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‘Bastar: The Naxal Story’ Review: Nothing Can Save This Film From Itself

'Bastar: The Naxal Story', stars Adah Sharma and is directed by Sudipto Sen.

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‘Bastar: The Naxal Story’ Review: Nothing Can Save This Film From Itself

After the success of The Kerala Story, director Sudipto Sen turns his lens to the Naxal conflict in Bastar: The Naxal Story. Very early on, it becomes abundantly clear that the film doesn’t intend to tell you the ‘Naxal story’, considering it never even mentions the origins of the Naxalite movement. 

'Bastar: The Naxal Story', stars Adah Sharma and is directed by Sudipto Sen.

A still from Bastar: The Naxal Story.

(Photo Courtesy: YouTube)

Bastar: The Naxal Story is just another film that uses the ‘based on real-life incidents’ disclaimer to push the limits of “creative liberty” (not surprising but must be said). The film touches upon real-life instances of Naxalite violence (though calling it a recreation wouldn’t be accurate), including the harrowing killing of 76 CRPF officers. But this isn’t the film to do that justice. 

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At one point, the Maoist leader Lanka Reddy (Vijay Krishna) says that they control who ‘owns land and can farm on it’ but the film never tells you why that is – the Naxalbari uprising of 1967 isn’t mentioned. Because that would pose a huge danger to the film – that of actually having to deal with a story with nuance. 

'Bastar: The Naxal Story', stars Adah Sharma and is directed by Sudipto Sen.

A still from Bastar: The Naxal Story.

(Photo Courtesy: YouTube)

Instead, Bastar claims that the Maoists in the movies are in a nexus with communist leaders from the Philippines, the Lashkar-e-Taiba, and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam to name a few. It also claims that ‘communists’ have an in everywhere – from the media to Bollywood. Even NGOs aren’t spared. The name of a college in Delhi is censored but the close-up shots are enough for even the most amateur lip-reader (also the trailer didn’t hide anything). This feels like unintentional irony when you actually look at the state of media today. 

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The plot point at the center of the film, however, is a court proceeding – that of the Supreme Court’s ban on the Salwa Judum militia. The Salwa Judum was formed to tackle Naxalite extremist violence in the valley and was reportedly supported by the Chhattisgarh government. The film also presents this ban as the result of a worldwide conspiracy; never touching upon the Court’s actual judgment. 

'Bastar: The Naxal Story', stars Adah Sharma and is directed by Sudipto Sen.

A still from Bastar: The Naxal Story.

(Photo Courtesy: YouTube)

If you were to watch this film with no prior historical knowledge of the conflict, you wouldn’t find out that the Supreme Court banned the counterinsurgency group after finding evidence of violation of human rights. The makers show one graphic scene after another of Naxalite violence and yet the aforementioned human rights violations are perhaps briefly mentioned but quickly white-washed under the garb of functioning for the greater good. 

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The lawyer arguing to ban the Salwa Judum, Neelam (Shilpa Shukla), also brings accusations against an Indian Police service officer Neerja Madhavan (Adah Sharma). The accusations mention, but are not limited to, extra-judicial killings. Neerja is a hard-headed officer determined to remove Naxal presence from Bastar and soon recruits a woman Ratna (Indira Tiwari) to become a special police officer (SPO) after her husband is killed by Lanka Reddy. 

'Bastar: The Naxal Story', stars Adah Sharma and is directed by Sudipto Sen.

A still from Bastar: The Naxal Story.

(Photo Courtesy: YouTube)

Sharma’s performance as Neerja isn’t nearly as hammy as her act in The Kerala Story but it still isn’t convincing. Some of the scenes where she has to sneer at politicians or bark orders in crisis still work to some extent but otherwise, Neerja ends up becoming forgettable. Both Shilpa Shukla and Raima Sen give decent performances but are unfortunately relegated to characters who plot and sneer and that’s it. 

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The two characters who do leave any sort of an impact are Ratna and her son (played by Naman Jain). The arc of a son who joins the Naxalite movement and a mother who joins the SPO is perhaps what the entire film should’ve been about. These two characters alone, with better exploration into their motivations and some nuance, would’ve made a better film by themselves. The grief and resolve in their eyes with a shadow of omnipresent terror are tough to look away from. 

'Bastar: The Naxal Story', stars Adah Sharma and is directed by Sudipto Sen.

A still from Bastar: The Naxal Story.

(Photo Courtesy: YouTube)

I want to go into the technical aspects of this film but there’s nothing remarkable to talk about. The background score feels generic. The camerawork is slightly impressive, considering the way it captures the film’s setting. Moving on.

The ground reality of Naxalite violence and the State’s response to it is way too complicated for a film like this to explore. The sexual violence against tribal women is mentioned is passing but the reality of gendered violence in a region of conflict doesn’t get much space. Instead, the film goes down the same dirt road. It is clear that they’re viewing the film as a black-and-white conflict – a journalist Vanya Roy and professor Yamna Nagar, whom Neelam is also defending, are apparently Maoist sympathisers. 

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There is a glimpse of hope when you expect the film to talk about the victims of a region tainted with violence – the civilians. But the film only cares about civilian casualties when it can use it to further this black-and-white distinction. Perhaps that is why you are only actually affected by scenes featuring Ratna and her son. 

'Bastar: The Naxal Story', stars Adah Sharma and is directed by Sudipto Sen.

Adah Sharma in a still from Bastar: The Naxal Story.

(Photo Courtesy: YouTube)

The ‘leftist-liberals’ read books by Arundhati Roy and Mao Zhedong (which somehow is supposed to convince you that they’re the big, bad wolf in this story). 

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I don’t even want to begin to get into the dangers of conflating an entire ideology with extremist violence. Words like ‘communist’, ‘leftist liberals’ are thrown around like confetti. I wonder if we as a society realise that all these words actually hold meaning and can’t just be used as synonyms for each other. The scenes of a revolutionary anthem being sung in a college are cut with the Maoist group celebrating the CRPF killings in Bastar. 

'Bastar: The Naxal Story', stars Adah Sharma and is directed by Sudipto Sen.

A still from Bastar: The Naxal Story.

(Photo Courtesy: YouTube)

At this point, talking about the dangers of half-truth in cinema like this feels like talking to a wall. But here’s hoping that the walls have ears. 

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Bastar   Adah Sharma 

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