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How would you take a police story without the usual masculine derring-do or hifalutin dialogues that appeal to lowbrow tastes?Unda, the Mammotty-starrer Malayalam movie directed by Khalid Rahman, is not a police story per se. There is no mystery involved, nor is there an investigation that keeps you on tenterhooks.

The plot is simple. A contingent of nine-member policemen from Kerala travels to Chhattisgarhas part of election duty and lands in Bastar, a Maoist-dominated region. The ill-equipped, ill-trained policemen, headed by SI Manikantan (played by Mammotty),are trapped in an inhospitable terrain, having to fend for themselves and becoming the butt of constant ridiculing and badgering by security officers there, such as the ones from the ITBF.They are unable to deal with any untoward situation, let alone a possible Maoist attack they dread the most. Without the sufficient training or ammunition, they perpetually worry about an imminent Maoist attack and fear for their lives.

Amid the bureaucratic lethargy that pushes the policemen into a state of desperation, the camera pans across the wretched tribal life. The portrayal of the diminutive Kunalchand (played by Omkar Das Manikpuri) shows, in a not-so-subtle way, how the Adivasis of Central India are caught between the crossfires of the government security forces and the Maoiststhe“greatest internal security threat to the country,” according to former PM Manmohan Singh.Kunalchand’s son is taken away by the police because he is a ‘Maoist’. Later, Kunalchandis mercilessly thrashed apparently by Maoists because he is a ‘police informer.’

Lying in his bed, Kunalchand poignantly narrates to Manikantan the agony of being an Adivasi in this part of the world: the angst of an Adivasi, of his natural habitat being appropriated and torn apart by alien forces.

When the election day arrives, the policemen wait with bated breath for the Maoists to arrive. But the much-feared and much-anticipated Maoists never make the terrifying appearance to disrupt the election process!Instead,what they encounter is an uncouth local politico and his band of goons,who barge into the tiny polling station, (which till the previous night sheltered the policemen) and indulge in bogus voting brazenly,and with impunity. Faced with resistance from the policemen, they retreat, only to return with more men armed with weapons like petrol bombs. Led by SI Manikantan, who till now remained meek and vulnerable, the police team heroically drives away the unruly goons, essentially giving the viewers goose bumps.

The film wryly shows how pervasive election rigging can be in this part of the country, amid the bogey of Maoist threat, real, perceived or puffed up. Here the underlying message is that the real threat to a functioning democracy need not be the one that the state wants you to believe.

Unda is inspired by a real-life incident during the 2014 LokSabha elections when a police team from Kerala was stranded in Chhattisgar on account of official apathy. Scriptwriter Harshad says that save for this real-life thread, the central plot of the film has been tailored to reflect the current socio-political realities of Central India, where the state has been waging a proxy war on its own people for quite some time.

The film also portrays the interplay of caste and class when a junior constable in the team is constantly ridiculed by his own colleagues for his tribal roots. Unable to bear the constant caste attacks and slursany longer, he announces,towards the end of the movie, to the rest of the members his decision to resign from the police service once he returns to Kerala.It is such a heart-rending scene,and a measure of the poignant fact that despite all the lofty platitudes about Kerala, the realities of caste and class are deep-rooted and cannot be wished away.

Anyone with a modicum of understanding of the recent happenings in Central India (of mass evictions of Adivasis from their habitats, marathon MoUs with MNCs to extract minerals, and the consequential emergence of Maoists guerrillas) can easily deduce the subtext the movie conveys. While portraying the helplessness and vulnerability of policemen on line of duty and their everyday travails and tribulations, Unda subtly shows the plight of a people failed by a system that is supposed to protect them.

(The writer is a journalist)


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