London aims to enhance its status as home to one of the world’s most eclectic film festivals this year with its first ever world premiere of an Indian film, in Prakash Jha’s action epic Chakravyuh. In many ways a Bollywood film for people who don’t like Bollywood films, Jha’s bizarre, bonkers effort still clings tight to many of the tropes that westerners frequently mock the country’s cinema for – the ropey adoption of Hollywood film tropes, a lack of subtlety, overt length, and needless dance numbers to name just a few – but to its small benefit, it’s also uncommonly action-packed, and clips along at an unexpectedly snappy pace.
Adil Khan (Arjun Rampal) is the head-strong, idealistic head of the police force, and after a gang of militant left-wing activists called Naxalites ruthlessly murder a police squad, he enlists his best friend, Kabir (Abhay Deol), to infiltrate the group and help him dismantle it from the inside. Inevitably, Kabir comes to realise that the Naxalites’ cause is true, and decides to switch sides, sending the former pals on a collision course with one another that can surely only end in bloodshed.
Unsurprisingly, Chakravyuh is as hilariously overblown as any other Bollywood film attempting to trace along the lines of Hollywood’s genre cinema; the portentous, sentimental flashbacks, hammy acting, and busy action sequences – complete with risible visual effects – make it a bearable sit for the viewer prepared to defer to irony, though we quickly begin to wonder whether we’re laughing with or at the film (it turns out it’s the latter). While some elements veer perilously close to self-parody – most notably the fact that all news footage is shot with the cinematic quality of a film, complete with swooping crane shots – and this makes it crudely enjoyable to a point, the trite narrative has its clichés down pat, lazily milking the standard undercover cop schematic for the little that it’s worth.
Though one might be tempted to ask in somewhat tongue-in-cheek manner, “where are the song-and-dance numbers?”, Chakravyuh goes the whole hog and actually manages to shoehorn in a whopping three, light and amusing, helping the runtime breeze by if ultimately being a perfunctory cause of it. However, these scenes, crowbarred in as they are, feel entirely at odds with the otherwise serious tone, particularly once the film’s most visceral and unflinching scene – in which one character brutally beats a woman – abounds. It’s a film that wants to have it cake and eat it, to make a serious point about India’s social inequality – in which 1/4 of the entire country’s wealth is owned by 100 families – but also to deliver consequence-free, video-game-style shooting gallery action sequences. To mesh the two takes a more sly turn of direction than this, even if the film is admittedly solid from a technical standpoint; the cinematography is often gorgeous, and the hilariously bombastic score feels like someone trying to ape Hans Zimmer (and doing a fairly good job).
It’s full of bizarre Bollywood affectations – such as a warning pre-film and again during the intermission that smoking is harmful to our health – but they’re not enough to paper over the wafer-thin narrative, steeped in overdone moral ambiguity – which really isn’t that ambiguous at all – and repetitive action. That it fires more bullets then The Raid and The Expendables 2 combined is not to be sniffed at, but the serious-mindedness that fills the gaps between the bloodshed quickly becomes wearisome. Not without a few perverse, unintentional charms, but only recommendable to the most morbidly curious of viewers.
Chakravyuh is released in UK cinemas October 24th.
We are currently seeking Film contributors on WhatCulture. To find out more about the perks of being a Film contributor, click here.