On 26 November 2008, the world saw the terrorist attacks in Mumbai unfold on television. Exactly a year later, on Thursday, Discovery channel will air a film giving us an insight into how people reacted in such a life-threatening situation.
Though Secrets of the Dead: Mumbai Massacre, directed by Victoria Pitt, opens with gory still shots from the attack, the docu-drama soon settles into a neat narrative. Sebastian D’souza, Mumbai Mirror’s photographer, reacted by clicking candid pictures of the terrorists and the scene; Amit Peshave, Taj’s restaurant manager, first tried to escape but then decided that protecting his guests was more important. For couples such as the Markells, Muezzinoglus and Pollacks, shielding their partners was the priority.
Michael and Anjali Pollack after being rescued by National Security Guard commandos
The highlights of Mumbai Massacre, which will air in India under the title Surviving Mumbai, are the stories of the Muezzinoglus and the Pollacks. The Muezzinoglus—Seyfi and Meltem—who were taken hostage had to witness two gruesome executions and were spared death only because they managed to convince the terrorists that they were Muslims too. The Pollacks—Anjali, an Indian and Michael, an American—on the other hand, were adamant that the other survive to take care of their children. Both survived.
The docu-drama, shot in an impressionistic style, ends with how each of the 10 survivors has changed. The film’s executive producer Jared Lipworth tells us more about the docu-drama. Edited excerpts from an interview:
Why did you choose to make the film about personal struggles rather than the usual documentary style of fact-finding?
Seyfi and Meltem Muezzinoglu photographed by the media
We knew there were going to be many other films covering the attacks and didn’t feel pressure to make the definitive piece. We felt that our angle—personal stories from the perspective of people who were caught in the long-term siege portion of the attacks, plus a look at how consumer technologies transformed the way both the victims and the terrorists reacted during the crisis—was a powerful and unique one. That approach also made sense for us within Secrets of the Dead, since the series aims to shed new light on iconic moments from history. This film definitely does that.
The most beautiful aspect of the film was the relationship between the two couples—the Pollacks and the Muezzinoglus. Did you plan to make that the crux of the film from the beginning?
That’s part of the whole storytelling process—to get the most out of your characters and make the most out of what you get. Victoria Pitt (the director) did a phenomenal job getting these people to open up to her and once we saw what we had, it was very easy to determine that they were the heart of the story.
Why did you choose to make it impressionistic?
The Taj hotel
From the beginning, this was designed to be a film about what we didn’t see as much as what we did. Sound plays a really important role, as does the sense that the viewers are with the victims as they try to figure out what was going on and make sense of the confusion. If we had decided to go with a straight drama, we would have lost that sense of darkness and confusion. By being more impressionistic, we were able to stay more true to the vision of the film.
Your film also touches on the media coverage of the attacks. What, according to you, was good and bad about the coverage?
Well, the bad is pretty clear. The live radio interview with the minister in the chambers ended up getting people killed, and the journalists should have known better than to give that kind of information away while the attacks were still under way. I’d say the good was that within minutes of the attacks, the coverage allowed the whole world to follow what was happening. If the anti-terrorism units had been able to react and respond as quickly as the journalists, more lives might have been saved.
Terrorism has become a part of daily life. In your experience what is the one factor that is common to all places and people affected by terrorism?
A photograph clicked by Mumbai Mirror’s Sebastian D’souza
For me, it would be a sense of helplessness—of being caught up in a deadly situation that is beyond your control. As one of our participants says, you know what kind of person you are and you think you know how you would react in a situation like this, but until it actually happens, you just never know. No matter who you are or where you are, you’re going to face those same questions of helplessness if you’re put in a situation like this.
Secrets of the Dead, the series of investigative documentaries that first went on air in 2000, is now in its ninth season and Mumbai Massacre is its latest episode. Mumbai Massacre premieres on PBS (in the US) on 25 November at 8pm. In India the film is titled Surviving Mumbai and will be aired on Discovery Channel on 26 November at 8pm.