Film Review: Red Alert: The War Within

Even charismatic star Suniel Shetty can't generate interest or excitement in this earnest drama of India's internal conflict with the Maoist "Naxalite" movement.

Imagine being on a customer-service call with an overseas rep for two hours, and you'll get some idea of what it's like to sit through the agonizingly dubbed Hindi film Red Alert: The War Within. Well-meaning and ambitious—it's being released worldwide in Hindi, English, and the regional Indian languages Telugu and Chhattisgarhi, with the English version dubbed by the original actors themselves—it nonetheless plays like one of those stiff historical drams that educational-film companies make for schools. Or in this case, an outsourced educational-film company.

Veteran filmmaker Aruna Raje, who reportedly based her script on a real-life incident, and actor-turned-director Ananth Narayan Mahadevan mean to show how poverty and government corruption planted the roots for the Maoist revolutionary group the Naxalites, named for the West Bengal village of Naxalbari where it originated. Neither these revolutionaries/terrorists nor the establishment's politicians or police come off well; the film is studiedly evenhanded. The hero? The hard-working common man, of course, symbolized here as dirt-poor itinerant cook Narasimha (versatile Indian leading man Suniel Shetty, who gives a sympathetically downtrodden performance without star vanity).

Narasimha has no idea that the new employers hiring him to cook at their forest campsite for a month are an egalitarian guerrilla group training with rifles and barbed-wire obstacle courses, and who routinely massacre police to steal weapons caches. Who exactly he thought he was going to be cooking for in the woods is just one of the questions the movie glosses over—which turns out to be about the only gloss in a movie far less polished and evidently much lower-budgeted than your average Bollywood film. And make no mistake—this is no Bollywood film in the usual sense. There's no singing, no dancing—it’s all killing.

The police, led by Deputy Inspector General Rathod (Gulshan Grover), are equally despicable, allowing corrupt businessmen to frame innocent young women who spurned their advances and then taking turns raping their prisoners. Once Narasimha is forced to join the Naxalites—he was an innocent bystander at a firefight, but the police won't believe that—the frightened and weary cook finds a kindred soul in Laxmi (Sameera Reddy), whom the group rescues from just such a fate. Noble workingman that he is, of course, he stays true to his wife (Bhagyashree) and their children, whom he can't get to see as the months go by. Fortunately, Narasimha strikes a sympathetic chord with intrepid reporter V.K. Raghavan (Makrand Deshpande), who might provide a way out.

Aimed at humanizing and illuminating the revolutionaries while remaining repulsed at their violence and fanaticism, the movie makes a strong case for governments and private industry not to exploit people to the point of starvation and desperate measures. You'd think this would be something we could all agree on—but real life tells us otherwise, even as the movie pounds that message in with earnestness and canned dialogue like "What matters is our cause" (finger pointing to heart).