Movie Review: The Attacks of 26/11 is bloody but asks no tough questions
The unstintingly gory recreation of the tragic deaths of 26/11 is a pity because Ram Gopal Varma was once gifted enough as a filmmaker to be able to grip us without it says Trisha Gupta.
At around 8.30pm on Wednesday, 26th November 2008, fishermen at Mumbai’s Machhimaar Colony saw ten young men with large rucksack disembark from an inflatable Zodiac speedboat. An hour later, armed with hand grenades and automatic rifles, they had created terror across the city and grabbed the attention of the whole world. By midnight, over a hundred people, including three of Mumbai’s top cops, lay dead. It would be three days before the attacks of 26/11, as they came to be called, were brought to an end.
Filmmaker Ram Gopal Varma, who infamously managed to gain access to the Taj Hotel—the most well-known site of the Mumbai attacks—a mere three days after, has now directed a film that recreates the events of that first fateful night. Varma’s terror-tourism may have been in shockingly bad taste, but as he has repeatedly said, his visit has had no role to play in the making of the film, which contains absolutely no actual footage and relies instead on the dramatic recreation of events.
Varma’s last outing, Department (2012), was shockingly adulatory in its approach to its policemen protagonists: two encounter cops thoroughly corrupted by bloodlust and power. Graphic violence, of course, has long been the director’s forte, with its gratuitousness having peaked in recent years: whether he’s making a political drama like Rakthacharitra (2010) or a sex-crime thriller like Not a Love Story (2011). It should be no surprise, then, that The Attacks of 26/11 is both gratuitously violent and completely uncritical in its depiction of the police.
In fact, Varma leaves absolutely no doubt as to where his affiliations lie: he tells the story not through the eyes of any of the hundreds of victims or survivors, but through those of the Joint Commissioner of Police (the real-life Rakesh Maria, here given a fictitous name and played by the dependably theatrical Nana Patekar). No matter that Maria was not actually witness to any of the events he is “describing” to an enraptured investigatory committee – which, conveniently, never asks a single question, allowing Patekar to hold forth in a series of magisterial monologues, interrupted only when Varma shifts to showing us people dying, at Leopold Café, Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus and the Taj Hotel. The Leopold segment offers up the bizarre frisson of reenactment, because Varma has managed to get the café’s actual owner Farhad Jehani to play himself during the shootout. This yields one memorable cinematic moment, when the havaldars outside pitch pebbles into the café to check if the terrorists are still there. But at the other sites all we get is the sight of merciless killing, with Varma either focusing on wounded bodies and crying babies or zooming in to the faces of the killers to show how much pleasure they seem to be taking in the act.
The unstintingly gory recreation of these tragic deaths seems especially a pity because Varma was once gifted enough as a filmmaker to be able to grip us without it. Even this film manages a few moments of soundless menace. The opening sequence, for instance, with the fishing boat Kuber tricked into stopping by another boat’s request for help, achieves a sinister sense of foreboding merely by showing the two boats scraping against each other, lashed by the waves. By the time the Kuber crew is tied up and its genial-looking lungi-clad captain forced, at gunpoint, to take the ten young gunmen on board his boat, we are already cringing inwardly at the knowledge of what is to come. But Varma doesn’t just show us the sight of the four dead fishermen, trussed up and lying in a row – he gives us a verbal exchange between the terrorists that is entirely of his own making: “Humne apne bakre kha liye hain, tum bhi kha lo (we have eaten up our goats, you eat yours too)”
Varma has made much of the fact that he does not intend his film to be read as an indictment of Muslims as a community, but this sort of ‘cinematic liberty’—plying the audience with references to halaal and a (beeped out) Allah-u-Akbar as they do the deed – is dangerously construable as exactly that. Varma’s rather strange way of balancing this out is to incorporate a long homily on the real message of the Koran. This might have been easier to take if it weren’t put into the mouth of our supposed hero, Patekar-Maria, and delivered to the film’s villain, Ajmal Kasab (debutante Sanjeev Jaiswal), as he cowers amid the corpses of his fellow gunmen on the filthy floor of a morgue.
It is not anyone’s case that Ajmal Kasab and his fellows be depicted as anything but the murderers of innocents. But it is not at all clear what we gain from having him depicted as some kind of caged animal, tearing off pieces of food with handcuffed hands, looking crazed and walking with the shuffling gait of some ape-man. Or indeed, what we gain from watching a trite, bloody rehearsal of the events of that terrible night that neither takes us into the lives of any of the ordinary people affected (beyond the desperate moment of their deaths), nor asks any of the difficult questions that need asking about the role played by politicians, the police and the media. The police here are uncritically feted as heroes, while the media and politicians do not even make an appearance.
In 2009, a 48 minute documentary titled Terror in Mumbai – Dispatches, co-produced by Channel 4 and HBO, and directed by Dan Reed, was released. Consisting of interviews with victims, actual CCTV videos of the terrorists at various sites, video testimony of the captured Ajmal Kasab soon after he was caught and most terrifying of all, actual audio intercepts between the terrorists and their handlers in Pakistan, Dan Reed’s thoroughly disturbing film has never been shown (or excerpted or discussed) on Indian television. Which is no surprise, perhaps, because it contains chilling and irrefutable proof, among other things, of how unregulated media coverage actually aided the terrorists and their Pakistani controllers in stretching the ordeal out further by giving them a clear sense of what steps the Indian law enforcement agencies were taking. If you want to watch a gripping film on 26/11 that shows you what actually happened and leaves you with a lasting sense of unease – instead of letting us pat ourselves on the back for sacrifice and moving patriotically on – Terror in Mumbai is available on the internet. Watch it.
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