It came to me when I was watching the navy’s commandos hold their famous, televised press conference about their role in the operation to clear out the Taj Mahal hotel. Why does all this sound so familiar, I wondered. Where have I heard it before? Then, I knew: at the movies. In some way, the siege of the Taj Mahal hotel was straight out of the first Die Hard film in which terrorists take over a skyscraper. Die Hard has been imitated many times over the last decade (not least by the other Die Hard movies in the franchise!). And so, the idea of terrorists taking over a building and holding hostages has become familiar to us.
Of course, there are important differences. The most obvious one is that in real life, Bruce Willis does not come along to save us. But the other one is that in nearly all movies, the terrorists are after something. In the Die Hard films, it is usually money. Alan Rickman, playing the villain, laughs at Willis for mistaking him for a political activist. In other films of this genre (Air Force One, for instance) the terrorists want political prisoners released or territorial changes to international borders.
In that sense, the 1999 hijacking of IC814 to Kandahar followed the movie plots—till the last reel began. The terrorists seized control of the aircraft, they killed passengers, they demanded the release of their comrades who were in jail and they threatened to blow up the aircraft with all its passengers if their demands were not met.
Lifelike: Heath Ledger’s Joker has no desires, agendas or obvious weaknesses.
Of course, in the final reel, real life did not follow the movies. There should have been a last-minute rescue and a shoot-out that resulted in the death of the terrorists and the release of the hostages. Instead, we meekly gave in, released the prisoners the terrorists wanted and secured the freedom of the passengers.
For a while, during the siege of Mumbai, I waited for the terrorists to issue their demands from inside the Taj and the Oberoi (I didn’t think the ones who held the rabbi and his family would bother: The Israelis do not negotiate with terrorists). Were they going to threaten to kill hostages unless their friends were released from jail? Was there an agenda linked to Kashmir?
By the second day, when it became clear that the terrorists had no demands and no financial greed, I wondered if the Hollywood parallels still held.
That’s when I thought of Batman and the Joker. When The Dark Knight was released in the US earlier this year, many critics explained its phenomenal box-office success by saying that it was actually an allegory for America’s political predicament.
I’m usually intensely suspicious of people who try and read deep meaning into comic books and into movies featuring comic book characters so I paid no attention to the claims of topical relevance.
Also Read Vir Sanghvi’s previous lounge columns
But now, after Mumbai’s three days of terror, I am beginning to wonder if perhaps there was something to that interpretation of The Dark Knight.
Consider the plot of that film. Gotham City is gripped by a wave of terror. The motive of the criminal does not appear to be money—in one memorable scene, the Joker sets fire to a mountain of cash—and there are no demands made of the authorities. The villain causes mayhem and murder simply because he can.
Nor do the usual methods work. When the Joker is arrested, the police leave him alone in a room with Batman who beats him up to find out what his plans are. But no amount of violence—even from as powerful a figure as Batman—makes any difference. The Joker is past the stage where he cares about pain.
In that sense, the Joker is the crime fighter’s ultimate nightmare: a villain with no wants or desires, with no agendas and no obvious weaknesses. He kills because he likes it. He keeps Batman alive because he enjoys the battle.
Now, consider the situation we found ourselves in during the siege of Mumbai. We had nothing to negotiate with the terrorists. They did not care about money and they had no political demands. We could not engage them in conversation, listen to their demands and then slowly whittle them down as hostage negotiators usually do.
Nor did they take hostages in the traditional sense. Judging by eyewitness accounts, they entered the hotels and shot as many people as they could. The civilians the commandos referred to as hostages were actually human shields. The terrorists wanted to surround themselves with innocents to make it more difficult for the commandos to get at them. They had no intention of taking hostages and then releasing them when their demands were met.
They were also oblivious to the traditional pressure tactics used by the police. In such operations, you try and make terrorists fear for their lives. But how can you scare a man who has embarked on his mission fully intending to give up his life? He doesn’t care if he dies and so, is not scared of you.
And wasn’t India in some sense like Batman? Strong, powerful, admired, with many resources and yet, frustratingly unable to get to the terrorists. What could we have done? We couldn’t have threatened to bomb Pakistan in retaliation (as many Page 3 types went on TV to suggest) because that would have served no purpose. Thousands of innocent Pakistanis would have died and thousands of new terrorists would have emerged from the rubble.
So, perhaps The Dark Knight is the terrorist movie for our times. It doesn’t focus on the relatively easy stuff—heroics, commando operations, hostage negotiations, etc.—but captures the essential frustration of dealing with terrorists who have no national loyalties, no weaknesses, no greed, no desire to live and no political ambition.
They simply want to kill as many people as they can and cause as much destruction as possible. That is an end in itself.
What strange times we must live in when a Batman movie more accurately reflects the real world than any action thriller.
Write to Vir at firstname.lastname@example.org