What can you say about a film that dwells on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, but seems to draw from New Age interpretations of Vedic philosophy? A film where a man tries to use a cat to hide his crotch, while in another storyline, a lawyer joins the Abolitionists? A film that contrives to be simultaneously dystopian and uplifting?
Cloud Atlas feels like something Haruki Murakami, Terrence Malick, George Orwell, Guy Ritchie and Oscar Wilde collaborated on, and then handed over to James Cameron to sell in Hollywood. Through a haze of casting gimmicks, mostly terrible makeup and multiple storylines, the film takes us to the Pacific Islands in 1849, Cambridge in 1936, San Francisco in 1973, London in 2012, 'Neo Seoul' in 2144, and 'Big Isle' in '106 Winters after the Fall'.
There are stories within stories, and little in-jokes one could miss in the blink of an eye – the cover page of a manuscript, the name of a sextet, the title of a film, the shadow of a birthmark. But that's an irrelevant warning, because the film keeps you hooked. You laugh out loud, you cringe and grasp your throat, you lunge forward in your seat, but you never stop gawking at the screen.
Incredibly, the film has something for every kind of audience – the sort who'll fall off their seats in mirth when someone's mouth is stuffed into a plunger, and the sort who delight in lines like, "That leadless pencil you call an imagination". Its landscapes range from a valley of medieval appearance to a futuristic multi-level city. We're rarely prepared for the things that happen in the film. And when we are – which really only happens in one story starring Ben Whishaw, Jim Broadbent and James D'Arcy – the acting is so skilled, we're carried anyway.
As storylines are woven together, and a single sentence is repeated by different characters with different intonations in various contexts, you may want to lose yourself in the film, losing all track of where what is set. Yet, you may find yourself remembering each individual storyline and its significance at the end. Apart from everything else, you will surely wonder how all of this could have been contained in a book.
The Verdict: The sort of film that may have remained in the film festival circuit indefinitely, if it hadn't been pulled back by a few kisses and set pieces and stands against Evil, Cloud Atlas feels like a dream you don't want to wake up from.
Director: Prakash Jha
Starring: Arjun Rampal, Om Puri, Manoj Bajpayee, Abhay Deol, and others
The easiest way to make a film on Naxals would be to portray the authorities as corrupt and the rebels as Gandhians-with-guns, thus wooing the cynical-but-naïve bleeding-heart liberal. Chakravyuh circumvents this by telling the story through an upright cop, a charismatic but cruel Naxal commander, and a confused mole. These roles are essayed by actors who embrace grey shades, and deliver with a brilliance we didn't know some of them were capable of, propping up a film that hinges on performances.
The script seems to have been based on research, interviews, and news reports, evidenced by glimpses of Naxal life which are so bizarre that they must be true. However, the film undoes some of its subtlety with tired set pieces, underscored by the music. This is best encountered in a scene where Adil Khan (Arjun Rampal) tries to reach out to scared villagers.
There are several long speeches, but they hold our attention because Rampal, and Manoj Bajpayee, playing Naxal leader Rajan, sound convincing as their characters. Among my favourite scenes is the Adil and Kabir's (Abhay Deol) confrontation, where close-ups force the actors to emote with their eyes–Deol showing defiance, Rampal a very challenging gamut of expressions ranging from disbelief to concern to rage. Deol excels throughout, as does the one-film old Anjali Patil, playing Naxal leader Juhi. The relationship between her and Kabir evolves almost without our noticing it.
The confident comic timing of the actors helps pace the film. Esha Gupta, playing Adil's wife Rhea, is the sole exception to the skilled acting. She feels like the kabab mein haddi in one of those uncomfortable trios comprising couple-and-single-friend, and seems out of place in a film without skin show. Her last line provokes a burst of inappropriate laughter from the audience.
Though the film is a spectacle, with flamboyant song-and-dance sequences, it's punctuated by moments of understated kinship, such as when Rajan (Manoj Bajpayee) smiles with the patronising amusement of a mentor as Kabir checks his email. The 'Naxals' speak of their pasts with a careless lack of sentimentality, and wear their accents as naturally as they carry guns. The film shows restraint in leaving most of the violence to our imagination.
But it calls for the suspension of disbelief rather often. Surely, a pack of brutal Naxals won't recruit a fool out of sympathy? And it lets itself down with clichés. The only part where Rampal doesn't look at ease is when he has to pray in costume, despite being an alcohol-guzzling cop.
The Verdict: Chakravyuh is a mass entertainer parading as a niche film, but it gives you gooseflesh every now and then.