Anubhav Sinha’s latest film, Anek, is a sociopolitical spy thriller set in a part of India that doesn’t often get the spotlight: the turbulent Northeast. The NE in Anek refers to the northeastern states – Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura. These states are collectively referred to as the Seven Sisters, for the larger sister state of West Bengal.
Anek is more than a thriller. It focuses on identity, on what it means to be Indian. It forces you to think about equality and justice in the context of the region. It provides a stark contrast between Indians who take their identity for granted and those who constantly struggle to be considered Indian.
Sinha’s other films, Section 15, Thapad, Gang Gulaabetc have similar themes involving social awareness.
Anek, starring Ayushmann Khurana as Aman/Joshua, features Andrea Kevichusa from Nagaland as Aido, an aspiring boxer. Aido, despite the constant racial slurs, wants to be a boxer like Mary Kom so she can prove to India that she is worthy of her Indian identity.
Aman goes undercover as Joshua. His task: to bring Tiger Sangha (Loitongbam Dorendra), leader of one of the largest insurgent groups in northeast India, to the peace talks table. In order to facilitate this, Aman creates a fictional insurgent group, called Johnson. Then he discovers that there is another organization with the same name, and this organization has nothing to do with violence and drug trafficking. Instead, he works on the education and rehabilitation of young drug addicts. The hope is to reduce their dependence on the “mainland” for employment.
Violence, gangs and drugs
Tiger Sanga wants to take control of himself. Meanwhile, a schoolteacher named Johnson wants the people of this fertile region to thrive by harvesting vegetables, herbs and spices. The problem: The region’s trade routes are stuck in a bottleneck. What they produce cannot be delivered to the rest of India. Because the Indian government is not investing energy and funds in this region, the region is under severe economic strain. This makes the locals plagued by violence, gang oppression and drugs.
The film points out that the Indian government, in its efforts to roll out peace, has failed to help the people of the North East. To quote some of the exchanges in Anek“Peace, or the peace agreement, is a dirty business. Peace is about control; peace is never achieved.
Anek is a sad and tragic story of young boys abducted by rebel groups and forced to become child soldiers in the name of peace. My heart has broken, not once, not twice, but many times to see these abandoned Indians whose lives are crushed before they even begin.
I met several young girls from the North East in Bombay working in restaurants, hotels and Thai massage parlours. I often ask them about their lives/families left behind in the Northeast. They are lonely and uprooted people, often the main breadwinners who constantly worry about their families back home.
In the film, mothers like Emma cook and care for the people around them, but their hearts are deep cauldrons of grief and despair. There are anek (i.e. many) Johnsons (gifts of God) springing from the hills, but can they bring peace to this region?
Divide and rule
Aman/Joshua uses all the tricks of the trade to try to unite the country. The hero’s journey transforms as he grapples with the current situation and begins to think from the mindset of the people he is trying to infiltrate. Manoj Pahwa, as Joshua’s senior officer, is a cog in the ancient divide-and-conquer wheel that makes the game masterful and effortless.
Joshua asks this question: Kashmiris live in the North but don’t speak Hindi clearly, so are they North Indians?
My niece, who has a Punjabi mother and a Tamilian father, has similar traits to Andrea Kevichusa. She is not chinki (a crude/racist way of referring to Indians from the Northeast). She is Indian!
The film created a lot of dialogue on social media about this issue. I hope this will inspire the government to bring true and lasting peace to the people of the North East.
Anek is jointly produced by Bhushan Kumar’s T-Series and Benaras Mediaworks, and streams on Netflix.