Opening tomorrow at BIG Cinemas in New York (formerly called the Imaginasian Theater), Ananth Hahadevan’s Red Alert: the War Within reflects liberal opposition to the Naxalite movement. I suppose I was expecting too much from the film given the alarmist title. Indeed, “Red Alert” is the kind of title you might see attached to a 1950s anti-Communist movie, the second cousin of this Indian production. At the very least, it prompted me to read Arundhati Roy’s 25 page article Walking with the Comrades that appeared in Outlook, an Indian magazine, last March. The contrast between Roy’s reportage and the movie could not be more vivid, as I will now explain.
The main character in Red Alert is Narashima (Suniel Shetty), a penniless farmer who has joined the Maoists mainly out of economic necessity rather than ideological conviction. In exchange for his services as a cook, the “terrorists” (to use the press notes formulation) will fund his children’s education.
Things don’t start well for Narashima. In the opening scene, as he makes his way into the forest to hook up with the Maoists, he comes under attack from a squad of policemen who have trailed him. Opening fire on the cops, the Maoists kill each one, rescuing Narashima in the process who is then berated by the guerrillas for lacking caution. Indeed, throughout the entire movie the hapless Narashima receives one dressing down after another, for either not being good with weapons or for requesting permission to go home to his wife and children. Each time he is bawled out, he wears the pained expression of a grade school student being chastised by a schoolmarm.
Perhaps director Mahadevan might have been better served if he had simply made a movie based on the real-life event that inspired the movie, as related to Screen Magazine, an Indian publication:
A couple of years ago I read of a farmer in Andra Pradesh who needed money for his kids’ education. So he started a service to deliver food. On one occasion he realized that he is delivering the food to Naxalites! He was taken as a hostage by them. But eventually he managed to escape. This human story inspired me to make the film.
By turning someone that was a hostage into an unwilling fighter, he ended up with a drama that is less satisfying than what might have been possible. If the goal of the movie was to explore the psychology of a “terrorist”, it subverts that goal by making the central character so out of step with those he has joined. One imagines that the director identified so strongly with mainstream thinking in India that this would have been impossible.
Indeed, the Naxalites are best described as cardboard figures who invariably mouth “Marxist-Leninist” rhetoric about the need to be ruthless with the enemy. By contrast, the cops come across as fairly reasonable despite the inclusion of a female character who is found cowering in a police station that the guerrillas have overrun, one more rape victim of a sadistic police force. Given the close scrutiny of Indian censors, who perhaps are to blame for most of the movie’s unwillingness to give too much credence to the Maoists, it is surprising that this state-sponsored terror was allowed to be represented.
What drives the plot forward is Narashima summoning up the courage to break with the Naxalites whose role in the film is mainly to take part in one battle scene or another when they are not giving tough as nails speeches about the need to destroy their enemies. Despite my obvious reservations about Red Alert, I can at least recommend it as a useful snapshot of liberal thinking in India with respect to an obvious growing menace to capitalist law and order.
One of the minor characters in Red Alert is a journalist who comes deep into the jungle in order to get the real story on what makes the terrorists tick. An opportunity is lost for the film to convey some of the reality of the Naxalite movement. With the militants uttering the same tired rhetoric, the journalist naturally finds the pathetic Narashima much more to his liking, suggesting that the director identified with the journalist. In a story that appeared in Indo-Asian News Service, director Mahadevan reveals the source of his Maoist dialog:
“Probably for the first time in Indian cinema you will get to hear dialogues which are actually spoken lines and not fabricated. We actually did extensive research. My writer Aruna Raje and I downloaded a lot of interviews with the Maoists and cops from the internet. Every line they spoke was volatile and we ended up using those lines,” the director said.
Perhaps he would have been better served if he had put in the effort to speak face-to-face with the guerrillas as Arundhati Roy did. The opening paragraph of her article cites a typewritten note slipped under her door setting down the protocol for her rendezvous with the Maoists: “Writer should have camera, tika and coconut. Meeter will have cap, Hindi Outlook magazine and bananas. Password: Namashkar Guruji.”
The circumstances of her first encounter departed from the script:
I arrived at the Ma Danteshwari mandir well in time for my appointment (first day, first show). I had my camera, my small coconut and a powdery red tika on my forehead. I wondered if someone was watching me and having a laugh. Within minutes a young boy approached me. He had a cap and a backpack schoolbag. Chipped red nail-polish on his fingernails. No Hindi Outlook, no bananas. “Are you the one who’s going in?” he asked me. No Namashkar Guruji. I did not know what to say. He took out a soggy note from his pocket and handed it to me. It said, “Outlook nahin mila (couldn’t find Outlook).”
“And the bananas?”
“I ate them,” he said, “I got hungry.”
He really was a security threat.
His backpack said Charlie Brown—Not your ordinary blockhead. He said his name was Mangtu. I soon learned that Dandakaranya, the forest I was about to enter, was full of people who had many names and fluid identities. It was like balm to me, that idea. How lovely not to be stuck with yourself, to become someone else for a while.
Needless to say, there are no characters in “Red Alert” that come within a million miles of the reality of this young boy with his Charlie Brown backpack. It would have been an infinitely more interesting movie if both the director’s political background had been more open to it—and even more importantly—the Indian censors were not in a position to put a gag over his mouth as they sought to do with Arundhati Roy. Shortly after her article appeared, the Times of India reported:
Addressing the gathering state general secretary, Youth Congress, Hardev Singh said, “Today the problem of Naxalism has become more alarming than terrorism and Naxalites are posing a serious threat to the country. Issuing any statement in favour of Naxalities at this juncture by the writer is nothing short of treason. Moreover by criticising the policy of non-violence enunciated and propagated by Mahatma Gandhi and supporting the violent means of Naxalities, the writer [Roy] has justified wring means to achieve good or bad ends for the young generation. If the government fails to put a check over such persons it is going to prove disastrous in future.”
My advice is to read her article since it is obvious that the Naxalite movement is growing as this article from Countercurrents, a left-oriented Indian website would indicate:
Ms Arundhati Roy’s piece has been subjected to unfair censorious remarks by her critics. It had been alleged that she “has conjured up another bad dream in tribal India and perhaps unwittingly is working overtime with other misguided ideologues to make it come true”. But these flag bearers of the establishment missed the essence of the Indian Constitution which provides for a pluralistic society where a hundred ideological flowers can bloom and co-exist. As to his wrongful thinking that Maoism would fade out, as had happened to many such insurrectionary movements in the past, one may perhaps speculate that it might not because hard facts give contra-indications. Naxalism started in April 1967 in one State (West Bengal), in one district (Darjeeling) and in one police station area (Naxalbari–from which it derives its name). Forty two years later, according to the statement of the Union Home Minister in November, 2009, it had spread to 23 States, 250 districts and over 2000 police station areas. Thus spatially the movement had spread over 2000 times. A guess estimate suggests that during this period combined police budget of the Centre and States had gone up by 600 times (firm figures are not available in one place). Perhaps a statistician could find out whether there was any significant co-relation between increase of police budget and spread of Naxalism. Naxalism seems to be a hardy plant in a sturdy soil. So far it has shown no sign of wilting or waning.
I want to conclude by highlighting a section of Roy’s article that might provide some insights into the nature of the conflict, which in many respects has more to do with the Brazilian rainforest than Mao’s China. Or for that matter, James Cameron’s “Avatar”, for interestingly enough the social base of the Naxalites are forest dwellers outside of the capitalist economy who are threatened precisely by the large-scale capitalist mining and agriculture operations mounted in the name of “progress”.
As indigenous peoples, the Indian adivasi are the nation’s aborigines. Unlike Brazil, where there is a racial difference between the white settlers and the Yanomami, this is not the case in India. Unlike Africa and Latin America, the internal onslaught against the indigenous peoples was mounted by the Indian majority not British or Spanish colonists. In this sense, the conflict is much more like the one that took place between Colonel Custer and Sitting Bull than the classic colonial conflict. Of course, internal colonization can be just as deadly and cruel in the pursuit of profit as the more conventional kind introduced from beyond the borders.
Finally, a word on the political ramifications of the Naxalite struggle. Despite my sympathy for the movement, increased considerably by Roy’s superlative reportage, I can only wonder if it is facing the same problems that peasant-based movements in Latin America have faced when they fail to offer a solution for the urban population. In Peru, a powerful Maoist movement known as the Shining Path failed to take power because of its indifference—if not open hostility—to traditional urban sectors such as the trade union movement. In Colombia, a non-Maoist but “surrounding the city by the countryside” movement known as the FARC has failed to become much more than an armed force in defense of poor peasants and coca growers specifically. While one can never gainsay the importance of an armed force standing up for the rights of the most degraded and despised elements of society, there is still the question of what future the movement has in light of a somewhat narrow political focus.
Arundhati Roy wrote at the beginning of her article:
The antagonists in the forest are disparate and unequal in almost every way. On one side is a massive paramilitary force armed with the money, the firepower, the media, and the hubris of an emerging Superpower. On the other, ordinary villagers armed with traditional weapons, backed by a superbly organised, hugely motivated Maoist guerrilla fighting force with an extraordinary and violent history of armed rebellion. The Maoists and the paramilitary are old adversaries and have fought older avatars of each other several times before: Telangana in the ’50s; West Bengal, Bihar, Srikakulam in Andhra Pradesh in the late ’60s and ’70s; and then again in Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and Maharashtra from the ’80s all the way through to the present. They are familiar with each other’s tactics, and have studied each other’s combat manuals closely. Each time, it seemed as though the Maoists (or their previous avatars) had been not just defeated, but literally, physically exterminated. Each time, they have re-emerged, more organised, more determined and more influential than ever. Today once again the insurrection has spread through the mineral-rich forests of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa and West Bengal—homeland to millions of India’s tribal people, dreamland to the corporate world.
One can only hope that somehow the left in India will become united so that the indigenous peoples, the factory workers, the student rebels—all those who feel cheated by the neoliberal “miracle” gushed over by the Thomas Friedmans of the world—will prevail. Long live the spread of the insurrection! Down with the corporate world!