Ram Gopal Varma’s new film based on the chain of terrorist acts of 26/11 involving Ajmal Kasab and others is about breathless, dire action and shocked impotence. It is a film of overwrought drama and sweeping emotions. Some terribly high-decibel performances drum it up further. So there is nothing subtle about it.
But then, what was subtle about 26/11?
To take a surreal, unforgettably, mind-boggling event like the attacks on Mumbai on 26 November 2008, and turn it into a movie of dramatic power is, in one sense, pure exploitation and titillation. In another sense, it is a realization of the story’s limitless dramatic potential. Perhaps both these factors are at work in this film that begins as an act of remarkable ambition and ends as a wishy-washy and tacky work.
Truth be told, it was impossible to not feel the surge of fellow feeling and soaring heart rates in the audience when Varma shows Kasab and his gang shooting down human beings with their AK-47s with impunity. Five years on, it is too soon, and Varma knows it.
The immediate reaction on reliving it aside, the thin storyline lapses into banality. It begins with the killers capturing a boat of fishermen far from the Apollo Bunder shores, in the middle of a rough Arabian Sea, and ends with Kasab’s hanging. Half an hour into the film, I began twitching with embarrassment at having to watch it.
The conclusions of Varma’s research favour the police chief, the film’s hero. He is a philosopher, not the frustrated leader of the force we know was so utterly helpless when the mayhem erupted. Played cloyingly by Nana Patekar, he sermonizes Kasab on the greatness of Islam and the Quran—a long, peppy session in front of the equally mawkishly performed Kasab (Sanjeev Jaiswal)—inside a morgue. Through the film, Patekar drones. The last scene has a Deepak Chopra flourish, of Patekar’s character looking at the sea at dusk, set to an instrumental piece of Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram.
The order of the horrific events, from Leopold Cafe, to The Taj Mahal Palace hotel, to Cama and Albless Hospital is pieced together coherently and logically—when it comes to the literal interpretation of an act of terror, no other film comes as close to perfection as the taut thriller by Paul Greengrass, United 93, made in 2006, about what goes on in the hijacked flight that crashed into the twin towers.
Varma magnifies every location, and its horror, with slow-motion frames and thumping and ominous-sounding background music similar to chanting, by Amar Mohile. Kasab’s facial features contort in every scene in which he appears. Someone with such an irredeemably blank emotional life, a zombie puppet, is not believable as an animated Hindi film villain. The camerawork by Harshraj Shroff and M. Ravichandran Thevar is jumpy—home video-like in one scene and classically cinematic in the next. If the inconsistency is intended, the storytelling does not support or justify it. Varma’s frames and composition, usually masterly, are unintentionally ordinary.
In this film, he seems to be driven entirely by the idea of rousing, five years on, mass awareness of how gory, insidious and outrageous the killings were. Sorely, in two scenes, Varma offsets shiny Hindu idols of Ganesh and Lakshmi against the gunmen, sensationalizing the already overstrung narrative. The tail end of the film, the sequence set in Pune’s Yerwada jail, where a teary, remorseful Kasab is dragged to the gallows, is the only effectively executed part of the movie.
The heroes of the tragedy, the people who were on the scene, are nameless. Tribute is not on Varma’s agenda, and perhaps thankfully so. He bombards you with one deafening scene after another on the screen to get an immediate reaction and grab eyeballs. The way the story is told restricts what the film can say about the larger tragedy of human loss. The deification of the police chief, who regurgitates populist sentiments about the event, about Kasab and about his brand of Islam, makes The Attacks of 26/11 fatuous.
The Attacks of 26/11 released in theatres on Friday.