It stays with you long after the end credits have rolled.
Shashi Tharoor once called India "a highly developed country in an advanced state of decay". And when the contradictions — of society, economy, class and politics — catch up with its citizens, their ordered lives can be turned upside down. It's this India of violent opposites that Goutam Ghose captures in Shunyo Awnko, or Act Zero.
The story is both contemporary and eternal — tracing in a fluid arc the lives of characters at the crossroads of India's tryst with development. So is this our 21st century destiny? There are no easy answers, not for Agni Bose (Priyanshu). His journey in the film holds up a mirror to our fractured identities. There's an Agni in many of us: young and ambititous, but with a conscience.
A high-flying executive with a mining company, Agni is handed the job of negotiating with the tribal population that needs to be shifted for a bauxite mining project (the similarities with a mining giant's troubled project in Orissa's Niyamgiri hills is too obvious to be missed). He travels there, leaving behind his bored wife Jhilik (Priyanka), a former airhostess, to fill up her time with shopping binges. In the tribal heartland, Agni meets Raka (Konkona), the fiesty reporter who's given up Page 3 to report from the backward tribal areas. As their friendship blossoms, Raka's worldview challenges Agni's beliefs and the very basis of his city-bred, cushioned existence.
A word here about Konkona. It's old news that she's a versatile actress. But the way she holds her own in Shunyo Awnko — flirting with Agni, mingling with the villagers, facing up to the security forces — makes her the life and soul of the film. In contrast, Priyanshu is a bit of a plodding presence, mouthing his lines ably, but the nuances are missing. His blow hot-blow cold marital life with Jhilik is also a let down, as the two seem ill at ease together — and that's not always because of the way the script shows their relationship.
Bastar, Palamu, Jangalmahal... the way the Reds fight the security forces, leading up to the climax, is chillingly familiar. But here, Ghose's craft is brilliant: there's no bloodshed; the jawans' attack on tribal villages and their way life is counterpointed against a vigorous tribal dance. Their native innocence, like their folk art, is in danger. But there is no help at hand — from the state, or from the company looking to usurp their land.
If there is one gripe, it is the way Ghose has thought of Soumitra Chatterjee's character. He is fluent as the gentleman leading a retired life with his wife (Lolita) in the hills of Manali, where he runs a homestay that Jhilik and Agni visit on a vacation. The elderly couple nurse a hidden sorrow: their son, a journalist, was killed by security forces in Kashmir. Soumitra's personal mission is to develop a hacking system that will disable weapon stockpiles and help in world peace. A retired gent, who quotes from Dara Shikoh and whose only demonstrated link to hacking is when he cracks Agni's password? But really!
Agni's internal journey is also the journey of our nation. How we face up to development is a question Ghose leaves open — like the nature of Raka's friendship with Agni. It stays with you long after the end credits have rolled.