"Becket" beckons Bollywood once again. The immortal French play by Jean Anouilh was furnished with a sensitive renewability by Hrishikesh Mukherjee in the 1973 movie "Namak Haraam" and then again by Govind Nihalani in "Dev" (2004).
Now the story of two friends, separated by caste, creed and ideology, who are torn apart by their irreconcilable socio-political differences, is given a seriously spunky spin by Prakash Jha in "Chakravyuh".
Straightaway, let's get to the point. This is Jha's most resolutely etched and firmly grounded drama since "Mrityudand", and a work way superior to his last two films - "Raajneeti" and "Aarakshan" - both of which suffered to some extent by being scattered in intent and pulled in too many directions.
In "Chakravyuh" also we witness Jha's penchant for whipping up a frenzy of crowd sequences, mob fury, gargantuan political rallies and fleets of red-light-topped government cars winding their way urgently through dusty roadways, but never does the narrative lose hold of the plot's central theme.
Jha is in full command of his wide-angled canvas, never allowing the storytelling to become a slave to the political ideology that fans and fuels his wound-up stressed-out characters as they're cast into reluctant roles of outcasts, into a frenetic bundle of activities that define and somewhere rearrange the rapidly-mutating socio-political synergy of Indian democracy.
Jha enters the dark, largely-unexposed, world of the Maoists fighting for their land and dignity and braving all odds including an apathetic government, corrupt and sadistic cops and bureaucrats, betrayal within their own Maoist ranks and avaricious land-grabbing entrepreneurs. And here we have Kabir Bedi and his wimpy yankee-twanged son as easily-recognizable global 'entre-players' ruthlessly manoeuvering to usurp the Maoists from their rightful land.
It's a complex morally ambivalent world of arbitrary, treachery and strained loyalty. The well-researched material is culled into a condensed but brightly illuminated screenplay by Jha, Anjum Rajabali and Sagar Pandya that brings out the basic theme of monstrously growing socio-economic inequality in our society through the characters of two friends.
Adil Khan (Arjun Rampal) and Kabir (Abhay Deol) are separated by their differing attitude to socio-political injustice, but united in their combat against corruption, the path chosen by the friends diverge, unify and then split apart in ways that keep us riveted to the devastatingly tragic finale.
There's also a girl between them, a colleague from the college days (Esha Gupta, miscast). Mercifully there's no love triangle happening here.
If anything, the film should have been longer. There should have been more space for the Adil-Kabir friendship to be nurtured.
The same goes for the delicately but rather hastily-drawn relationship that grows between the loyalty-challenged Kabir and the spirited Maoist girl Juhi (newcomer Anjali Patil). But then Jha has always been shy of dwelling on feelings.
He only slows us glimpses into his characters' hearts before pulling back ruthlessly to allow them to go about their jobs as professionals who have to travel far beyond their call of duty.
In a film about social injustice and the ire that it fosters, it would be unjust to give away the plot. Suffice to say that Jha copes with the complex themes of love, loyalty, friendship and betrayal in a language that never resorts to gutter-level sniping and combative belligerence just to appear trendily earthy.
Armed with an explosive plot that tests the loyalty of two friends as they are pitched in an ideological battle, Jha's narrative remains unwavering in its allegiance to a powerful content-execution and a voice that's raised in protest without getting shrill or hysterical.
The crucial confrontation sequence towards the end is a make-or-break moment in the narrative. Thanks to the brilliantly-written words and the restrain with which the two actors put their viewpoints forward, the sequence scorches the screen.
While Abhay once again after "Shanghai" displays remarkable understanding in playing a complex hard-to-pin-down character, it's Arjun as a cop doing a job that could not just kill him but put a whole community of people's lives into danger once again surprises us with his deep understanding of his character's socio-political context.
The time-tested Manoj Bajpai and Om Puri have smaller but significant parts as Maoist leaders. They add that much-needed touch of gravitas to a film.
While the film contains a collage of competently calibrated performances by some brilliant actors like Chetan Pandit, who was last seen as an idealistic schoolteacher in "Agneepath", here slips into a cheesy cop's role and debutante Anjali Patil leaves the best impression among the supporting cast. A truly worthy successor to the holder of that never-forgotten actress with the same title (Smita).
"Chakravyuh" does have its unhinged moments but Jha quickly reimposes a sense of ongoing drama and impending catastrophe which keeps the audiences' heartbeats racing dangerously.
The editing by Santosh Mandal could have been more austere. But the loose moments never overpower the film's strong convictions and powerful story structure.
"Chakravyuh" ends with Jha's voiceover warning us of growing inequality in the Indian social structure whereby 25 families control a majority of the nation's wealth while a majority of the people live on Rs.70 per day.
Would the Rs.70 wage earner be able to afford the Rs.200 required to watch this film?
Would his life change? The process of social awakening that started with the cinema of V. Shantaram and B.R. Chopra has come a full circle.
Now if only cinema could change mindsets.