Confusion, Not Conclusion, Is The Overarching Theme of Anek

In the first few scenes of the film, director Anubhav Sinha, along with his co-writers, Sima Agarwal and Yash Keswani, with Anjum Rajabali (credited as script consultant), do away with the generalisation of North Eastern stereotypes. In less than five minutes, they establish North Eastern people as Chinese, chilli chicken, Nepalese, parlour walis, and so on and so forth. In one scene, when Aido (played by a promising Andrea Kevichusa) wants to box for India, one of the other coaches says that there’s already someone from Manipur on the team, if there’s too many of “them”, will it be the Indian team or Chinese? It’s a smart move to get done away with these stereotypical dialogues, that would’ve otherwise played out throughout the film. But what’s not very smart is the rest of the film.

Anek has its heart in the right place, even the intent is correct, but somehow, Sinha’s film finds complexity in conflict and creates further confusion. The themes Sinha taps into are noteworthy, but for a film to tap into so much at once – about an issue a large part of Indians don’t know of – is a gamble he has played and it’s going to backfire. In trying to explain so much, most of it remains unexplained. Aman’s (Ayushmann Khurrana) sudden change of heart, the conflict between the belief systems of Aido and her father, the idea of one nation, the geo-political conflict in the North East – these are issues we see on the surface but never within. The plot lines are many, the conflicts too, but we never reach at conclusions. And that’s where Anek struggles the most.

Anek, with an NE in its title, aims to bring not just stories of North East India to the mainland but the North Eastern part itself. But how possible is that? And how possible is it with Anek? An unnecessary looming reference to Kashmir sure doesn’t do that for the film. Manoj Pahwa’s Abrar Sir is from Kashmir. Through him, Sinha tries to tell us that the problem of alienation isn’t just a North East problem, it’s Kashmir’s problem too. When Abrar sees the North East hills from his plane, he remembers a couplet: agar firdaus bar ru-ye zamin ast, hamin ast-o hamin ast-o hamin ast. Emperor Jahangir is said to have used this couplet fondly for Kashmir. But neither the beauty of the North East, nor an oppressed, shared past do any justice of trying to include both the areas into the mainland. In fact, it only confuses us further.

Sinha wants his film to be about inclusion, about the non-generalisations of communities, people, lives in the North East. But the biggest mistake he makes is that he ignores specific details. His story is set in a fictitious state, undisclosed location, which on most days isn’t bothersome. But when telling the story of alienation, it becomes problematic. Sinha’s aim looms all over. He wants to tell us the story of one India, which is fair. But our India is divided by states and each state has a culture as varied. But here, the number plates of cars read NE. We know that this film isn’t set in Assam but you see shots of Kaziranga National Park. Here’s a film that wants to fight discrimination, but ends up confusing itself.

With a screenplay so lost and confused, very few actors can deliver. Sinha gets his casting right, when it comes to the supporting cast. His regulars, Manoj Pahwa and Kumud Mishra deliver beyond what the writing demands of them. Andrea Kevichüsa, Loitongbam Dorendra Singh, Mipham Otsal, J.D. Chakravarthy, Jatin Goswami are all well cast and good in their roles, but they don’t have much to do.

Ayushmann Khurrana, the leading man, is a let down. His hair and beard and great though. But in the acting department, he doesn’t quite deliver. Off late, it seems like it’s getting difficult to tell his one performance from the other. Barring his stint in Article 15 and Andhadhun, recently, I dont think I remember any of his performances. At least not fondly. Here too he plays a North Indian man, and with the same nuances. As a spy, he doesn’t add (or hide) much. And maybe the entire blame is not for him to take, but the writing too.

The politics of North East India are complicated. To fit all possible complication into one film is a mammoth task that Sinha has undertaken. He wants to undo a lot of the wrong, which is a very noble thing to do, but how much can he do at once? Not everything. Had this film been about fewer issues, with fewer plot lines, it would’ve worked. Niko, Aido, Johnson, Tiger – each of these “North Eastern” characters deserve a film of their own. They’re all fighting battles none of us know about.

Lastly, Anek credits Ayushmann Khurrana before anyone else. I get the economics behind this, I do. And so do most people. But it’s 2022, a film about inclusion with a cis het, North Indian man as the leading man will come out as pretentious. Sounds a lot like Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan, doesn’t it?

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