Bastar: The Naxal Story is poorly written, incoherent, and grotesque

The film seems less about Bastar, more about the ideological bashing of political opponents

In another of Sudipto Sen’s film after Kashmir Files, the director Sen along with producer Vipul Amrutlal Shah find themselves struggling to tell a story, not only about Bastar, but about anything at all. The film despite being gross and unimaginative, does not fail to emphasise its propaganda building exercise against the conveniently (selectively) constructed generic Left, which is shown waging the war not only against “India” but against the entire gullible Adivasi community (shown as hapless fellows who are suffering from the Maoists of Bastar). The generic ideological bashing becomes the only thread which enables the film to reach its anti-climactic fag end, without any substantial treatment of the subject around the people of Bastar. The disclaimer to the film claims that it is inspired by true events, and the events have been corroborated by “historians”, “experts”, administrators and news reports. The statistics are of course in place to begin the story, “50,000 lives lost in 57 years due to Naxalism”, the film tells viewers citing data from NCRB (National Crime Records Bureau). Pertinently, it is dedicated to the “Mothers of Bastar”.

In any case, the film is certainly a cinematic version of Vivek Agnihotri’s “Urban Naxal” theory. It is a tale of how the comfortably situated urban intelligentsia (aka Urban Naxals) conveniently influences (read brainwashes) the urban public discourse and supports the Naxal movement through all possible means; cultural, legal, financial, entertainment and (even) paid news! The film operates through depictions of the parallel war happening in the forests of Bastar and in the courtroom over the legality of Salwa Judum [1], which the film not only justifies but even valorises. The other parallel (until it is resolved) remains between the mother and son duo, the former fighting against the Naxals while her son is fascinated by the Naxals and even joins them before “realising his mistake”. The graphic tale of terror committed against the ordinary villagers by the Maoists becomes a point of revolt for them, especially for the mother (who also happens to be the wife before turning widow as her husband is hacked to death by the Maoists in the film). It remains a monologic tale, primarily told through a woman CRPF officer (played by Adah Sharma as Neerja Madhavan) and the mother-wife character starred by Indira Tiwari, both of whom are are determined to fight the Naxals.

Bastar: The Naxal Story remains a sensationalist and graphic tale of horror without any systematic engagement with the topic, jumping from one thing to the next, stereotyping the Adivasis, intelligentsia and women.

The Plot and the Story

The film begins with a series of newspaper cuttings depicting the brutality and violence conducted in Bastar by Naxals and the broader Naxalite movement, including the killing of ordinary citizens, defence forces, and destruction of roads. The opening scene is the court room drama where the lawyers (played by Shilpa Shukla as Neelam Nagpal and Yashpal Sharma as Utpal Trivedi respectively) are arguing over the legality of Salwa Judum and the recruitment of Special Police Officers. The case (under discussion) also involves the charge against a professor (Starring Raima Sen as Vanya Roy) who is accused of helping Maoists. She is accused of doing this by passing the list of villagers to Maoists suspected of being informers for the police. These persons (informers) are eventually were killed by the Maoists. The opening scene is intertwined between the scene of a hospital and courtroom. In the first shot of the hospital is the CRFP officer undergoing medical tests for the health of her unborn child even as she is getting ready to take on Naxals; in the courtroom, the lawyer (Neelam) is narrating the cases of extra-judicial killings committed by security forces and Salwa Judum.

The drama begins as the villagers saluting the national flag and singing national anthem are caught by the Maoists, and taken to their camp in Abujmarh forest, accused of defying the authority of Naxal rule and engaging in the “blasphemous” act of aligning with the Indian State. The apparent leader of the group (starring Subrata Dutta as Milind Kashyap)  who led the villagers to such an “unholy act”, and spoke about “shanti”, “shiksha”, and “vikaas” was hacked to death, quite graphically, by the Maoist leader Lanka Reddy (played by Vijay Krishna)– first the limbs and finally the head. The execution was only after the Jan Adalat pronounced Milind guilty, which was depicted as a kangaroo court even as Milind’s wife (Ratna) and children pleaded for his innocence before witnessing his bloody execution.

Here onwards, the Che Guevara styled Maoist leader Lanka Reddy remains the primary villain till the end of the film, when he would come to meet the very same fate; committed by the wife of the hacked villager (played by Indira Tiwari as Ratna). Lanka Reddy’s personality is depicted as a brave and violent Maoist leader. He delivers a fiery speech in the camp during which he talks about how bloody stained rivers will flow out of the blood of enemies. He resolves to raise the red flag on the Red Fort. For the director such depiction was clearly necessary to highlight the violent nature of the Maoist movement, and depict their brutal tactics due to which, in the film, ordinary villagers of Bastar were shown to be suffering.

The film at no point feels like a historical narrative, it takes a convenient position of depicting the villagers as “affected with the problem of Maoism” but does not trace the history of the issue at all. It seems like just, out of blue, one day the Naxals, overpowered the villagers without any logical chain of events, and then the brave CRPF officer Neerja Madhavan comes to fight them out. The good ordinary villagers vs bad Maoists, depicted in stark black and white, remains the motif throughout, without investigating the origin of the movement or the conflict that has affected the region for so long. There is no discussion around the failure of the independent Indian state and its welfare or development arms to reach the Adivasis of Bastar; the abysmal failure on health, education, inclusion. We find, through the film, statements loosely thrown at the audience in order to attract the attention of viewers. At one point the filmmakers claim that the Indian Maoist movement is third deadliest after the ISIS and Boko Haram, without adding much value to the assertion.

In the next movement of high drama in the film, the focus has now briefly shifted to show how the unholy nexus between intelligentsia and Maoists operates. Professor Vanya Roy (for director the villain professor continues to remain either Roy or Menon for some reason) and the senior intellectual Maoist leader (Narayan Baghchi) is seen meeting with the foreign delegation comprising of the member from Lashkar-e-Toiba and LTTE. Roy is praised by the LeT representative for expressing the view that Kashmir is not an integral part of India. There is also one ‘Gandhian’ in the meeting, comrade Irshad, who has a non-governmental organisation (NGO) in local villages and handles arms and money for the Maoist. The irony is deliberate and intended by Sen, as everything that is non-Gandhian is associated with this ‘Gandhian’ Maoist. Clearly such collaging was perhaps the only means for the director to take forward the otherwise struggling film.

The anti-intellectual and even vulgar stance of the film is revealed when it depicts university students dancing and singing to the killings of CRPF jawans by Maoists. Even without naming the university, the reference is apparent to any thoughtful eye that it is a premier central government university known for its active involvement in politics. A/the student leader is shown addressing the frenzied crowd and celebrating over (in the words of that student leader) the killing of “76 dogs”. Professor Roy is of course there and enjoying the whole show. The film interchangeably and, in parallel, shows the celebration of the students and that of the Maoists in the jungle after the latter had ambushed and killed the CRPF personnel while they were asleep by kindling their camp.

The CRPF officer Neerja Madhavan is all this while fighting and strategising the defeat of the Naxals. She is shown as an upright and intelligent officer who can take on the degenerate political class. Prior to the ambush that cost the lives of 76 CRPF jawans, she had got the hint that the Maoists had planned to attack the specific camps and requested additional reinforcement from the higher ups in the police ranks and even politicians, but was refused citing lack of credible intelligence. After the incident, the minister asked her why this attack happened and who should be held responsible for the costly lives of our jawans? She retaliates back, saying that you (the minister) are responsible for it. The film shows that deep political connections, corruption and nexus is involved in the sustenance of the conflict, which ultimately benefit the politicians. Thus, the politicians are often hand in glove with the troublemakers, caring naught about the lives of either civilians or jawans. But such mindful recognitions are few and in-between, and overshadowed by the film’s single-minded pursuit to achieve a narrow political end.

Following the killings of CRPF personnel, the focus has now turned on eliminating the dreaded Lanka Reddy, and the film takes on Mission Mode to achieve that end. Lanka Reddy has got the intimation that he is now on the active target of the security forces, and he accordingly starts preparing his escape plan to cross the state border to avoid getting caught. In one of the encounters before the final showdown, the mother son duo faces each other, unable to shoot at each other. Ratna discourses with her son about his decision to join Maoist movement, arguing that it was futile and wrong, especially given the fact that his father (and her husband) was brutally killed when he (the son) was taken away to be trained with the Maoists. While the encounter is ongoing between Maoist and security forces, CRPF officer Neerja is injured in the battle and rushed to hospitalised, where she learns about losing her unborn child.

After the resolution of the conflict between mother and son there remains only one thing to be done, catching hold of Lanka Reddy before he crosses the borders and manages to escape the forces. In the final anti-climax Lanka Reddy is initially tricked, believing that he has successfully managed to slip away from clutches of the security forces before seeing a helicopter hovering over his head. The game ends as he finds himself surrounded by security forces from all sides. Though he could have been arrested by the force the filmmakers have retained the conventional end: Ratna takes up the sickle and strikes him hard. Lanka Reddy lies dead on the ground, killed by the same weapon that was apparently the symbol of the revolution.

In the meantime, the court has pronounced its judgment and Salwa Judum is banned, which is depicted in the movie –not as a rapacious counter-insurgency militia—but as a self-defence measure necessary for the safety of villagers who are threatened by Naxals, again drawing imaginary foes without representing the inconvenient facts. There seems to be a pensive sadness about the fact that the court has banned Salwa Judum (It was the Supreme Court that banned this militia in a historic judgement in 2008). While Neerja Madhavan is at the hospital, still recuperating, members of judicial committee have reached the hospital to question her for her role in extra judicial killings. The film has no hesitation in suggesting that you may sacrifice rule of law for achieving the greater end, but one does not even know what actually the intended end is!

The film is not yet over. Almost in a seriocomic manner, the film ends with the fictionalised factoids. Statements pours in, “Neerja Madhavan is now exonerated from all court cases” and “Tourism in Bastar has increased by more than 80% in last 5 years.”

Does the film succeed? Work? One has to be a particularly gullible viewer without any historical knowledge to actually digest this piece of fiction as a film based on reality or fact; the cherry picking of a few facts do not make composite fiction.

Unfortunately, also, the film becomes simply a rather crass tale of personal battles and the social is lost somewhere behind the violent strikes. By the end of the film, one realises that Bastar becomes mere plot, the story is something else, and the else remains elusive for the viewer. Ultimately, in the final analysis, this film adds itself to the growing list of propaganda led factoid cinema, devoid of any value that is extremely painful to watch.

Best Bets: Recommended by Our Team

Of writing and films that give a more nuanced picture of the conflict in Bastar and the Naxal Movement:

  1. The Burning Forest: India’s War in Bastar by Nandini Sundar
  2. Maoist and Other Armed Conflicts by Anuradha M. Chenoy and Kamal Mitra Chenoy
  3. Hello Bastar: The Untold Story of India’s Maoist Movement by Rahul Pandita
  4. Red Ant Dream by Sanjay Kak
  5. I Pravir the Adivasi GOD by Vivek Kumar
  6. The Hunt by Biju Toppo

[1] A counter-insurgency militia that the Supreme Court, in 2008, had effectively ordered the disbanding of



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