Maven's Nest

Reel Life: Flick Pix

Directed by: Ananth Narayan Mahadevan
Written by: Aruna Raje
Produced by: Rahul Aggarwal and T.P. Aggarwal
Released by: Madhu Entertainment
India. 120 min. Not Rated in the U.S.
Dubbed in English in the U.S.
With: Suniel Shetty, Sameera Reddy, Ayesha Dharkar, Seema Biswas, Bhagyashree, Gulshan Grover, Sunhil Saha, Ehsaan Khan, Makhrand Deshpande, Zakir Husain, AshishVidyarthi, Vinod Khanna, and Naseeruddin Shah

Poor people caught between idealistic, militant revolutionaries fighting corrupt, brutal authority could be the basis for any epic set on many continents in many centuries. In India, such political violence has been raging since 1967 in Andhra Pradesh, on the southeastern coast, where government clashes with the Maoist Naxalites have killed thousands of people throughout the so-called "red corridor". Inspired by the story of a real man, Red Alert: The War Within broadly uses the universality of melodramatic emotions to illustrate very specifically set moral and bloody battles that have provoked human rights protests onto both sides. .

Unemployed farm worker Narasimha (Suniel Shetty) leaves his beautiful wife Uma (Bhagyashree) and children to travel across a deceptively lovely landscape in search of a promised job as a cook, as explained in his narration. But to his surprise, he has led the police to an ambush on a rebel camp. Narasimha has to prove his innocence to the surviving cadre through his service..

The authorities directing the anti-terrorist campaign --implacable police chief played by Gulshan Grover and nervous government minister played by Zakir Husain-- are one-dimensional. But the insurgents Narasimha lives with are portrayed as somewhat more complex characters, with both military and ideological goals, as represented by Velu (AshishVidyarthi) and Krishna (Ehsaan Khan). Even as Narasimha is forced into military training, the bespectacled leader Murli (Sunhil Saha) encourages his literacy to become politically educated. (Scriptwriter Aruna Raje used actual Naxalite documents as the basis for their political dialogue.) Narasimha keeps nagging for compensation, just so he can pay for his children's school fees, which seems to be a much more limited view of the acute poverty facing farmers in India than seen Deepa Bhatia's recent documentary Nero's Guests.

More intriguing and complex are the women warriors, Radhaka (Ayesha Dharkar), a tough, young fighter, and Sarlaaka (Seema Biswas), an older, hardened rebel. In considerably more gritty roles than usual Bollywood fare (and there's only one theme song in the background), they keep the women from being the stock figures in Chinese Communist war films like Xie Jin's The Red Detachment of Women (Hong se niang zi jun), and more like the committed egalitarians in recent documentaries from South Asia, Beate Arnestad's My Daughter the Terrorist, about women fighters in Sri Lanka, and Julie Bridgham's The Sari Soldiers, about women fighters in Nepal. When a raid on a police station uncovers an unjustly imprisoned woman, Laxmi (Sameera Reddy), a shell-shocked gang rape victim, Narasimha gently revives her, and the women warriors encourage her recovery through revenge by joining their cause. While there are glimpses of sex in the jungle tents, romantic triangles and accusations are only set off by the undisciplined newcomers.

The insurgents come in for their share of looking more like the Sheriff of Nottingham than Robin Hood, as director Ananth Narayan Mahadevan makes clear no one here is the charming, dancing demon of Raavan. In quick montages, they extort strapped villagers for taxes, torture suspected informers, and threaten foreign contractors in protest of development deals they claim will not benefit the local community.

An assault on a school brings all the issues to a head for Narasimha. A recent Human Rights Watch report condemned the practice of government forces to store munitions at schools, and the Naxalites for attacking the depots there. Narasimha is haunted by the children he couldn't save, and is driven to extremely desperate measures to salve his conscience and save his family. On the run, he seeks help from his former teacher, played by Naseeruddin Shah in a cameo similar to his brief role in the current Raajneeti, and from a journalist (MakhrandDeshpande)..

Regardless of how much of what Narasimha does is based on the actions of a real guy, the melodrama completely takes over, as the simple man very unconvincingly turns into a gutsy, wily action hero. While in thrillers guys with guns usually take aim and flaunt their crimes, here guns are pointed during long-winded political and moral justifications. Credibility further diminishes in a futuristic fantasy ending of economic harmony for the poor, as proclaimed on TV by the now respectable rebel leader Krishna Raj (Vinod Khanna). Though the conclusion may have been necessitated by censorship restrictions, it makes as much sense as the end of Cymbeline, one of Shakespeare's weaker plays in another era of kow towing, with its concluding "Never was a war did cease,/Ere bloody hands were washed, with such a peace." The director even tacks on a closing quote from Osama Bin Laden's son pleading with him to turn away from terrorism.

But the battle scenes in Red Alert are much more convincing. Cinematographer K. Rajkumar, a frequent collaborator with the director, uses energetic camera work to run with the rebel forces around the forest and give exciting immediacy and sense of danger to the explosive attacks..

The distributor, unfortunately, is releasing a dubbed English version in the U.S. that adds to the old-fashioned feel of the film, though the actors reportedly did their own dubbing. Even though the Hindi-language version is playing in some theaters in the U.S., most of the locals in Andhra Pradesh would probably speak Telugu (and would in a Tollywood film). That may be what Narasimha refers to when he tries to sympathize with a rebel who "speaks differently", but that is a subtlety lost in the English translation of a not otherwise subtle film.

July 9, 2010

Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews

Since August 2006, edited versions of many of my reviews of documentaries/indie/foreign films are at Film-Forward; since 2012, festival overviews at FilmFestivalTraveler; and, since 2016, coverage of women-made films at FF2 Media. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.

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