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.