March 1, 2013
Ram Gopal Varma
Nana Patekar, Sanjeev Jaiswal, Atul Kulkarni
It’s a good thing this film comes to theatres in the week of the Oscars. Ram Gopal Varma’s The Attacks of 26/11 arrives in our midst at a time when Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty is still top of the mind here in India. Both films have much in common: they recount for the big screen news events that are so widely known, that have been so widely covered by the press and are so fresh in public memory, that translating them for celluloid was bound to be a huge challenge. America must have wondered: what could Bigelow possibly tell us about the decade-plus-long hunt for and ultimate extermination of Osama bin Laden? And in India, a similar question arises: what can Ramu possibly tell us about the 26/11 terror strikes, the investigation that followed and Ajmal Kasab’s hanging late last year?
With those two questions end the commonalities between Zero Dark Thirty and The Attacks of 26/11. Because between the two answers there lies a chasm so wide that it almost seems blasphemous to mention both films in the same breath. ZDT gave viewers a bird's-eye view of the actual investigations that led US forces to Osama’s audacious hideout in Abottabad, Pakistan, the meticulousness of those investigations, the human errors that were inevitable in such a massive exercise and the obsessiveness of the woman who cracked the case. It put a human face to the American sleuths involved in the operation and even some of Osama’s people at the risk of antagonising the American public. It took an ideological position (that you may agree or disagree with) by showing us scenes of CIA torture that some US politicians have vehemently denied and in its final scene, with its covert comment on where the world’s most powerful country goes from here … all this without a single speech, a single lecture. It remained gripping till the end even though we all knew exactly how the operation ends: with the death of OBL. The Attacks of 26/11, on the other hand, doesn’t tell us a single thing we don’t already know – either from a factual or ideological point of view. Why, Ramu? Why?
The story is told through the words of Joint Commissioner of Police Rakesh Maria (Nana Patekar) who is relating his version of the events to an inquiry panel when the film opens. Flashback. The actual events of 26/11 unfold on screen. We see an Indian fishing vessel being waylaid at sea by a bunch of scruffy-looking young Pakistanis. The Indians are slaughtered, the terrorists land in Mumbai, coolly walk into the city without a soul to stop them and go on a firing spree at several prominent public places. Leopold Café - check. Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus train station - check. Taj Hotel at Gateway of India - check. Cama Hospital - check. Then Ajmal Aamir Kasab is caught. Then Kasab is interrogated. Then Kasab is shown the bodies of his dead fellow terrorists. Then Kasab breaks down. Then Rakesh Maria lectures Kasab about the greatness of Islam. Then Kasab is hanged. Then we see Maria’s feet in the sand. Then the film ends.
The Attacks of 26/11 has neither enough new information to be a documentary for students of history nor does it have a point of view that’s worth hearing. In fact, RGV’s film tells us nothing more than what the news media have already revealed. Even developments that were in the press – such as the hostage situation at Chabad House and the inexorable length of time the terrorists spent at the Taj – are given a miss. And the screenplay does not deliver a single human being – terror victim, cop or terrorist – in whom a viewer could invest an iota of emotion.
This is a confused film. At times it seems like Ramu is aiming at a matter-of-fact tone about the glaring inefficiencies, foolhardiness and ham-handedness in the functioning of even our well-meaning police (as when a cop carrying nothing more than a lathi leads a pack of policemen gingerly approaching a car to check whether their bullets have killed the two terrorists inside). This is where The Attacks actually works, but whenever that feeling sets in, the director proceeds to puncture the mood by raising the background score to exasperatingly high decibel levels or by getting Rakesh Maria to deliver another speech to the inquiry panel or with an obvious attempt at melodrama (like the scene in which the terrorists enter the train station and the camera insists on staring down a little girl unrelentingly before the shooting starts). And so, despite being based on what is unarguably one of the world’s most dramatic terror strikes ever, The Attacks of 26/11 is a boring film. Blood flows aplenty and there’s so much of it everywhere that at one point a police constable skids on a railway station floor when he steps in a pool of red. That is one of the few memorable shots in the film. The other comes at the Taj, when a terrorist aims his gun at a wailing baby, and the child remains off camera as it suddenly goes silent.
Newcomer Sanjeev Jaiswal plays Ajmal Kasab, the lone 26/11 terrorist to be caught alive. It’s hard to assess his performance, such as it is, since he’s given little to do in the film apart from resemble Kasab. As for Nana Patekar, he is given way too much. His verbose Rakesh Maria made me long for Kay Kay Menon who delivered a far superior performance as the same policeman in Anurag Kashyap’s remarkable docu-drama Black Friday, about the investigations into the Mumbai blasts of 1993. In fact, Ram Gopal Varma’s dull, pointless film made me long for Kashyap to sink his teeth into this very story.
Why did Ramu bother to make The Attacks of 26/11? What was he thinking when he made this film? Or is it that he was not thinking at all?
Rating (out of five): *1/2
CBFC Rating (India):
Photograph courtesy: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Attacks_of_26/11