Mayank Shekhar | Last Modified - Mar 01, 2013, 04:57 PM IST
The events of November 26, 2008, in Bombay, were overwhelming; so overwhelming that no one in the West (whose citizens were some of the main targets), nor anyone in India could have imagined that this was possible – let alone the tired souls of the city itself, who are supposedly trained by tradition to accept anything.
There were all of 10 armed men, in their early 20s, who executed coordinated attacks across 12 prominent venues of Bombay. The city was held to ransom for almost two and half days. India’s security apparatus, like the rest of the country, had no clue what had hit them. They couldn’t wrap their heads around this nightmare. Neither can the filmmakers attempting to piece together this bizarre narrative. You’re not surprised.
To be honest, the filmmakers don’t know where to start from. They sort of know where to end, which is that one of the 10 attackers got caught, and he was hanged as per Indian law. This is good for him (Him meaning the lone surviving slayer Ajmal Kasab – not the filmmaker here, of course).
The film primarily shows us four main venues of the attacks of 26/11: the Taj Mahal Hotel in Colaba and the cafe Leopold near it; the VT station, and the hospital Cama not very far from it. It’s essentially a recreation of the episode that took place in about three hours of a frightful night. We know the sequence of events. This movie could have well been a dramatic reconstruction of it in a television documentary or a news show.
These random shootouts form the full first half of the film. It gives you a sense that if anyone, anywhere – forget for a moment that they’re Pak-trained terrorists belonging to ISI backed Lashkar-e-Taiba – were to lob grenades and get trigger-happy with Kalashnikovs, on any given day, in any city, there’s nothing we can do. We would submit, die. As did hundreds of innocents on 26/11. So do as many people in this picture.
The American media – and Hollywood in particular, with films like Oliver Stone’s WTC or Paul Greengrass’ United 93 – reacted to 9/11 by never showing you the tragic event itself. Even the more recent Zero Dark Thirty didn’t have scenes of maimed bodies and the Twin Towers crumbling to the ground to justify vengeance and capture of Osama. In that culture, it would be considered seriously insensitive to open fresh wounds like that. Not in ours. Subtlety is hardly our strong point. Some of the shootout scenes in this film are chilling, not so much for their execution, but because everyone has somehow known and lived these moments in their own way. This movie would rather shamelessly mine those feelings for audience’s sake.
The night of 26/11 is what it was. It had villains, yes. It had circumstantial heroes as well. We’ve read about some of those individual sparks (none of who quite show up here). Still there was hardly someone who saved the day. And that’s a problem. A film of this type must create a hero. This story is told through Bombay’s JCP (Joint Commissioner of Police), played by Nana Patekar, who likes to act, like acting may go out of fashion pretty soon. Give Nana any role, he ‘acts’ (his audiences love this no doubt). He sits before a jury here to explain the details of what he never saw: 10 “dogs” got off a boat exactly outside the Taj hotel – no, they didn’t. And things happened – yup, they did.
Let’s leave aside the facts of 26/11 and just stick to this film. It’s hard to establish exactly what the JCP’s role in averting this tragedy is: he’s neither at the scene of crime nor does he take any decisions that prove him to be very useful. He casually interrogates Ajmal Kasab (Sanjeev Jaiswal, well-recruited) in his office chamber and quietly listens to the boy’s psycho blabber on his charming “Aaka” who sent him on the assignment for jehad with promise of a heaven where milk flows freely and virgins make love. The reason the JCP exists is to make a speech on misinterpretations of Islam and to show Kasab for who he truly is. It’s a beautifully delivered speech, wonderfully argued – no less impassioned than Naseeruddin Shah’s in the Pakistani drama Khuda Kay Liye. Maybe this is the only reason this film got made in the first place, which is such a pity.
A lesser director would have shown you a bald “Aaka” as Hindustan achieves fateh and the tricolour flies high. A much better filmmaker handling this material would’ve gone deeper in search of a victim’s story, or the terrorist’s. Or he would’ve astutely gone behind the wider conspiracy of 26/11 itself, since the events are known. God knows there’s a lot of material out there. This was a coolly planned multi-national operation.
As a wit outside my theatre put it, this film isn’t quite 'Tiranga' or 'Krantiveer'. Well, it wasn’t quite attempting to be ‘Tarantino’ or ‘Katherine Bigelow’ type picture either. It’s a Ram Gopal Varma movie that’s just better than anything he’s made lately: discussing that in greater detail would be grave disservice to the subject of this film.