Anubhav Sinha’s Anek is a political drama that attempts to tell the story of Northeast India and presents the ‘’mainstream gaze of the nation towards the frontier region and its people.
It is filled with violence – not just that flows from the gun barrel – and misrepresentation and profiling of people, culture, and geography.
The first unsettling fact about the movie is its heavy-handed saviour complex. The sentiment of ‘saving the nation’ finds great resonance in various characters associated with the security apparatus and the government.
Joshua or, as it turns out towards the end of the movie that his real name was Aman (Ayushman Khurana), Abrar (Manoj Pahwa), and Ajay (JD Chakravarthy) are all busy saving India from the ‘insurgents’ in the Northeast.
Aido (Andrea Kevichüsa) believes in a different struggle with India – through sports. She plays a boxer in the movie. Tiger Sanga (Loitongbam Dorendra) is shown as the leader of the most prominent group in the Northeast with whom the government desires to work in order to reach a peace accord.
What Exactly Does the Northeast Need Saving From?
As the audience cuts through the noise of the debate on peace, accord, control and violence included in the various frames of the movie, the theme of someone from outside the Northeast coming to save the country and people from the security threat generated within the Northeast due to insurgency, looms large.
Anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod reminded us of how the discourse of the West saving Muslim women in Afghanistan is deeply problematic.
Anek carries a similar saviour complex with attended sensibilities of arrogance, superiority and patronisation.
Saving involves two things, if not more. One, you save someone from something and to something. What is Anek saving from and to? Do people from the Northeast need saving from themselves? For me, this twofold politics of ‘saving’ remains the most unsettling aspect of the movie.
Violence dots various sections of the movie – and it is not just gun violence.
Instead, the most violent of portrayals is the problematic use of language and voice. Various characters in the movie are randomly selected to speak Hindi in different measures of tone, grammatical correctness, and emotional field.
One wonders why Aido falters in her grammar while speaking Hindi even as her father, Wangnao (Mipham Otsal), a separatist leader, is projected as someone who speaks Hindi with correct grammar.
Various other languages used in the Northeast are thrown in at random with no clear definition of geographical boundaries or the context in which those conversations take place. Why are subtitles included only when the dialogues are not in Hindi? What is this language of communication?
Northeast Is Not a Monolith
In fact, this lack of geographical clarity is part of the problem for it presents the Northeast as a blanket region – apparently with seven and not eight states.
Assam is randomly mentioned as a place of opportunity when Joshua has a conversation with Niko (Thejasevor Belho) after he rescues him from police detention.
One wonders, then, where is Assam? Or is plugging in Assam in this way a reproduction of the hill-valley divide? Is Assam not a part of the Northeast in the mind of the director, or is it the ‘missing’ state of the Northeast – the eighth state? When such generality is read to the mainframe of the movie, we find violence becoming essential to the region, a lens to see the place and its people.
The movie tries to project a diverse range of issues – Abrar randomly eating momos, drug rehabilitation centre, sports, insurgency, counter-insurgency – and yet, unsurprisingly, its message is singular, and one that is too familiar to us from the Northeast. It is one that remains highly essentialised to poor understanding of geography, people, and culture, and is riddled with misrepresentation.
The movie does not lend any voice to the region and her real concerns.
Instead, it hijacks the voice and the agency of people in its representation. It creates a narrative of its own that becomes suffocatingly singular.
This is a movie that will make people who support the Armed Forces Special Power Act (AFSPA) very happy. This is also a movie made to satisfy an audience that believes in the misplaced sensibilities of the Northeast.
That even today such a script can be written about the region tells us that in popular culture and the mainstream public sphere in India, there is still a lot of work left to be done to break the silos of misrepresentation and mainstream gaze.
Anyone interested in the Northeast should watch this movie to reflect on how this region in the ‘Union of India’ is seen with such a predetermined and narrow gaze and why it refuses to go away.
What is it in our way of doing and thinking that makes those singular narratives get ingrained in the minds of people that seek to show, think, and write about the Northeast?
Anek Is Not About Love, But Colonial ‘Gaze’
The movie loudly declares in its credits, “With love to the people of Northeast India”. But ironically, it ends with Abar uttering the word “but” while drinking at a bar counter with Aman after the peace talks fail with Tiger Sanga.
The language of love is never singular. It ought to be filled with empathy, care, and a desire to listen. It should have a sense of awareness of its diversity, of its people and place, a sensibility that does better than papering over distinctions with a wide brush of homogenous romance with the frontier, security and the nation.
This movie is about everything else but love. It’s a regressive return to the colonial gaze towards the Northeast as a frontier, which destroys the plurality of its places, languages, cultures, and people.
(The author is a sociologist based in Singapore. He tweets @char_chapori. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)