
How realistic is your film?
The film is close to reality, that’s what I try to do. I strive to create realistic images, realistic content. Of course I weave everything into a popular grammar, and I try to make it engaging because everybody has to see the film, and it has to compete with other films. It’s a big battle for me to package my stories for a commercial audience.
Are there any real-life characters in the film?
Most of the characters are based on someone. In fact, for the first time, there was so much similarity that I decided that instead of putting a disclaimer, I’d put a claimer at the beginning of the film. So when you see the film in cinema, instead of seeing, ‘everything is coincidental, nothing is related, we are not responsible for any similarity etc’, in fact we have claimed that it is based on real-life incidents and characters and nothing is coincidental.
Did other films inspire Chakravyuh?
My inspiration was reality. I find Indian society the most fascinating on earth. Reality inspires me; whatever happens around me inspires me. I’m interested in social movements. I like to find stories out there [in the real world].