Reality might inspire popular Hindi cinema, but rarely in the way that events actually occurred. Perhaps that could be the reason why a brazen terrorist attack on Indian soil captured by the omnipresent 24×7 media still does not inspire filmmakers as much as it should. There is no reason why what we now know as the 26/11 terror attacks shouldn’t serve as inspiration for Bollywood. Although it has just about all the elements of a story that Bollywood would appreciate and a decade has passed since the attacks, there hasn’t been a single sensible piece of cinema which chronicles what really happened.
The celluloid journeys of wars, terror and other realities unfolding around us often take long to translate to the big screen. Sometimes, an entire generation grows up before such events become cinema – a decade in the case of Gulzar’s Maachis (1996) which explored Punjab terrorism, or nearly two and a half decades in the case of Madras Cafe (2013), which highlighted the role of Indian intelligence agencies during Operation Pawan in Sri Lanka, which was carried out in 1987.
What separates 26/11 from the rest is that a film on the events was being planned even as the attacks were underway.
The images of Ram Gopal Varma accompanying the late Vilasrao Deshmukh, the then Chief Minister of Maharashtra, on an inspection of the locations of the terror attacks a few days after the events were suggestion enough that the auteur’s mind was in motion. Varma’s The Attacks of 26/11 (2013) painstakingly recreated the events and was described ‘watchable’ at best. Varma claimed to have based the lead character, Nana Patekar, on what he learnt from the testimonials given by Mumbai’s Commissioner of Police Rakesh Maria to the Ram Pradhan Inquiry Committee, as well as Ajmal Kasab’s confession, but he refused to take any other account into focus. Through an RTI request, Vinita Kamte, the widow of slain officer Ashok Kamte, had proved that Maria had not given enough importance to the instructions of the then ATS Chief late Hemant Karkare. These instructions, given to the to the Control Room, could have potentially saved lives. Varma was accused of being more keen on salvaging Rakesh Maria’s image.
While questioning the lack of popular films depicting 26/11, one must also examine the gap in time between when an event has occurred and when a film based on it is made, especially when this gap is small because it seems to impact fictional portrayal. Oliver Stone’s take on Vietnam in his Oscar-winning Platoon (1986), Born on the Fourth of July (1989) and even Heaven and Earth (1993) riveted the audience, but the same filmmaker couldn’t manage to elicit such a response with World Trade Center (2006), a film he made on 9/11 just four years after the attacks. Unlike the events which inspired Stone’s Vietnam films, 9/11 unfolded right in front of his audiences’ eyes. Although he set his film in the shadow of the breaking news, it still failed.
Could Varma’s film convincingly take an anti-establishment stand when he may have used his familiarity with the then CM’s actor son, Ritesh Deshmukh, to get a guided tour of the Taj hotel? The ‘terror tourism’, which allowed him to view and perhaps even click reference photographs of the site, set the tone of what was to follow.
The film might have suffered as a result of poor treatment of subject matter, inaccurate detailing and sheer tackiness — such as an Ajmal Kasab who cackles every now and then — but what really matters is that it suffered most on account of intentions.
One of the possible reasons why making films based on real events in India always seems to be an uphill task is the intricacies of the bureaucracy involved. Perhaps this is the reason Bollywood produced five films on Bhagat Singh and not a single one of these even scratched the surface when it came to the revolutionary’s icy relationship with Mahatma Gandhi. This may also be the reason why Bollywood never really cared about making a thoughtful enough film on the Emergency for a long time. Keeping red tape aside, it is also getting extremely difficult to venture into the historical fiction genre, because opposition in the form of protests have become commonplace.
While filmmakers have the right to express themselves, protesters also have the freedom to oppose films, as long as this dissent is in accordance with the law of the land. But even if we were to take all aspects into consideration, films on the Indian Peace Keeping Force, the Rajiv Gandhi assassination, the liberation of Bangladesh, the Emergency and also the 26/11 attacks are acceptable only if they are based on information which is available in the public domain. In spite of this, popular films that are supposedly fictional accounts suffer due to intent to circumvent ruffling feathers. This fogs the prism through which we view contemporary social and political history, as was the case with Madras Café. Director Shoojit Sircar suggests that there was ‘conspiracy within conspiracy’ but doesn’t make this point outright.
But is the fear of protest or political arm-twisting the only reason why Bollywood fails miserably at both depicting history or interpreting it in terms of historical fiction? The manner in which JP Dutta botched up the Kargil War in L.O.C. Kargil (2003), where nearly every character was put under the spotlight at the risk of making the narrative repetitive, is a testimony to the approach Bollywood takes when it comes to real events.
For Bollywood, it is usually all or nothing. It looks at 26/11 in extremely simplistic terms; it can either be the story of an upright man or of the miscreant.
“It’s too political”, “It’s too real”, or even “You know how it ends” are the reasons most contemporary filmmakers would cite for not attempting anything meaningful or insightful on 26/11.
As a result, the brave staff of the hotels, the hostage, the heroic men and women who took on the terrorists and the victims in a collective sense, as seen in Paul Greengrass’ United 93 (2006), would be missing. The first Hollywood film to draw its narrative directly from the September 11 attacks, United 93 chronicled the events that transpired in the United Airlines Flight 93 which was hijacked. The film was praised for its precision in recounting the events even though there was a disclaimer that some imagination had to be used.
Such a film, or Zero Dark Thirty (2012) the multi-layered film where a dedicated operative (Jessica Chastain) continues the search for Osama Bin Laden over the course of two Presidential terms, or even Incredibly Loud and Extremely Close (2011), where a poignant tale is woven around a painful event would be very difficult to execute in the Hindi film industry. In the process of seeking similar stories of our own, are we to feel happy with an Emraan Hashmi calling a stray dog he found on a platform of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus ‘Kasab’ in Madhur Bhandarkar’s Dil To Bacha Hai Ji (2011)?