In most Bollywood films, the evil guy is a caricature—he is either a rapist or a long-haired serial killer; a cold-blooded underworld don or a psychotic lover. He has little emotional complexity and is often not given a chance of redemption. When the evil is placed in the context of geopolitical issues, he becomes a deshdrohi or a traitor to the state, as opposed to the patriot or the romantic nationalist. Many such films come to mind. I won’t go there now, you must be having your own list.
A mishit: Kabir Khan’s New York fails to deliver what the director wanted.
When I met Kabir Khan, the director of New York a fortnight ago, two things he said made me look forward to it. Khan said he has consciously stayed away from stereotypes; that he has tried to project terrorism not as an evil, but as an offshoot of evil triggered by circumstances. He also said that he wanted the 11 September attacks to simply be a backdrop for an intimate human drama.
After watching the film, I am convinced he failed on both counts.
Khan earlier made Kabul Express, a documentary style film in which too, 9/11 was a backdrop. He has lived in Afghanistan and experienced US bombings on Afghanistan closely and dangerously. In look New York doesn’t have the raw edge of documentary films that Kabul Express had. New York has the technical finesse of a good Hollywood film. It also doesn’t have Arshad Warsi, an actor who added to the film’s merit. Here, the star cast—John Abraham, an extremely poor actor; Katrina Kaif, who has no acting calibre either; and Neil Nitin Mukesh, who has a raw intensity in appearance, but as in his first film Johnny Gaddar, he is still very awkward in dialogue delivery.
The film begins like a political thriller: FBI officer Roshan (Irrfan Khan) arrests Omar (Neil Nitin Mukesh), a young man from his Philadelphia home on the ground that he possesses guns. The taxi in which Omar travelled and which is parked outside his house indeed has some guns. He is interrogated about the guns and asked if he knows a man named Samir Sheikh. From this point, the film moves back and forth, between the past and the present.
Samir or Sam (John Abraham) and Maya (Katrina Kaif) were Omar’s best friends in New York State University. Omar, a Delhi boy, arrived on campus wearing a blue striped shirt neatly tucked into dark-coloured pants. Maya, his student counsellor, befriended him and introduced him to Sam, the campus dude—the arrogant charmer who excels in everything. Maya is the college sweetheart who is secretly in love with Sam. As the friendship grows—only, strangely, on campus, or in Times Square or in Central Park or in the upper West side, because we never get to know who they really are; we never see them at home—Omar falls in love with Maya. The day after Omar discovers that Maya and Sam are in love—the simple Delhi boy is of course, devastated—the World Trade Center falls. They part ways.
Back to the present: Omar is detained by the FBI because Sam now operates a terrorist outfit and they need Omar’s help to get to him. The guns in the taxi, was a set-up to detain him. The FBI asks Omar to get close to Sam and Maya, who are now married, with a child, and help them nab Sam and his gang. Omar is still naïve and idealistic—he refuses to believe that Sam is a terrorist and agrees to do the job for FBI if he lets them prove that Sam is innocent.
The reality is different. Sam is a different man after he was illegally detained up by the FBI and tortured in a cell for nine months after 9/11.
Can Omar eventually prove Sam’s innocence?
Thematically, this is a first in Bollywood. Through this momentous, catastrophic event, Khan raises all the sensitive—and relevant—issues about Muslim identity in a world that equates Islam with religious fundamentalism. After 26/11, the subject perhaps has more resonance with Indian audiences. Kudos to Yash Raj Films for endorsing this subject.
Some scenes have the emotional punch that such a serious theme deserves. One scene got me—I was a student in New York in September 2001, and I remember huddling with my classmates in my university lounge and watching the horrific spectacle. Some of American classmates were in shock, and in tears while I reacted as someone who was familiar with public acts of terror. In that moment, I was the outsider. Omar watched at a distance, with some surprise, but Sam and Maya, both Americans, hugged, as Maya cried.
The scenes of Sam’s detention and torture—stripped naked and locked up in a dark, cold cell, hung from the ceiling, choked by pouring water—are powerful, and reminiscent of the Hollywood film Rendtion (2007), directed by Gavin Hood. John shows a spark or two of acting acumen in these scenes. As for the other actors, Katrina looks beautiful and fumbles her way through tense, emotional scenes with her stilted Hindi, Neil’s histrionics are often uncontrolled and without any layers and Irrfan, as usual, is effortless in his role.
Roshan, a Muslim in FBI, is a kind of lip service to the greatness of America. In fact, Roshan harps on what’s good about America: In the end he says this is only country in the world where a Muslim terrorist’s son can be allowed to grow up freely, with the same opportunities that an American has. In the Barack Obama era, we take such statements for granted.
Even with the best of intention, Khan falters in many fronts. While trying to paint the big picture, he misses out on the authenticity of small details. Why would an FBI officer meet his boss or his agent in an open bar and talk loudly about a secret mission? At the cost of portraying the good Muslim, he makes a joke out of the FBI.
So in the end, the film is neither without stereotypes nor is it largely a human drama because the characters are so sketchily etched. Khan’s only achievement is this: He dramatizes a well documented fact that needs to be reiterated again and again by writers, artists and film-makers—that 1,200 Americans were randomly picked up by the US government after 9/11 and ruthlessly tortured to an unimaginable extent just because they happened to be Muslim. Yes, Mr Khan, we must never forget that.
New York released in theatres today.