The massive coalfields of north-eastern India have figured in as gangland battlefields in a surprising number of recent Hindi movies, including the big budget entries Gangs of Wasseypur and Gunday, and the notable documentary Coal Curse, which was co-sponsored by Greenpeace. As Asia’s energy consumption increases, India’s coal reserves will no doubt figure prominently in regional geo-politics and continue to fuel movie scripts. Even though entering into this conversation somewhat belatedly and too-smug in its B-movie framing, small-time filmmaker’s Trikha’sKoyelaanchal pulls a couple of lightweight punches to actually provide a few thought-provoking pauses.
Set in a fictitious terrain called Koyelaanchal, which loosely translates into “land of coal,” while the coal miles are nominally and legally nationalized, the infrastructure is heavily controlled by former mine-owner and current mafia honcho Saryu Bhan Singh (Khanna), an old-school warrior with an extensive reach. Bhan Singh’s hegemony over the lives and livelihoods of locals attracts the attention of a team of Indian federal investigators, led by Nisheet Kumar (Shetty). As the battle of wits and muscle gets under way, Bhan Singh must increasingly rely on his stoic, die-hard enforcer Karua (Vipinno).
While the premise—will Kumar and company be able to dislodge Bhan Singh from his comfy well-jaded criminal perch —may not be original, the story carves out some noteworthy and stark realities about this remote part of the country. The farther one gets from India’s power-centers, Delhi, for example, the weaker the reach of India’s federal authorities. This local power vacuum gives parts of India and the playing field of Koyelaanchal a distinct no-man’s land feel. It is truly a scary place where the rule of law has little hold. Trikha deserves kudos for capturing upcountry anarchy with such modest means.
Having no rules to play by, Bhan Singh makes up his own and unleashes Karua to vanquish anyone who disobeys—in this case, anyone who collaborates with investigators from Delhi—into brutal submission that is sometimes difficult to watch. Kumar learns that he can’t take his own safety or that of his wife and toddler son for granted any more. The steepest toll indeed comes from Karua doing exactly and precisely as he is told.
Veteran Khanna has come full circle in again playing antagonist roles he started with, especially in Gulzar’s Mere Apne (1971) and Raj Khosla’s Mera Gaon Mera Desh (1971). Shetty is sedate and in line with what is essentially a supporting role. As the strong-silent Karua and village prostitute Roopmati, it is newcomers Vipinno and Krishrao, respectively, who inject an unpredictable unevenness. Their fresh faces provide no clue as to where they will end up, making the outcome that much more interesting.
Trikha’s success comes not from great histrionics or script or music or special effects. Instead, it comes from depicting coal as a way of life and having that reality etched into the faces of the actual locals used as minor characters in the narrative. This authentic touch goes a long way in giving credibility to stories about underground mine fires that have gone unabated for over a hundred years. Lack of mine safety, social services or the welfare of children take back seats—if they get seats at all.
An image of a school-age boy having to wash the blood off a soccer ball following a gangland tussle so he and his buddies can resume playing kick-ball in a dusty field leaves behind a horrific snapshot of the daily grind in this hot-underfoot and yet cold world.
As far as similar gangland movies go, Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypurset an impossibly high bar which is nowhere near where Koyelaanchal is aiming. With an incongruous approach, using a veteran cast that had sell-by dates pass a while ago along with untested newcomers, however, Trikha come up with two-plus hours that are a somewhat cheesy trial-by-fire that is not entirely unsatisfying.
Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator, Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.