SHADOW ASSASSINS (2022)

A still from the film
  • Release Date: 09/12/2022
  • Cast: Anurag Sinha, Mishti Chakraborthy, Hemant Kher, Rakesh Chaturvedi Om, Stuti Choudhury
  • Director: Nilaanjan Reeta Datta

The story of a man’s metamorphosis in the backdrop of Assam’s “secret killings” is an intriguing watch

— Ambar Chatterjee

A film like Shadow Assassins is particularly difficult to review because it gets almost an equal number of things right and wrong at the same time. It isn’t every day that you see a film about Assam, made in Hindi with an eclectic mix of actors from different parts of the country, make its way into theaters nationally. It isn’t every day that a spine-chilling true story from Assam like that of the “secret killings” is approached and presented for the entire country to see and understand the incredibly difficult time that this beautiful haven of peace, love, and tranquility once went through. It isn’t every day that a film about Assam is made in a way that feels authentic and very Axomia. So, I was hooked on this film from the get-go. 

The story: –

The story of Shadow Assassins revolves around Nirbhay Kalita (Anurag Sinha) who is studying in Pune and comes back to Assam to spend time with his family. He is full of life and is madly in love with Rimli (Mishti Chakraborthy). Nirbhay has a large family that includes a loving mother, a caring sister, and a doting elder brother. He lands in a horrifying ordeal when he is kidnapped by some masked men who try to learn the whereabouts of his “other” brother, Mridul Kalita from him. Mridul had abandoned his family, joined the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), and was now hunted by the police and the Surrendered United Liberation Front of Assam (SULFA) alike. Nirbhay somehow escapes from his kidnappers and is quickly sent back to Pune by his elder brother. Sadly, something horrific happens to his family that forces him to come back to Assam. Soon his life spirals into such an abyss that devours not only his dreams and aspirations but also his humanity.  

Engrossing narrative and interesting use of elements from the true stories in the screenplay:-

The true stories that form the backbone of the film are so heart-breaking and have so much shock value that it is not surprising that the fictional story built using numerous elements of these stories was equally engrossing. Nilaanjan Reeta Datta doesn’t try to do too many things with different characters and subplots. His story is about Nirbhay and his ordeal. This helps the audiences to concentrate on a single character and experience the different aspects of the tragedy of countless people who had to endure similar ordeals and understand the quantum of misery that they must have gone through. In Nirbhay, Datta creates a protagonist who has nothing to do with the ULFA and doesn’t even believe in their ideology. To see such a romantic and fun-loving man gradually sink into a black hole from which he can’t escape was not only intriguing but also heart-breaking. From a storytelling perspective, Datta was able to create enough reasons for the character of Nirbhay to do what he was shown doing. The rest was for Datta to extract in terms of performances from his actors. This is where the problems started for me in the film.

Lack of a sense of urgency in the performances and proceedings:- 

No one can discredit the performances of the ensemble cast. There will also be people who would sight these performances as subtle and pitch-perfect. What I am about to say is nothing but a personal opinion of how I would have liked for the performances of the actors to go as the story progressed and the stakes piled on the respective characters. I would have liked for the protagonist to have been a lot more responsive and expressive to the mammoth tragedy that befalls him. I felt continually that Anurag Sinha was underplaying his character and that created a disconnect for me with the character. 

Anurag Sinha as Nirbhay Kalita

This was also my complaint with most of the other characters except Hemant Kher (who plays Nirbhay’s brother) whose constant pleading with an inspector to go after his kidnapped brother earlier in the film hit the perfect balance between subtlety and urgency for me. Even the scene where Nirbhay is kidnapped was underplayed by some of the actors who should have gone berserk witnessing their family member getting picked up for nothing. Knowing full well what was happening in the state during that period, they should have been petrified. Sadly, that is not the case. 

The director fails to utilize a critical scene where Anurag Sinha should have gone ballistic with his expression of tragedy. This was supposed to be the moment that turned a romantic young man into a marauding monster. Sadly, Datta lets it pass by without creating any ripples. The same can be said about the majority of the film that follows this.

Edits and time jumps that felt uneven and came as jolts: –

This is again a very subjective issue. You may call this nit-picking. The director may even sight this as his creative choice. There might be many who might not be bothered at all by this issue but for me, some of the time jumps and movements from one sequence to another felt very jerky. In a film of this nature, it marred the believability of the proceedings and took me out of the experience momentarily. The film would have been better served if the director polished off these rough edges. The audiences may not need spoon-feeding but sequences transitioning organically from one point to another contributes a lot to ensure the story flows without any hiccups. That’s how our brains are programmed to absorb.

Use of Hindi Language in an Axomia story and setting: –

This was one aspect of the film that I was very apprehensive about. Thankfully, the language wasn’t that big of a problem for me. This is again an issue that will be restricted only to the people of Assam who know how the people and the places that we visit throughout the film sound like. It will never be an issue for the people outside the state. Strangely, the Hindi dialogues are dipped in the local language aesthetics and mother tongue influences. This, I thought, was unnecessary as it only cemented the fact that this was not the native tongue of the characters. Instead, if the characters spoke clear and clean Hindi, the suspension of disbelief would have been quicker and easier. 

Empty theatres will kill Assamese films: –

An empty Matrix Cinema, Beltola where I watched the film with just 4 other people

I watched Shadow Assassins in a practically empty theatre. This brings me to the point that I have raised numerous times before. We have to support our regional cinema and our own stories. If a film like this fails at the box office, it will deter many others from making films on similar subjects or on Assam as a whole. There is an overwhelming desire in masses of this state to consume mindless and exaggerated crowd pleasers but ignore serious and artistically made films like Shadow Assassins. This must change as diversity in content and its acceptance by the masses will alone ensure the survival of the industry. 

Why should we still watch Shadow Assassins: – 

All said and done, Shadow Assassins is still an intriguing, heartfelt, and well-made film that sheds light on an issue that is as big as the exodus of the Hindus from Kashmir and has been similarly brushed under the rugs. The film remains rooted in realism and understands the importance of telling a story with humility, understanding, and care keeping in mind the people who were at the receiving end of unimaginable atrocities. It is one of those films that has the power to grab attention. This is very much an Assamese film in spirit and execution and serves the cause of Assamese cinema well.   

Rating: 3/5 (3 out of 5 Stars)

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