Anubhav Sinha’s Anek starts talking to the audiences even before its first dialogue or scene. Notice the movie’s name at the end of the opening credits. The “A” and “K” sink into the background, as the “NE” blows up in the foreground. It took me a few seconds: Ah, ‘North East’. When was the last time a Bollywood film spelled out its intent so early and honestly? Because ‘there’s an NE in Anek’ mindset extends much beyond the opening credits – it’s the whole film.
It opens to a young northeastern woman, Aido (Andrea Kevichüsa), training to be a national-level boxer, in a party, then cuts to a scene in a sports complex. The cops raid the party and interrogate her, while the main coach rubbishes her chances of making it to the Indian team. In both the cases, discrimination is hammered via such terms as “chilli chicken” and “Nepali”, “dog tikka” and “Chinese”. Thankfully, no disclaimer appeared at the bottom of the screen, stating, “There’s a nation in discrimination.” But these (heavy) initial thrusts just set the stage. The movie starts when an undercover cop (Ayushmann Khurrana), “Joshua”, explains the backstory.
Posted somewhere in “northeast”, he intends to protect the region and help convince a separatist leader, Tiger Sanga (Loitongbam Dorendra), to sign a peace accord with the Indian government. Over the last few decades, his people have splintered into 30-odd militant groups. Out of which, one has become recently active: Johnson. Joshua’s immersion, on the other hand, has produced unexpected results: Aido has fallen for him, and he’s befriended the teenaged son of a local café owner (doubling up as an informant), Niko (Thejasevor Belho). The following words are repeated throughout — sometimes directly, sometimes through a story — “peace”, “peace accord”, “violence”. But in case you missed them, Joshua’s real name has got you covered — it’s not tough to guess — Aman.
Anek’s approach can be divided into two broad styles: the macro and the micro. The former revolves around Joshua’s investigations; Sanga’s negotiations with Aman’s boss, Abrar (Manoj Pahwa); and a separatist group comprising the young Niko. These big picture details unspool significant context, but due to their very nature — the impassioned monologues, the sly strategies, the ambitious ambushes — they hold limited emotional appeal. That can mainly come through the micro — through intimate conversations and vulnerable confessions — where characters are not symbols but people.
But stuck in the macro for the large part, the film achieves little, failing to justify its thriller tag even, as there’s limited intrigue here. Johnson’s identity keeps us guessing for some time — as Aman admits that he had revived the real-life figure to undermine Sanga’s movement, which backfires (neither this nor anything else in this review is a spoiler) — but the question soon falls to the wayside, finding an obvious answer at the end.
The more disappointing bit, however, is the film’s reluctance to flesh out the characters. The first moving conversation pops up around the 50th minute, between Aman and Niko, when he rescues the boy from a quasi-internment camp. A character like Aman, brimming with narrative and thematic potential, can be a tricky card. At one level, he must be inscrutable enough to do his job (fooling the locals, at times the audiences), but on other, he must be ‘real’ enough for us to invest in him. This heart-heartlessness tussle is a fascinating and formidable challenge, but Sinha struggles to find the right balance. Because when Aman changes his mind about the conflict (and possibly Aido), we don’t know the reason behind the detour. Besides an exaggerated sniff, he has no personality, no inner-life. It is tedious to spend so much time with an opaque character who parades like a Subject Matter Expert in ‘Project India’.
We’re similarly clueless about the geographical setting. The whole thing is “NE”. The number plates start with NE; a rehabilitation centre is named “NE Rehabilitation Centre”, and so on. (We just know that “NE” is not Assam, because the state is mentioned in a dialogue.) If there were a pointed reason for such an elision, then the film doesn’t justify it. Surely, not all northeastern states share the same cultures and conflicts. Surely, not all conflicts are the same even. The writing is smart enough to point this out — evidenced by the dozens of groups emerging from Sanga’s — but doesn’t take it forward. What is worse: not knowing the names of all the seven northeastern states or erasing their individual identities and clubbing them as one?
The film rejuvenates in a brief stretch via Abrar’s character, where we find out the real designs of the Indian state. The implication is memorable: that a country also works like a bottom-line obsessed corporation and that what is “good for India” may not necessarily be “good for Indians”. Sinha excels when he collapses the macro and the micro. An insurgent, during a shootout, breaks down, saying, “Mujhe ghar jaana hai” (I’m not convinced, however, that he’d say that in Hindi). In another scene, easily the best bit, Niko takes up the gun for the first time. There’s no commentary here; the movie empathises with Niko (even though it disapproves of violence throughout), and we empathise with it.
But Anek isn’t half as confident elsewhere. Consider Aido: talking to her father, a separatist leader, Wangnao (Mipham Otsal), she says “Mujhe India se baat karna hai”, then repackages the same sentiment towards the end of the conversation. In another scene, an IPS officer, Ajay (J.D. Chakravarthy — the only light presence), says, “Peace is a subjective hypothesis.” When Aman meets Ajay, he launches into a monologue about the true definition of an “Indian”. Besides the reverse engineered ‘aNEk’ and Aman, the condescending Abrar belongs to Kashmir (we’re reminded more than once — an “iron” in “irony” maybe?).
Anek doesn’t have characters as much as argumentative Political Uncles — the embodiments of insufferable PhD theses one desperate moment away from saying “subaltern”. Many scenes seem designed to accommodate as much (repetitive) moralising as possible. Even when some dialogues start perfectly fine, they settle into mini essays by the end.
I don’t doubt the film’s sincerity, but intentions devoid of executions count for little. Anek explains and preaches and underlines so much that its overall attitude towards the audience mirrors Abrar’s mindset towards the people of the “northeast”: paternalistic at best, condescending at worst. Someone should have told Sinha something simple: that once is enough. That lack produces a self-congratulatory liberal spiel that can be summed up in an equation: 1 + 1 = ½.