Recent headlines about so-called “honor killings”—where romantic dalliances or secret marriages of couples from different ethnic or communal lineages are met with vengeful retribution from relatives or clan members—have revived an ugly specter from India’s complicated caste-based legacy that most Indians would like to leave behind. Weaving this powerful theme into a tight modern thriller would appear foreboding. With Aakrosh, however, Priyadarshan, who is better known in Bollywood for comedies (Khatta Meetha, Malamaal Weekly), finds surprising success by injecting neo-realistic feudalism into a contemporary mythology.
Set in the gritty backwoods of Bihar, two CBI (the Indian equivalent of the FBI) agents are commissioned to investigate the mysterious disappearance of three well-connected medical students from New Delhi. The fact that both Pratap Kumar (Devgn) and Siddhant Chaturvedi (Khanna) have taken divergent paths to law enforcement careers adds nuanced gravitas to their mission. To unravel the mystery, the sometimes-at-odds twosome land into veritable nest of vipers made up of corrupt officials and a wall of silence amongst local villagers who have been paralyzed into a zombie-like existence by their ruthless overlords.
Robin Bhatt’s screenplay captures unusually sharp-etched characters. In addition to the constant head-butting between Kumar and Chaturvedi, there is a treasure trove of hinterland fauna they must confront as either friend or foe. The arch-deacon of the village thugs is the aptly-named Ajatshatru Singh (Rawal), who also heads up the local constabulary, a vicious bigot and abusive husband to the beautifully simple Geeta (Basu). There is also a brutalized widow (Sen) whose cries for help fall on deaf ears at the police station—until Kumar and Chaturvedi intervene.
While Aakrosh packs a one-two punch of resolute story-telling and focused characterization, the entire shebang is weakened considerably by an un-accredited resemblance to the 1988 Hollywood civil rights-era crime thrillerMississippi Burning. The hooded KKK killers bearing burning crosses fromMississippi Burning are transformed here into hooded marauders who carry burning tridents, a weapon appointed with special powers in Hindu scriptures.
The other thematic outline Aakrosh follows—and this works to Priyadarshan’s favor—is the resemblance to the Hindi classic Sholay. Think of two strong-willed hired guns that arrive by train and land in Podunk to rid the hamlet of seedy vermin who have terrorized the locals into submission with untold atrocities. Also think of a would-be widow who shares an unspoken—and possibly unrequited—affinity with one of the hired guns. The Sholay afterglow may just resonate more soundly.
Ultimately, the unoriginal premise is countered by great technical filmmaking. Satisfactorily edited by Arun Kumar and gorgeously staged with Sabu Cyril’s production design, Aakrosh is a worthy top tier validation of a very real contemporary quagmire facing modernization attempts in India. Don’t miss this highlight of the Diwali season.
Globe trekker, photographer, and film buff Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.