Violence and fear are ever-present in Ambush (Ghaath), Chhatrapal Ninawe’s patiently observed portrait of the ongoing civil war in the heartland of India.
Violence is quite rightly never sensationalised in Ambush (Ghaath). When it is portrayed, it is quick and brutal; rather than melodramatically, deaths are treated with a morbid silence. This respectful treatment is, aside from the fact that violence should never be entertaining, necessary because the events Ambush depicts are ongoing, with rural areas in India still being home to fighting between the government and Maoist guerrillas. In his debut feature, Chhatrapal Ninawe (Dvandva) shines a spotlight on this war with an evocative and patient eye, forming a slow-burn thriller that unsparingly highlights the psychological damage of war. There are no barnstorming battles or heroic acts here – only protracted suffering.
Ambush focusses on three characters whose paths converge in tragic fashion: Dhananjay Mandaokar (Kambal) is an undercover Maoist informant, Falgun; Jitendra Joshi (Godavari) is a weary police commissioners Nagpure, who is looking to leave the region; and Milind Shinde (Bhidu) is Raghunath, Falgun’s brother and worn-out guerrilla leader. Ninawe gives ample time crafting each character, who are unique in their own rights but all share the same disillusionment with the never-ending war. As Ambush tells these stories, itis consistently measured in its pacing. This patience works well for the most part, but on occasion the film becomes stunted narratively.
None of these three characters are wholly good, despite having some sides to them that flicker with decency. Ninawe never excuses their murderous actions, but argues that the civil war has produced, or at least contributed to, these darker traits. The cyclical nature of murder is a recurring theme; witnessing a killing seems to breed more violence, passing down through generations. In general, Ambush doesn’t give much in the way of hope. For the war it is depicting, there seems to be no end in sight.
Ninawe injects Ambush with a brutish, cruel tone throughout. Far from propulsive or action-heavy, his film is instead a highly mournful, elegiac reflection on the lives lost through this war – including the villagers. They fight for no side, but as with any war have become mere civilians caught in the crossfire. Ninawe doesn’t take a firm stance either, focussing on the foot soldiers trapped in this elongated battle. There is a dig at government policy being the cause for this conflict, although it’s left frustratingly unexplored. Enforcing these hardships is the original score by Madhur Pawal, a wind-based instrumental score with a tone of haunting sorrow.
Ninawe’s screenplay is generally well-structured, although it takes too much time for these characters in Ambush to finally converge. Falgun also has less depth to his character than the other two. When they do meet, and true to its pared back style, the climax of Ambush is executed in swift, unerring fashion. This holds the film back from a true whiplash moment to compound the terror of war, but the underlying currents of despair and death still run strong.
Ambush premiered at the Berlin Film Festival on February 18-25, 2023. Read our Berlin Film Festival reviews!