Anwar (Siddharth Koirala) is an artist who one night disembarks from his bus in the middle of nowhere, and seeks refuge from the pouring rain in an ancient temple. By morning, after a boy spots him offering namaaz, his fate has been sealed, as he finds himself at the center of a political production midwifed by a Hindu supremacist politician (Sudhir Pandey) holding forth before an ever-increasing crowd to the effect that a Muslim terrorist has infiltrated the temple. The police (most prominently Ashok Tiwari (Yashpal Sharma)) and journalists (including a big city television reporter (Manisha Koirala) and an imbecilic small town counterpart (Rajpal Yadav, in one of the most out-of-place comedy tracks I have ever seen) follow soon after. Disturbingly, all of them seem to regard the notion that the unknown man in the temple – a Muslim praying in a temple, no less – is a terrorist, as self-evident. Through it all the viewer is intermittently treated to extended glimpses of Anwar’s past, and to Master Pasha (Vijay Raaz, in the film’s best performance), the love of Anwar’s life Mehroo (Nauheed Cyrusi), and his friend Udit (Hiten Tejwani). In the communally charged atmosphere of the Uttar Pradesh town (and, by implication, the country at large) where Anwar finds himself, his story can only come to a bad end, and the impending tragedy hangs like a pall over the entire film. When the axe falls, it does not shock or surprise, merely impress its inexorability upon the viewer.
Manish Jha’s Anwar (adapted from the short story Falgun ki ek Upkatha by Priamvad) had a fantastic premise, offering the possibility of the sort of searing, even offensive, polemic he seems to do so well (check out Matrubhoomi). Unfortunately, the film suffers from overly languorous execution and an underwhelming script (with some godawful dialogues thrown in for good measure). And like many other contemporary filmmakers (Madhur Bhandarkar in virtually every film comes to mind), Jha appears incapable of a political critique that does not turn on individual hypocrisy. Thus we have the specter of a Hindutvawaadi who turns against Valentine’s Day celebrations only after his own card and gift are rejected by his mistress (the notion that a Hundutvawaadi might have a purely ideological opposition to this sort of thing is apparently foreign to Jha, as it was to Rakeysh Mehra in Rang de Basanti). There’s a parallel here with Anwar’s story: both the minister and Anwar have been in love with women who do not love them back, and both men respond in twisted ways. One notes the parallel, but simply doesn’t care: unlike Anwar, the politician is little more than a caricature, and evokes no empathy, his sorrow coming across as mere buffoonery. The twinning of the so-called terrorist and his persecutor might have seemed real on the printed page, but in the film it is more abstractly mathematical than cinematic.
The result is a disappointing film, despite some superb shots (one of my favorites of which is a long-range shot of Anwar seated on steps leading down to the water, the camera eyeing him past Mehroo, relieved to have just gotten her over-persistent lover out of her house, and somewhat guilty that she isn’t able to reciprocate his affections), not to mention an eye for capturing both small-town streets and walls as well as the monumental backdrops of India’s past that is beyond most of Jha’s Bollywood contemporaries. A special mention too of Jha’s ability to capture the small town mela atmosphere; marred though the representation is by more than a little condescension, Jha is effective at capturing the combination of energy and passivity, cheerfulness and potentially threatening aspect of a large crowd that is in need of perpetual distraction – lest the mood get ugly, and – even more problematic for the opportunistic politicos – unpredictably so.
This film truly could have been much better, the sort of cinematic cold shower that the audience’s complacency (on communalism, but not only on communalism) cries out for. Instead, we are left with an over-populated script, and the principal plot thread – Anwar’s own – is neglected for long stretches of the film. Jha likely wishes to represent a microcosm of contemporary India, but this conceit is executed without much conviction and energy, leaving the distinct impression that several tracks either serve no purpose, or wouldn’t be worth the trouble needed to discern it. Anwar is visually far superior to Matrubhoomi, Jha’s last film, although it packs far less of a punch, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that some of the self-conscious “artiness” had drained the energy from a premise that demanded frenetic treatment.
I don’t mean to be too harsh on Jha: for he is almost precociously young, and Anwar already his third film, released a few months prior to Jha’s twenty-ninth birthday. And Anwar deserves to be seen, particularly in a cinematic era as self-congratulatory as our own. In an industry determined to ruffle as few feathers as possible, Jha’s caustic sensibility, akin not to satire so much as to a savage whipping, is a potentially refreshing change. For that “potentially” to be removed, however, he will need to do a far better job than Anwar the next time around.