As India cracks down, Maoists become stars

Forty-year insurgency 'romanticized' by books, films

MUMBAI -- They have been called India's biggest enemy, but Maoist rebels are also the unlikely subjects of a recent rash of movies and books that some say are romanticizing the rebels and their cause.

The four-decade-old Maoist insurgency and its effect on the common man are the focus of a new Bollywood film "Red Alert," which tells the story of a poor laborer who gets caught in the fight between the rebels and law-enforcement agencies.

The laborer, played by popular actor Suniel Shetty, joins the rebels first as a cook and then receives weapons training before he gets disillusioned and finds leaving them is not easy.

The film, which releases in India on Friday, features well-known actors Naseeruddin Shah, Sameera Reddy and Gulshan Grover and is based, the promotions say, on a real life story, "culled straight from today's torrid headlines."

"Every line is something that has actually been said by those involved with the struggle, whether it is police officers, villagers or Maoists themselves," director Ananth Mahadevan said.

The film does not take a stand, Mahadevan said, it only highlights the conflict facing the poor who have few choices.

"My film is neither for the cause nor against it. I am merely reporting facts as they are. This is not a black and white situation, and as even the home minister has admitted, this is a developmental problem, and my film reflects that," he said.

The Maoist movement, which Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has described as India's biggest security threat, is active in a third of the country, largely in poor, rural areas.

Thousands have been killed in the movement, which began as a peasant revolt in eastern India in 1967. The rebels say they are fighting for the rights of the poor and the disenfranchised.

Booker Prize winner Arundhati Roy has been accused of romanticizing the rebels and their cause for her impassioned 32-page essay earlier this year, which has sparked heated debate.

Recent books including Satnam's "Jangalnama: Travels in a Maoist Guerrilla Zone" and Sudeep Chakravarti's "Red Sun: Travels in a Naxalite Country" have been termed empathetic.

"We have to remember the Maoist movement started off among intellectuals and the educated middle class," said Mahadevan, referring to the initial support in West Bengal state.

"We shouldn't be surprised that there is some amount of intellectual support (now)," he said. Red Alert is not the first film to shine a spotlight on the insurgency, which has won support among millions of tribal and lower caste people who claim neglect and exploitation by the state and big corporations in some of the most mineral-rich land.

Sudhir Mishra's award-winning "Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi" ("A Thousand Desires") and Govind Nihalani's "Hazaar Chaurasi ki Maa" ("Mother of No. 1,084") are also Maoist tales.

It is natural the Maoist movement is finding space in the popular media now, said Anjali Monteiro, a professor at the Centre for Media and Cultural Studies in Mumbai, given the increased offensive by the government that activists and human rights groups have criticized as being excessive.

"It is affecting large sections of people and is in the news everyday. In fact, one would've actually expected to see more."

"Some of these portrayals tend to be simplistic -- the poor underdogs taking on the mighty state or the evil corporation. But it is still important for these narratives to enter the public discourse through popular media," she said.
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