The commercial and critical acceptance of Kunal Kohli’s Fanaa , Rajkumar Gupta’s Aamir , Neeraj Pathak’s A Wednesday and Kabir Khan’s New York indicate that Indian audiences are as hungry for thrillers as they are for movies about terrorism. Each of these films follows the ticking-time-bomb device of screenplay writing. Will Kajol, as a devoted mother, prevent Aamir Khan’s home-grown terrorist from succeeding in his nefarious plan to destroy India? Will Naseeruddin Shah’s vigilante succeed in detonating the four bombs he has planted across Mumbai? Rensil D’Silva’s Kurbaan , which opened on 20 November, also hinges on the Hitchcockian will-he-won’t-he principle. Kareena Kapoor plays a Hindu woman who unravels a terrorist conspiracy, her effort made all the more urgent by the fact that her Muslim husband (Saif Ali Khan) may be involved.
The combination of thriller and terrorism drama is crucial. Had these movies been about either one or the other, they may not have worked. We have never been good with thrillers, mostly because we can’t resist the temptation to slow proceedings with romantic subplots and songs. Modern movies that are purely about terrorism simply cannot better the operatics of news channels. Can any Bollywood film improve on the round-the-clock coverage of the 26 November 2008 attacks on Mumbai? Has any populist film-maker managed to come up with new images to represent the aftermath of bomb blasts and gun battles? Television content has everything usually associated with movies: drama, tragedy, comedy, heroes, villains.
A still from Kurbaan which released today in theatres
However, television by its very nature cannot provide a resolution. We watched Mohammed Ajmal Kasab cut down several innocent, working-class people at Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus from the safety of our living rooms. We now watch television reporters send daily dispatches from outside the city’s Arthur Road prison, where Kasab’s trial is in progress. Television is as much about the moment as it is about the process. However jingoistic and shrill some channels are, they simply can’t fictionalize or subvert reality too much (India TV and Times Now do try, though).
No such niceties are needed in cinema. The terrorism thriller fantasises that the moment of horror—the attack on the government secretariat, the blast in the suburban train—can be prevented. The bad guy can be annihilated before his finger hits the red button. We can all die another day.
The onus of prevention doesn’t rest on the shoulders of a vigilant policeman or a sharp-eyed investigator. The ace in the pack of the modern terrorism thriller is the educated, middle-class Muslim. As Bollywood sees it, this Person Like Us (PLU) is sought to be radicalized or manipulated by extremists on the fringe. They take advantage of their shared faith and either fail or succeed in persuading the PLU to fulfil their demands. The PLU either sacrifices himself (Aamir) or puts nation over family and does a Mother India on the villain (Fanaa). Remember Mani Ratnam’s Roja, in which Arvind Swamy’s cartologist is freed from his Kashmiri captor not by his own efforts but by the militant’s sympathetic female relative?
Muslim characters have always played typical roles in Hindi films: Noble Best Friend, Pure-hearted Courtesan/Prostitute/Madam, Flamboyant Smuggler, Dewy-eyed Poet/Writer. In the post-Kargil and pre-9/11 years: Wild-eyed Foreign Terrorist. In the post 9/11 world: Conflicted Indian Muslim. This new type bears the terrible burden of constantly proving his community’s patriotism, both off the screen and on it. Suspicion about the commitment of the country’s Muslims to the Indian flag lingers on. That’s probably why we won’t see any mainstream terrorism thriller on the Rashtriya Jagran Manch, which is accused of planning the Malegaon blasts in September 2006. A computer engineer who is a potential jihadi is far more potent at the box office than a former Army official who believes that all Muslims are terrorists anyway.
Kurbaan released in theatres on Friday.
Nandini Ramnath is the film editor of Time Out Mumbai
Write to Nandini at firstname.lastname@example.org