Largely substituting the usual Bollywood song-and-dance with pumped-up bullet ballet, this lengthy but propulsive pic puts a contempo political spin on a classic police-meller formula.
With a title that refers to an advanced military formation from the “Mahabharata,” Prakash Jha’s actioner “Chakravyuh” plainly has serious matters on its mind. Largely substituting the usual Bollywood song-and-dance with pumped-up bullet ballet, this lengthy but propulsive pic puts a contempo political spin on a classic police-meller formula when two friends wind up on opposite sides of the law. What side the film is on, however, is open to debate. A bold choice to headline the newly named Thrill section at the London fest, “Chakravyuh” packs some crossover heat, though it’s likely too broad for the arthouse circuit.As scripted by Jha with Anjum Rajabali and Sagar Pandya, “Chakravyuh” aims to fuse the romanticism of classic Bollywood storytelling with a current sense of social malaise. Auds may be either relieved or disappointed that the first of only three musical numbers comes an hour into the proceedings, featuring such hummable lyrics as, “Like sipping sweet lemonade, they swallow our country in a gulp.” “They” refers to the Indian government, here shown to be in cahoots with corporate land-grabbers destroying entire villages in the country’s Nandighat district. The singers, meanwhile, are the Naxalites, a growing group of extreme left-wing tribal dissidents taking a violent stand against the situation. Though they have the upper hand in terms of political principle, Jha doesn’t portray them as victims: Both factions have too much blood on their hands, and things get bloodier still when upstanding rural police chief Adil (Arjun Rampal) arrives in town to whip the rebels into shape. In the most improbable development of several, Adil agrees to let his ne’er-do-well police-academy chum Kabir (Abhay Deol) — with whom he’s only recently reconciled after a years-long fallout — infiltrate the Naxalites as an informant, gradually winning the trust of their charismatic revolutionary leader, Rajan (Manoj Bajpayee). It only takes one closeup of volatile but comely freedom fighter Juhi (Anjali Patil), however, for us to start the countdown until Kabir, already established as a loose cannon, goes native. After a wedge of social context upfront that portends a more tangled narrative than the relatively streamlined one that emerges, Jha settles into a businesslike groove that cunningly smuggles in more subversive subtext. One sequence finds Adil’s public address, pledging the government’s commitment to social welfare, abutting a markedly similar, but politically polar, statement of intent by Rajan. The helmer stages his action sequences, meanwhile, with considerable aplomb, though the plentiful gun battles are on the samey side. Perfs are par for the course, though one would like to see more of Om Puri’s weary academic Naxalite founder. Location lensing is crisp and sunbathed and pyrotechnic f/x are strong, but the standout tech contribution — even in this tune-light Bollywood effort — is Salim-Sulaiman’s rumbustious musical score, which rattles and clatters along with a film-appropriate blend of excitement and self-seriousness.