Somewhere in re-telling the bloodbath, torrential shower of bullets and bombs that rained down on Mumbai on 26 November, 2008 a little child sitting lost amidst a carpet of corpses in the posh hotel lobby of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel weeps on the gleaming white marble floor now reduced to a bloodied mess. We then hear another round of gunfire and then, the child's weeping ceases.
The way the soundtrack is used to denote unimaginable brutality and violence in that sequence reminded me of the massacre sequence in Ramesh Sippy's Sholay, where Gabbar Singh sadistically raises a gun, points it at a defiant child (Master Alankar) and then the soundtrack cuts to the sound of a train chugging into the railway platform.
Varma, in the finest filmmaking foray of his career since Satya and Company, offers us no comfort of cinematic licence in The Attacks Of 26/11. Not his fault, really. The unspeakably aggravated violence of the events we see unfold in front of our disbelieving eyes happened in, and to, Mumbai just five years ago. Believe it or nuts.
It could happen again. To any city. You or me. That is the terrifying reality that perpetually underlines the gripping narration, clamping the brilliant writing of Rommel Rodrigues down to a whittled numbing sense of hardcore reality where all thrill ends and the feeling of dread begins to creep upon us. We are finally left with only a profound sense of dread and fear.
Welcome to the world of terrorism. The world that we live in.
The volume of research that has gone into the recreation of the events on that fateful night when Mumbai city was under a sanguinary siege, miraculously escapes italicisation in the narration. No aspect of Varma's storytelling is exaggerated. He displays remarkable restraint even in the way the background music punctuates the relentless violence perpetrated by a handful of self-styled jehadis who crept into Mumbai through water and soaked the city in blood, making sure that the people of this rapidly moving metropolis would never sleep in peace again.
Varma steals our peace for keeps.
While the first hour of the film graphically recreates the violence that Ajmal Kasab and his gang unleashed in various strategic centres of Mumbai, where maximum impact was ensured for their mayhem, the second hour of the dread-filled drama, turns into a riveting ruminative debate between the police commissioner Rakesh Maria (Nana Patekar) and Kasab (Sanjeev Jaiswal). The energetic yet bridled equipoise created between these two polarities of the human existence so effortlessly slips into the zone of a moral debate that we end up listening to echoes of infinite resonance beyond the words that they exchange with such scathing contempt for one another's moral values.
The dialogues on the relevance and true meaning of the tenets in the Holy Quran between Patekar and Jaiswal simmer with an inner discontent, sparking off a kind of existential turmoil in the narrative and in the audience that takes the narrative way beyond the immediate context of terror and terrorism.
While Nana Patekar displays exemplary austerity over his physical and emotional expression of the anguish that every Indian feels for the humiliation of terrorism perpetrated on 26/11, Sanjeev Jaiswal, though every effective as Kasab tends to go overboard. But then we can't really expect subtlety of expression from someone who has been brainwashed by his mysterious Aaka into believing that killing innocent Indians would fetch him a ticket to paradise.
The extravagant violence is not tampered with, though the vantage points of the terror attacks are whittled down. Varma doesn't spare us the details of the demoniacal attack on Mumbai city, when a group of armed men killed men women children in luxury hotels and public places.
"Don't show any mercy to women and children," Kasab's colleague counsels before they rain bullets on innocent civilians.
The recreation of the terror attacks on Leopold Cafe, Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel and Cama Hospital are so chilling in their vivid detailing that we end up watching scenes of violence not for their cinematic element, as much their unflinching affiliation to the actual events.
Full marks to the superlative technical team. Harshad Shroff and M. Ravichandran Thevar's cinematography captures every moment of the bloodcurdling events with a documentary-like ferocity.
The graphic terror attack sequences are edited (by Sunil Wadhwani and Ajith Nair) in a pattern that replicates the suddenness of the attack. The sound design, and that includes Amar Mohile's muted but angry background score, doesn't sound designed. It seems a vocal 'ear-witness' to the carnage that unfolds in front of our shocked eyes with unsparing viciousness.
By the time the film's mordant milieu melts into a chilling climax, we are no longer watching a film. Varma takes his narrative way beyond the semantics of the cinematic language. The merger of recent history of terrorism and the more human drama that underlines the violence is achieved with a muted cry of anguish that any conscientious Indian would hear in the narrative, if he only cares to listen.
RGV compels us to watch and think. What the movie tells us is that the wounds of the night, must not be allowed to heal. Watching the horrific events in this outstanding film is an experience that defies the normal cinematic experience. This is a deviously dramatic and authentic recreation of the ghastly terror attack.
The film's end-credits roll backwards suggesting that the film imperatively took us back in time to recent history so that we don't repeat the same mistakes of a lax administration failing to cope with suicidal terror attacks. RGV ends the film with a moving rendering of "Raghupati raghav" in the background as Nana Patekar's character gazes hopefully into a peaceful ocean.
Nana holds the film together. He feels every line that he utters. His heart bleeds for each one of the 166 people who died on that night.
When he tells Kasab in a choked voice, "I have a son your age", Nana isn't faking it. His performance goes way beyond acting.
One of the best films in recent times on the wages of terrorism, and on a par with Katheryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty, The Attacks Of 26/11 is a stunning wake-up call for those of us who think Mumbai's night of terror cannot happen again.
With this one work of riveting resonance, Varma has wiped away the bitter taste of his last half-a-dozen films. Gone is the sluggardness of the 'rogue technique' that shook not just the camera, but also the core of this director's creativity in recent works.
Welcome back, Ramu.