Mr Varma, you were not making a horror film; you were making a film about real lives. Could you not have done it more sensitively, asks Vaihayasi Pande Daniel, who extensively reported for Rediff.com from the frontline when 26/11 unfolded.
I have a headache. My ears are still ringing. The nausea is just about abating.
Post-traumatic stress disorder after seeing a movie called The Attacks of 26/11.
Okay well I am exaggerating a bit…
But hell, I just learned this trick from the master of exaggeration -- moviemaker Ram Gopal Varma.
Varma’s version of 26/11 was truly more gory than even the real events that occurred in Mumbai in 2008. Blood spurting out of people’s chests like fountains. Wounded victims falling dramatically into brass pots filled with marigolds as laughing Buddhas looked on benignly. Etc etc etc. Ad nauseam.
Mr Varma, you had such a large canvas to play out this story. Could you not have done it more sensitively?
Sure 26/11 was a blood-curdling, horrific chapter in Mumbai’s history. But surely not as blood-curdling and horrific as your film?
You were not making a horror film.
You were making a film about real lives.
All of us journalists who covered this tragedy, within an hour after it unfolded, on the ground, know 26/11 and the two days that followed, were the worst days our lives and Mumbai’s history. But like all things in life, buried inside the tragedies, were tales of heroism, moments of infinite courage and times of utter sadness.
But your film did not celebrate that. It merely celebrated the blood and the gore, crowned at the end with Ajmal Kasab’s hanging and his dead feet swinging above Mumbai’s skyline.
Your film was violent, macabre, morbid, blood thirsty and stomach turning.
It was not even deeply sad.
The only hero you created was Rakesh Maria. But would the real life Maria have enjoyed that screen version of himself? Some inhuman police officer who cruelly rants and raves around a morgue throwing Kasab among the plastic-draped rotting bodies.
In the end you added your tiranga moment, as one of the members of the audience called it, and had a soulful Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram played and you asked people to stand in memory of the victims.
But did you truly honor the victims? Or the survivors? Or the heroes? They were Bloody Body One, Bloody Body Two, Bloody Body Three, Bloody Body Four… Bloody Body 166.
Where are the tales about their lives and what they went through? Of the little girl victim at CST who barely survived but courageously pulled through. Of Jillu Yadav who fought off the terrorists fearlessly with a .303 rifle. Of railway announcer Vishnu Zende who diverted many of the incoming trains to another platform to prevent passengers alighting in a hail of Kasab’s bullets. Of Sebastian D'Souza who shot that iconic, blood chilling picture of the Pakistani terrorist. Of the nurses and doctors in Cama Hospital who delivered babies even as Kasab and his accomplice were stalking the corridors beyond locked doors. Of Chef Hemant Oberoi, Karambir Kang and the entire Taj team who protected and also fed their guests and made them comfortable. Of the two little boys and their mother who died in the fire set off by the grenades at the Taj. Of the husband living in the lane near Cama Hospital who went off to phone his wife to tell her to not come home because there was trouble and was shot by the terrorist duo.
Would we not have liked to see these tales of humanity on screen? Would not that have made much more touching, memorable viewing?
Well this is meant to be a movie review, so let me get down to the basics.
Storyline: There is no question of a spoiler alert here because we all know how the story began and ended. Varma has chosen to follow only Kasab in this film, and follow his life to the end. He has also chosen to follow the events of only the first day of the attacks and at only three locations. Therefore, events at The Trident and Nariman House are missing. The film has a racy pace. Deaths unfold quicker than Kasab can say Paneer.
Let me start again. The film has a smooth, non-haphazard pace.
A lot of time is devoted, towards the end, to the long conversation Maria (Nana Patekar) has at the morgue with Kasab (Sanjeev Jaiswal). But it is gripping.
The audience, I was with, lapped up (clapping) that playing-for-the-gallery dialogue about Kasab wanting to reach heaven and houris (nymphs). But no doubt there were certainly moments of brilliance in that dialogue, even if my grasp of Urdu phrases is not top drawer. “Ek baar Quran ko theek se padha?” And statements about how the kafirs also know the Quran.
Acting: Nana Patekar, though quite over the top in places, was really very good. It is a pity he did not get a proper role in a proper film on 26/11.
Jaiswal, who portrays Kasab, is quite good. He is, of course, unfortunately a victim of the exaggerated script. But for a first timer does a handsome job.
But again a question to Varma: Do terrorists really behave like they did in your film -- walking around with evil expressions on their faces like a troupe of Draculas and emitting cruel laughs? Was there not some subtlety that could be found? All of us Mumbaikars know that Kasab was merely a brainless puppet, the son of an abjectly poor pakoda seller, dispatched by a Pakistani terrorist outfit called Lashkar-e-Tayiba. Do we get that sense in the film? Or do we feel he is the son of Satan?
Varma portrays most of the other police officers as a pack of jokers, makes a total mockery of them -- ineffectually throwing stones at the terrorists at Leopold or being over dramatic with bulging eyeballs and fits of hysterics at CST.
Photography: This was above average. There were striking shots of Maria in the morgue and memorable scenes of Mumbai. One did not appreciate the corny, predictable cuts to goddesses, Buddhas, Mahtama Gandhi, sadhus, mosques and Muslim families.
Music: Again over the top (not their fault), but not too intrusive either.
Sets: I heard beforehand that Rs 2.3 crore was spent constructing the Taj sets. I thought, to myself, that probably the original Taj must not have cost that much. But then I had a rethink and thought portraying the exterior of a magnificent building like the Taj Palace hotel would be a costly adventure. But for the Rs 2.3 crore price tag all you got in the film was shots of a plush fake interior.
And, er, that interrogation room for Kasab really needed reality contact.
Script: One did not particularly appreciate the inaccuracies in the film, since it was about real life events. There were additional victims in places and sometimes it felt like too many bodies. Cama had only two casualties and none of them was a white-coated doctor. There were no women that night in Sharan Arasa’s Skoda and Kasab was not just able to just drive off in it. He had to wrest the key from a shell-shocked Arasa.
Will Varma’s film work with Mumbai audiences? As sad as this film has made me, for simply not portraying what really happened on those terrible three days in Mumbai, I feel many a Mumbaikar will be drawn to theatres to see this movie, which is after all a story about their city. They may not leave satisfied, unless that tiranga moment catches their fancy, but come, I think they will.
My last moment of sadness: When you visited the Taj hotel that day along with the then chief minister, the late Vilasrao Deshmukh, Mr Varma, what did you see? You should have, of course, never been inside there, among bodies that were hardly cold. But again, I ask, what did you see? Just the blood?
Why did you not stop there and spend a moment in contemplation understanding the profound nature of this tragedy that befell Mumbai and this country?