A prism on terrorism

Sep 09, 2011, 08:28 IST | Subhash K Jha

This Sunday, the US commemorates the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. A look at how the movie industry fed off the attacks that changed the world

This Sunday, the US commemorates the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. A look at how the movie industry fed off the attacks that changed the world

Every historic catastrophe, man made or otherwise, spawns its own cult of creative art.

The 9/11 terror attack was no exception. Bollywood and Hollywood latched on to the dramatic potential of the terror deluge.

There were notable films like Rensil d'Silva's Kurbaan (flop), Kabir Khan's New York (hit) and Neeraj Pandey's A Wednesday (hit).

Rensil began shooting his treatise on Islamic terrorism before 9/11. How far did the terror attack change Rensil's film? At that time he had said to me, "I'm shooting the film exactly the way I wrote it initially.

What has happened doesn't alter the world view on terrorism. It only strengthens it. I had been warned that as far as films on terrorism are concerned, we had hit a saturation point. But I believe every filmmaker has his own take on terrorism. Unfortunately the alignment of terrorism with Islam remains unchanged."

That's where Rensil sees a problem. "People objected to some of my film's ideas and my characters' ideology. But we can't turn away from the truth. At least I can't. My film was not grim. It was about a serious global issue. But it wasn't a documentary on terrorism. It was designed as a fast-paced thriller," said Rensil.

Kabir Khan whose film on terrorism, called New York was a success says,  "I've been fortunate that my documentaries have allowed me to travel to 60 countries. I've seen first-hand what the state of the world is. I think more of our mainstream cinema needs to get the geo-politics in place.
Where do these characters in our films come from, and where are they going?  I need to make  cinema about what's happening to our world. Unfortunately, films on terrorism in our country are often high-pitched and jingoistic. And that's counter-productive.

Shah Rukh Khan in My Name Is Khan. The film's release was
controversial as Shah Rukh had backed Pak players playing
in the Indian Premier League (IPL) prior to the release

My film, I'd like to believe, was a very balanced view on terrorism post 9/11. I don't think 26/11 changed my perception on terrorism or on my film. Though the attacks on the Taj and Oberoi were the most audacious in Mumbai, what about the foiled attack on our parliament?

And more people died in the train explosions of Mumbai. At the end of the day what do terrorists want? A splash. I'd say a film on terrorism would be exploitative if a filmmaker made a bad film on terrorism. I am aware that some 36 titles were registered for films on 26/11. No harm in that as long as they are sincere."


Kabir Khan agrees 9/11 became a kind of cinematic formula. "It definitely became a formula in Hollywood, yes. Though there were no real 9/11 films in Bollywood. Only a lot of 26/11 films." Nishikant Kamat agrees that films on the theme of global terrorism somewhere lost its cause and sensitivity.
Rensil disagrees, "I don't think films after 9/11 were formulistic. I think films on subjects like 9/11 are rarely made in an industry concerned mostly with delivering entertainment, which is where the formula exists. The majority of the films on 9/11 were delicately handled."

Three films and three different perspectives on the same theme. 2008 Kunal Shivdasani's Hijack, Neeraj Pandey's A Wednesday and Santosh Sivan's Tahaan, were based on identical themes.

But, all three dealt with different facets of terrorism, and had a slick spin to offer. Of course the spin got more sick than slick in Hijack, a tacky take on Hollywood terrorists with Shiney Ahuja playing the larger-than-life, pilot-turned-ground-engineer who sneaks into a hijacked plane and rescues the hapless passengers.

Film Kurbaan starring Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor

Neeraj Pandey's, A Wednesday was very American in format and style of storytelling, while Santosh Sivan's Tahaan was more Iranian in tone and texture.

One aspect of Hindi cinema's tryst with terrorism that invites attention is the sheer volume of, "action" that underlines the drama. Characters somersault nimbly into the horizon to beat the baddies. And you wonder if terrorists are the latest villains in masala kingdom after smugglers, rapists and politicians.

Let's not get carried away. No need to reduce terrorism to a formula specially when the films on the theme are not doing well. What we get finally in these films is a fine gallery of performances. The main reason why these films on terrorism don't appeal to as wide audiences as they should is their masculine vision.
None of these films has room for fleshed-out women characters. Hijack somehow squeezed in Esha Deol and Kaveri Jha , both of whom came and went in a rustle of delicacy during times of explosive exuberance. Said Nishikant Kamath, "I see these films as a sign of these troubled times. Cinema is meant to reflect contemporary reality.
All these films on terrorism coming together was just a bizarre not a bazaar coincidence. My idea behind making Mumbai Meri Jaan was to show how people survive a personal tragedy.

I was more interested in the characters than the tragedy of the train blasts. I recreated the blasts rather than using news footage. It took me 15 days to shoot the blast scenes.

A Still from the movie Fanaa

I did a lot of technical research about the locations and timings of the blast. Beyond that, everything in Mumbai Meri Jaan was fictional. Even though the characters are made up, I'm sure a lot of people went through the same emotions after the blasts.

I lived with my characters for two years. They drained me emotionally. I came very close to the 1993 Mumbai blasts. I passed close by to where one of the blasts occurred.

That traumatised me and I  poured my heart out into Madhavan's character. He expressed the fears that I felt.  I feel any act of extremism in a city causes the anthill effect. A stone hits the anthill, the ants are traumatised. But they immediately get to rebuilding their anthill."

Neeraj Pandey who directed, A Wednesday, says when we talk of the resilience of the Mumbaiites after every attack, we're only looking for another word for acceptance out of compulsion.

Tanuja Chandra, who made the delicate sensitive but little-seen film about a Sikh family in the US after 9/11 called Hope & A Little Sugar says, "What prompted me to make this film?

The idea that something that happens thousands of miles away can come from the same emotions that we in India have experienced, then the impossible yet possible idea that even after such deep-rooted hatred, forgiveness is possible.

That human beings do have the capacity to love one another. The subject of 9/11 is a deeply complex issue and movies necessarily need to take sides in order to be effective. That makes this a difficult subject to tackle. More than being formulistic stories about 9/11 have over the years caused a kind of emotional fatigue in people because its images are among the most visible in recent history.

The film Tere Bin Laden came years after 9/11

And yet I think we've barely begun to understand the kind of  seismic effect it has had on the world. The only way to touch upon the issue in any significant manner is to make movies with some complexity and that doesn't always work with audiences."

Explains the prolific filmmaker Ananth Mahadevan, "Any big incident evokes a cinematic reaction, and 9/11 was most tempting. But Hollywood films that followed like United  93 only dealt with a portion of the catastrophe. Unlike films on the Vietnam war, 9/11 has not been dealt with in depth in the movies.
Loose Change was a stunning documentary that implicated the White House in the tragedy... In India Naseeruddin Shah's Yun Hota To Kya Hota was a sensitive film that climaxed at the Twin Towers.

Abhishek Sharma who gave a hilariously satirical spin to 9/11 in Tere Bin Laden thinks such films acquired their own legitimacy. "It became a genre of its own specially in the George Bush era.
In fact Hollywood used it as a western propaganda tool rather than as tool of creative expression. Indian films on the theme of global terrorism have been much more balanced and unbiased. 

Think it was the follow up on 9/11 by the Bush administration that angered me and propelled me to make Tere Bin Laden  a satirical film based on issues such as Islamophobia, the American dream, and war on terror.

No doubt that 9/11 was a terrible act of violence and it impacted all of us, but somewhere all of this is a result of a reckless American foreign policy that has divided the world. Even a large chunk of Americans believe so, as reported by the papers recently."

List of Films
My Name Is Khan (MNIK): Directed by Karan Johar the plot revolves around Rizwan Khan (played by Shah Rukh Khan) who suffers from Asperger's Syndrome, a developmental disorder.

After his mother's (Zarina Wahab) death, his US-based brother (Jimmy Shergill) brings him to San Francisco where Rizwan starts working as a salesman. Rizwan meets Mandira (Kajol) and they get married. Mandira is a single mother. Post 9/11, Mandira and Rizwan's life changes.

New York: A film starring John Abraham, Katrina Kaif and Neil Nitin Mukesh is the story of three friends Sameer (John), Maya (Katrina) and Omar (Neil) living in America.

Omar falls in love with Maya but when he learns that she loves Sameer, he moves away from their world. Omar returns later, at the insistence of FBI officer Roshan (Irrfan Khan), who suspects that Sameer is the head of a sleeper cell that is planning an attack in the US.

In the process, Omar learns that 10 days after 9/11, Sameer was arrested and detained for a period of nine months as a suspected terrorist; a charge, which was proved incorrect. Though Sameer was released due to lack of evidence, the incident changed him forever.

Fanaa: A film starring Aamir Khan and Kajol, is the story of Zooni Ali Beg (Kajol) and Rehan Khan (Aamir). Zooni, a blind Kashmiri girl and Rehan, tourist guide in Delhi fall in love. Zooni undergoes surgery to reverse her blindness. She is told that Rehan had died in an accident. Seven years later, some terrorists are about to pull off a huge terrorist attack. 

With parts stolen from India, Pakistan and Russia, they hope to build a nuclear explosive device. But, the detonator or an electronic trigger is missing. Rehan infiltrates an Indian army unit that is taking the trigger back to Delhi to safeguard it from the insurgents. Zooni finds out what Rehan is upto and shoots him.

Tere Bin Laden is a Bollywood satire film starring Pakistani pop singer Ali Zafar in the lead role. Ali (played by Ali Zafar) is a reporter, who wants to migrate to the US. After many failed attempts to migrate to the US, Ali makes a fake Osama bin Laden video using a look-alike, and sells it to TV channels. The film is a spoof on Osama Bin Laden and a comic satire on America's war against terror.

Kurbaan: Starring Kareena Kapoor and Saif Ali Khan, is a film set against the backdrop of global terrorism. Avantika (Kareena) and Ehsaan (Saif) fall in love and decide to move to the US. Avantika stumbles upon information that puts her life in danger. Ehsaan's identity too undergoes a drastic change. Kurbaan deals with Islamic fundamentalism post 9/11.

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