Some of you may be old enough to remember a letter to an academic journal that Sepoy posted last February. Below, I furnish the piece of writing in question for those who are curious. The article, on the portrayal of terrorists in Indian cinema, was written in 2002. It was, I like to think, fresh and timely. It can no longer be described in that manner now. Many new movies have come out that would be interesting to discuss in this context. Mani Ratnam has since made a film that touches more directly on the conflict in Sri Lanka (Kannathil Muthamittal). I would no longer be caught dead writing this kind of academic article. The world has changed, etc. But in the interest of freecycling, I give it to you, below. Perhaps it can be repurposed and made into a quilt?
But before we move on, one last item of business. I must also share with you the reviewer’s comments alluded to in my original letter. The following was scrawled in heavily applied ballpoint on the review sheet:
NO– I am normally very open-minded, but I cannot be so here. I have no interest in advocating an article which is designed to elicit empathy for terrorists & terrorism. I don’t want to “appreciate” or “comprehend” the world of terrorists. I am not naive. The problem is with the terrorist– NOT my understanding of these PSYCHOPATHIC KILLERS. (and yes, I understand the intent of the essay. I am not misreading it)
Let Me Sleep in the Lap of Death:
Indian Cinema’s humanizing embrace of terrorists and freedom fighters
In the final scene of the Indian film Dil Se (‘From the heart’, 1998), the hero, an employee of All India Radio (AIR), embraces the heroine, a separatist suicide bomber. The setting is a ridge in a Delhi park, dotted with ruined buildings from pre-colonial kingdoms. The heroine is on her way to bomb the annual Republic Day parade through the nation’s capital. The two embrace, and the bomb explodes. As the flames and embers radiate outwards, the last verses of a song, begun earlier in the film but never finished, are finally heard:
mujhe maut kii god meN sone de
mujhe maut kii god meN sone de
tere ruuh mere jism meN Dubone de…
Let me sleep in the lap of death
Let me sleep in the lap of death
Let your soul be drowned in my body…
For those not familiar with the aesthetics of the Indian cinema in general, and Bollywood (Bombay’s film industry) in particular, the scenario may seem bizarre and even rife with contradictions. How can one have a musical about a suicide bomber? How can the real-life present-day brutality of separatist movements and terrorist acts against states and their citizens be enveloped into the apparently real-time-external Bollywood formulas of romance, action, singing and dancing? We can learn human lessons about the phenomenon of terrorism from the region of South Asia, which has a greater familiarity with the so-called phenomenon of ‘terror,’ a familiarity which is reflected in a number of recent films on the subject. In the past ten years there have been a number of major films released in India with a terrorist as a central character, including Dil Se (1998), The Terrorist (1999), Maachis (‘Matches,’ 1996), and Mission Kashmir (2000). In all these films, the terrorist or terrorists are depicted in remarkably human terms and their motivations and actions are presented in a light which makes the audience see them as sympathetic characters. In each of the first three movies, all of which are discussed below, there are female terrorists.
The spate of film-making on terrorist themes may have been spurred on by the many separatist and violent struggles taking place within India’s borders. From the Islamist separatists in Kashmir, to the struggles in Assam, to the Khalistan movement in the Punjab, as well as the Sri Lankan civil war to the south, India and other South Asian countries have been contending with a number of different terrorist threats for quite some time now. But the paradigm of the terrorist protagonist is nothing new in Indian narratives, and dates back to the era of the struggle for independence in India.
Terrorism in India: context
In India, the concept of terrorism has been around a good deal longer than it has in the US. In the colonial era, the term ‘terrorist’ was used by the British to designate agitators for Indian independence who favored the use of force. The use of the term by the British (as opposed to ‘revolutionaries’, the term preferred by Indian nationalists) grew into a contrastive position with the Satyagrahis, or practitioners of the non-violent resistance advocated by MK Gandhi, whose movement in fact was started in reaction to the violent method of fighting colonial occupation. A non-violence movement only makes sense if there is a ‘violence’ movement. The use of the term by the British sought to denigrate the aims and goals of those who believed that force would be more effective against the British than the philosophies and demonstrations of the non-violence movement. Both groups were freedom fighters, and revolutionaries, but one ostensibly posed less of a threat to the British than the other. Many historians now believe that contrary to what popular opinion and Attenborough’s myth-making 1982 film Gandhi hold, it was, in actuality, a combination of these two tactics, violent and non-violent (along with the second World War and the election of a Labor Party government in England), which led to the successful removal of the British from India. Because of this history of the term ‘terrorist’ in India, one often finds a much more subtle discussion of the idea of terrorism in public debates, literature and film than one is wont to find in the American media. In particular, the notion that a terrorist is often just a pejorative term for freedom fighter or revolutionary is well understood. Many of India’s heroes of the Independence movement were bomb-makers and advocates of force- such as Bhagat Singh, Chandrashekhar ‘Azad’ and Subhash Chandra Bose (shown above)1 – and not only do their names and deeds live on in history, but so too does the memory of their label from the British side as terrorists. Because of this, and perhaps because of a longstanding knowledge that one’s ideological and perhaps physical enemy could be living next door, the portrayal of terrorists in Indian films rarely resembles that found in American movies, in which terrorists tend to be shadowy, ‘international’ figures with indistinct and evil goals. Not only does this formulation, which is more often than not drawn from the portrayal of terrorists in the US news media, not help viewers understand what might motivate a suicide bomber- for example, because their goals are so vague and so patently evil- but their foreignness and superficiality play on deep-seated instincts toward xenophobia and suspicion of outsiders. By contrast, the terrorists of Indian film and fiction2 are strikingly human, clearly defined in their political goals and motivations, attractive, intelligent, and often even saddened by the path they feel has been forced on them by history.
Songs in Dil Se
It may come as a surprise that a ‘serious’ film about terrorism could be made within the aesthetic framework of the Bollywood musical, but some Bollywood filmmakers have created a tradition of this kind of treatment. Director Raj Kapoor (1924-1988), for example, pioneered the big-budget entertainer with a progressivist political message in his films Awara (‘The vagabond’, 1951), criticizing the criminal justice system and discrimination, and Shree 420 (‘Mr. 420,’ 1955), a critique of big-city corruption and homelessness. In the final scene of Dil Se, discussed above, part of the effectiveness of the dramatic tension resides in the fact that the audience is already, more likely than not, familiar with the song which is about to erupt on the soundtrack. As Meghna the terrorist’s bomb detonates in a ball of fire, the audience anticipates the final lines of the song which round out the earlier verses from another scene. The audience, already fully aware of the lyrics for the song, “Satrangi Re” (‘The seven colors [of love]’), realizes that the line “Let me sleep in the lap of death” has not yet been sung. Death, and therefore tragedy, is anticipated as the ending.
The songs in Dil Se are the work of one of the most renowned composers in the Indian cinema, and certainly the most innovative in Bombay, AR Rahman, and as such are probably even more important to this film than regular songs are to other films. In the opening scene of the film, the hero, Amar, played by Shah Rukh Khan (SRK), enters a remote train platform on a dark and rainy night. He approaches a shadowy figure wrapped in a black cloth and asks him for matches. A sudden gust of wind blows the cloth away from the person’s face, revealing that it is not a man but a woman. For the audience, this one moment makes it perfectly clear that there is something out of the ordinary about this woman, since it is unusual for a beautiful young woman to be sitting on a train platform late at night all alone. SRK draws near to her and begins a lengthy monologue in which he attempts to get her to speak to him or tell him something about herself. The questions he asks her- What is your name? What is the name of your village? What is your mother’s name? And then, humorously, ‘what is your dog’s name?’- presage her discontinuity with location, family, and home. As we realize much later, the only thing she has is a name, and as a revolutionary terrorist she has renounced all else. Eventually he introduces himself, showing her an identification badge and explaining that he works for All India Radio (AIR; see Figure 3, above, in which Amar shows Meghna his badge for the second time). We come to realize over the course of the film that SRK is Meghna’s opposite: he is a servant of the State, an appendage of the government media and propaganda network, which serves the function of binding together the imagined community of India.
As he continues to ask her if there is anything she needs that he can get for her, she suddenly turns and looks him full in the face and replies, “A cup of hot tea.” What is remarkable about this exchange is her naked stare into his eyes. She is a woman, alone, in an empty station in the middle of the night, and she has the composure to look a strange man in the eyes, a mark of union and the beginning of a relationship in the visual-poetic language of the Indian cinema. He rushes off to get the tea and rushes back to see a train pulling out of the station, and Meghna seated in a lit compartment with two men. Pulling his jacket over his head, still holding the two cups of tea, he stands in the rain and remarks with resignation, “The world’s shortest love story.” A remark which signals to us that a) it will be a long love story, and b) we are ready for a song.
Of the many beautifully written and arranged songs in Dil Se, this opening number “Chhaya Chhaya” has attracted the most attention. The song is ‘picturized’ on the top of a train traveling through a jungle that seems to resemble the forests of the Northeast regions of India, where, not coincidentally, there is much ethnic and communal tension, separatism, and violent clashes of organized militias with the State. SRK dances in a contemporary, hip-hop style accompanied by a large chorus and a super model-statuesque woman dressed in peasant attire. The Janet Jackson-style dance moves are a deceptive cover for the complex Perso-Arabic lyrics (much of the poetry of the song lyrics borrows heavily from Urdu poetic traditions, particularly the sonnet-like verse form the ghazal), which would be nearly impossible for the average viewer to comprehend. The nature of the linguistic/poetic style of the lyrics and their reference to devotion and love presage the tension which will carry us through the movie. This is a terrorist movie, but it is also a love story, and not just any love story, but the kind of love story that legends are made of. The setting might be modern, but, as we will learn, this is Romeo and Juliet, or more accurately, Laila and Majnun, all over again. The tale of Laila and Majnun is a traditional Arabic love story in which the two characters fall in love but cannot marry because they belong to separate tribes. Majnun eventually goes crazy from his love and wanders out in the desert where he is nourished for a time by animals, but dies because of the intensity of his passion for Laila.
Thus begins a tale which creates an ingenious blend of commentary on modern day terrorism and separatism and a compelling reworking of the tale of Laila and Majnun. Following in the footsteps of earlier populist-progressivists in the Indian Cinema such as Raj Kapoor, the filmmaker, Mani Ratnam, knows that making a film in the realist mode of say, Satyajit Ray, on the subject of terrorism, will not appeal to the general public. In a cinema which requires non-linear and symbolic narrative; relatively ahistorical, apolitical romances; and the copious use of songs and dances, it is not easy to deliver messages on current events with a straight-on treatment. Mani Ratnam manages to weave together multiple layers of visual, lyrical, musical, and narrative-based symbolism to create both a blockbuster-style film and make a serious commentary on contemporary events. In the song “Chhaya Chhaya,” for example, the most experimental element, in terms of the visual poetics of the Bombay cinema, is not the fact that SRK and a huge chorus are dancing on top of a moving train (spectacle is an important part of the genre, especially during the song sequences), nor is it the complex and elaborate Perso-Arabic flavored song lyrics. Rather, it is the fact that the song is shot in a setting which at least looks like the Northeast frontier area of India. Connected to the rest of India by a strip of land carved around Bangladesh by the Partition of 1947 (Bangladesh was then West Pakistan), the Northeast frontier provinces are a remote region torn apart by separatist movements and brutal army-led crackdowns. In the landscapes of popular national imagination, this thickly jungled and mountainous region does not play much of a role, certainly not in the landscapes of the Bombay cinema. At the same time, forests and natural surroundings, as well as hilly regions, are in fact important parts of the visual vocabulary of the picturization of Hindi songs. In a tradition which could be seen as rooted in the poetics of traditional love poetry from a number of different language literatures in the Subcontinent, Hindi film songs arrange visual cues that are recognized by the audience as symbolizing a complex array of moods and progressions in the romantic aspect of the narrative.3
In the case of “Chhaya Chhaya,” the jungle landscape can be seen as a ‘beginning of romantic love’ setting in the traditional sense, but it is also meant to evoke something unfamiliar: a particular remote area of the nation, and one to which the audience does not frequently travel. In addition, the use of the train as the stage for the dancers can be seen as one step beyond spectacle: it actually is a train, and it is taking us, the audience, and the film’s hero, a character firmly rooted in the capital, New Delhi, on a journey to the periphery. Throughout the film, Mani Ratnam uses this method of merging messages and symbols to create a complex story, one which is a classic tragic love tale, as well as a story about separatism and suicide bombers, with multiple layers of interpretability and accessibility by the audience.
Specificity and Timelessness
How does one fit a narrative which, though not a ‘true story,’ still must contain elements of historical, political, and geographical specificity, into the Bollywood generic framework? The Bollywood framework could be defined as non-specific, non-particularized, and emphatically non-realist, perhaps because it seeks to capture a pan-Indian audience, and perhaps because it plays the role of escapist fantasy for a large viewing public for whom the harsh realities of everyday life are not something one pays money to go and see. One method Mani Ratnam uses is to make the origins, regional affiliations, and religious/ethnic identity of Meghna, the terrorist herself, deliberately vague, supplying the audience with only the barest clues to figure out what movement she has joined.
Her name, Meghna, sounds vaguely Hindu, but on the other hand it is simply the name of a river in the Northeast. She doesn’t appear to be Muslim, although she is sometimes seen wearing a dark shawl over her head, but that might just be for anonymity or warmth. The only truly factual clues come near the end of the film, when Meghna explains to Amar her reasons for being a suicide bomber. Her explanation is depicted by means of a video montage flashback shown partly from the narrative perspective of Indian Army soldiers killing and raping the people in her village. Through the flashback, we come to understand her motivation as one arising from being orphaned and raped by the Indian Army, and later adopted into a separatist army camp for children. In one scene, Meghna is shown as a young girl standing to attention in her training camp with a flag flying overhead featuring a rhinoceros. The rhinoceros is indigenous to Assam, and is often used as a symbol of the region. Here, it probably suggests Meghna’s affiliation with one of Assam’s many separatist organizations, such as the powerful group ULFA (United Liberation Front of Assam).4
The ambiguity of Meghna’s heritage serves not only to make Dil Se a timeless romance analogous to Laila and Majnun, but also to suggest that in the matter of separatism and terrorism, specificity can only be given so much importance. As the audience seeks to figure out which struggle Meghna is engaging in, they are forced on some level to confront the fact that it could be one of many. The story of disenfranchised communities, either at the geographical peripheries of nations, or simply at the socio-economic peripheries, and the state-sponsored violence perpetrated against members of these communities, is a fact of life all around India, and indeed all around the world. Meghna is simply a young woman driven to the edge who has nothing left to lose.
Mani Ratnam himself is Tamil, from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. In Tamil Nadu, the separatist struggles of Kashmir and Assam are very far away, and the battle raging much closer to home (but external to India’s borders) is that between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers (LTTE—The Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam). It was in fact a female suicide bomber from the Tamil Tigers who assassinated the then Prime Minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi, in 1991. Dil Se is part of a trilogy rounded out by Mani Ratnam’s Roja (1992) and Bombay (1995). The previous two films dealt with Kashmiri terrorism and how it can be of importance to Indians in the South (Roja), and Hindu-Muslim conflict and rioting around the time of the demolition of the Babri Masjid (Babur’s Mosque) in Ayodhya (Bombay). Mani Ratnam’s trilogy attempts to bring together a variety of conflicts eating away at India’s national borders and identity and show how these are conflicts which affect all Indians, although his apparent confidence in the idea of a nation shown in Roja seems to have been substantially undermined by the time he directed the third part of the trilogy, Dil Se.
Specificity and Realism: The Terrorist
Interestingly, Mani Ratnam’s films do not deal with the Tamil Tigers at all, perhaps out of an urge to bring together lessons learned from both the south and the north of India and create a national dialogue. Fellow Tamil filmmaker Santosh Sivan (also cinematographer for Dil Se, as well as a number of other Mani Ratnam films), however, has brought the theme of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination to film in his 1999 The Terrorist. The Terrorist was shot in South India and is a Tamil language film. With no song and dance numbers and not much romance or dialogue, The Terrorist falls into the genre ‘art film’ in terms of Indian cinematic categories. The ninety-five minute film, extremely short by Indian standards, chronicles the life of a young woman in a terrorist training camp, presumably run by the LTTE, in a country which is presumably Sri Lanka, from the time she is selected to take on the mission to assassinate a ‘VIP’ to the moment when she is supposed to press the button. Sivan’s film also lacks specificity, although this is probably because of the dangers both legal and otherwise involved in openly making a non-allegorical film about the Tamil Tigers.
The Terrorist is very clearly meant to bring the audience inside the head of Malli, the terrorist, to help us understand the mindset of a suicide bomber, as well as to explore how such an individual might experience being human. The device used for this is a possible pregnancy; Malli had during a battle spent the night comforting a fellow wounded soldier, and had for the first time found herself in the close proximity of a man her own age. Through a series of suggestions she comes to believe that she may be pregnant and carrying his child. The film never makes it clear whether or not her encounter with the fellow soldier was sexual, but it is also implied that Malli is probably not certain what exact conditions would produce pregnancy in a woman other than proximity to a man. As the consciousness of possible motherhood begins to overwhelm her she undergoes a humanizing transformation, perhaps bringing about an awareness of the cycle of human life, a cycle she has essentially been trained to interfere with. While in earlier parts of the film, Malli is seen ruthlessly and unemotionally killing the enemy with, variously, a machete, an automatic weapon, and a bayonet, she begins to transform into a more emotional and self-reflective state as she awaits her mission and contemplates the possibility that she is pregnant.
Her transformation is aided by the setting where she has been assigned to wait until the assassination date. She is staying with a talkative elderly man in a large, mostly empty house. The room where she sleeps used to be the bedroom of her host’s son. The son, who we later learn is dead, was a photo-journalist, and the tiny room is completely collaged from floor to ceiling in photographs of international conflicts, as well as many pictures of different women, a world map, and a mirror. By looking at herself in the mirror, locating her place on the map, and examining the pictures around the room, she comes to identify herself as both a woman and a human with common bonds to other humans (see still, Figure 5, a reflection of Malli examining herself in the mirror in the room, photographs in the background). A shocking moment comes one day when she realizes that one of the photographs of women in her room is actually a small window cut out of the wall through which she can see her host’s wife, lying open-eyed in a coma in the room next door. She learns that the photographer’s mother had gone into a coma the day she had learned of her son’s death (presumably due to violence surrounding a photo-journalism assignment). As Malli comes to believe that she is pregnant, her identification with the comatose mother on the other side of the wall grows. Motherhood is an all-encompassing identity for the other woman, to the extent that she more or less ceased to exist when she lost her son. She is placed in opposition to Malli, for whom killing ‘the enemy’ as a good soldier is the only identity she has had up until now.
In the final scene it is not clear whether or not she pushes the button, but it seems as though she does not. Oddly, The Terrorist, shot in a realist style with no singing and dancing, seems more farfetched in the end than Dil Se, in the sense that the realist film resorts to clichéd ideas about lifecycles and the contradictions between motherhood and terrorism, while Dil Se suggests that though Meghna eventually admits her love for Amar, there is no practicable solution or way out of her mental state, or her commitment to follow through with her mission. Meghna is not softened by human experience; it destroys her. By contrast, Malli seems to be redeemed by her essential femininity, an unrealistic solution to conflicts and struggles which clearly transcend the urge to play out traditional gender roles in all different parts of the globe.
The Hunger of Majnun: The State Stalks its Borders
Gender roles come into play on multiple layers in Dil Se through the analogies of Amar with Majnun, the crazed and obsessed lover, and, Meghna with Laila, the object of Majnun’s desires. The hero of the standard Bombay film wins the heart of the heroine through dogged persistence and aggressive pursuit. He has to prove his commitment to her through his tenacity, to an extent that would make him seem like a stalker and not a hero in an American film (see Figure 6, from Dil Se, above). Added to this traditional portrayal of the male lover or suitor in Bombay cinema, the actor in Dil Se, Shah Rukh Khan, actually rose to mega-star status through a series of roles, such as those he played in the hits Darr (‘Fear’, 1994), Baazigar (‘The gambler’, 1993), and Anjaam (‘Consequence’, 1994), in which the role of lover and stalker/serial killer are conflated in a manner quite unusual to Bollywood norms. The persona and the layering of roles of a particular actor or actress is often used as a device in Indian movies to build the character the actor or actress is currently playing (theme songs from previous hit films will sometimes be laced into the soundtrack when a particular actor walks onto the set, to remind the audience of the effect surrounding the nostalgia for the previous movie and its songs, for example). Because of this, SRK brings to his roles as romantic lead a strong subtext of violence and obsession, carrying over from the audience’s memory of Darr and Baazigar in particular (see Figure 7, above, picturing SRK in this mode, as opposed to the one below, Figure 8, where he is pictured in his more playful love interest mode). Everyone knows that SRK’s obsessive brand of love can lead him to the border of dementia, and that it is always possible he will appear in a desperate situation before the film is over, in which he must stagger or crawl insanely through some alleyway or forest , stammering incoherently, rivulets of blood and sweat running down his face and body (which does in fact happen in Dil Se).
As the plot for Dil Se builds, and with it, Amar’s Majnun-like obsession with the elusive Meghna, we know, both from the traditional pursuit by the hero of the heroine in Bollywood movies, as well as from SRK’s presence in the role, that this can only lead to madness and total destruction, due primarily to Amar’s self-destructive and all-consuming male desire for Meghna. This use of the gender roles of the hero and the heroine makes possible another, even more compelling analogy: Amar is identified with the State (as a reporter for All India Radio) and Meghna with the peripheries of the State’s borders (as a separatist from the Northeast Frontier). Thus the dogged, macho, and obsessive pursuit of Meghna by Amar becomes emblematic of the State’s ‘desire’ to hang onto the peripheral regions and crush out opposition at all costs, rejecting the possibility of separation, or even dialogue about separation or demands.
As in the gender stereotypes reinforced by mainstream Bombay films, in which women’s desires and women’s voices are neither heard nor relevant, Amar’s desires and Amar’s thoughts are the only ones we hear until the film is practically at an end. This paradigm is reinforced by Amar’s actual employment as a DJ and radio-journalist, who is not only able to speak to us, the audience, throughout the film, but is also able to speak to the nation through the means of broadcasting his voice all over India. In a haunting and recurring song, Amar actually ‘speaks’ and calls out to Meghna by playing a particular song over the radio in which he asks her to call out to him, an ironic and impossible request when broadcast through the unilateral organ of the radio from which she hears it. Her only defense or possible active role in this supposed interchange is to turn the radio off and on, which she does, causing this refrain to echo in and out of the soundtrack:
Ai ajnabii tuu bhii kabhii aawaaz de kahiiN se
MaiN yahaaN TukRoN meN jii rahaa huuN
Tuu kahiiN TukRoN meN jii rahii hai
….MaiN adhuuraa tuu adhuurii jii rahii hai
Oh stranger, will you please call out as well some time?
I am living here, in pieces
You are living somewhere, in pieces
….I am incomplete, you are living, incomplete
The notion that they are neither of them complete beings without the other is his, and is never expressed by her. This again is a reminder of the State’s belief that the nation is incomplete without these regions, a belief that is unilaterally expressed. As she slowly becomes conscious that she loves him, Meghna loses her sense of composure and is robbed of peace of mind, though she does eventually assert herself by using him to achieve her goal. Manipulating his obsessive love for her, she asks him to give her a job at AIR, and thus infiltrates the center, gaining access to press passes that will allow her a good position on the day of the parade. Despite her loss of composure and her love for him, she does not, however, lose her resolve. She is already wired with explosives and walking toward the Republic Day parade when Amar manages to track her down, secure from her the sought-after nod that yes, she does love him, and envelop her in that embrace of unity and completeness he has desired for so long, an embrace which sets off her explosives and kills them both. This suicidal union, setting up a parallel between the Indian state’s ultimately self-destructive pursuit of unity at the expense of peace- broadcasting at the expense of listening- with the legendary crazed lover Majnun, shows both sides tragically entrenched in their positions. By aligning the state and the separatists with the traditional gender roles of the Hindi hero and heroine and with Laila and Majnun, Mani Ratnam suggests that the terrorist’s ostensible goal, for his or her voice to be heard and be considered consequential enough to move the State, can be understood in terms of the suppression of female voices in patriarchal systems of love, courtship and marriage. Though Dil Se ends as a tragedy, with no apparent solution to the entrenchment of both sides, the romantic parallel does suggest ways of re-viewing India’s relationship with insurgency and separatism in terms of traditional gender roles, gender equality movements, and paradigms for dialogue and understanding.
Another Laila, Another Majnun: Maachis
In the 1996 film about the separatist movement in the Indian state of Punjab (or the Khalistan Movement), Maachis (‘Matches’), by the director Gulzar, the Laila and Majnun parallel is also introduced, this time explicitly. The film centers on the transformation of an ordinary middle-class Punjabi teenager, Kripal Singh (Chandrachur Singh), into a terrorist in the separatist movement in the Punjab (following the 1984 Operation Bluestar attack by Indira Gandhi’s government on Sikh separatists in the Golden Temple in Amritsar). The film seeks to show how an ordinary citizen might be driven to extremism in an environment marked by police brutality and political corruption. Leaving behind his girlfriend, Veera (played by the actress Tabu), Kripal Singh disappears into the movement, reappearing only once. Veera’s world is in turn slowly completely dismantled by the police crackdown in the region, and in the end she too joins the movement, surprising Kripal Singh by showing up one day as the new missile shooter in his unit. A series of gaffes on the part of their unit leads to Kripal Singh’s arrest and the annihilation of the group. In one of the final scenes, Veera goes to visit Kripal Singh in prison and, comparing their relationship to that of Laila and Majnun, passes a cyanide capsule to him in a kiss.
The reference to Laila and Majnun is made here not to engage with the paradigm of the crazed lover, but simply to invoke the tragedy of their love story. Here Laila and Majnun are on the same side and are divided by the brutality of the State. Whereas in Dil Se and The Terrorist, the terrorists are depicted as ruthless and impeccably trained for combat and insurgency, the terrorists in Maachis are consistently portrayed as inexperienced and inept. While Malli is humanized by the possibility of motherhood and Meghna is humanized through a sensitive portrayal of the traumatic stress that has created her psychological state, as well as the pain that love causes her (though she stoically withstands temptation), Veera and Kripal Singh are human from the start and never become ‘inhuman’ warriors. Their ineptitude, lack of savvy, and poor timing ensure that their humanity is never in doubt. Throughout the film, it does not even seem as though they ascribe to a clearly formulated political ideology of separatism, and one of their mentors, Sanatan, is even given dialogue in which he suggests that their group wants nothing more than to remain in the nation, but is being driven apart from the center. In the final scene, the hero and heroine ingest cyanide capsules and slowly die, separated from one another, from their movement, from their families, and from the State. Though this method of humanizing the terrorist is effective in some ways, it downplays the actual ideologies of the proponents of the Khalistan Movement and thus casts the terrorists in a weaker position than is actually accurate historically.
The very notion underlying the idea of ‘terror’ as perpetrated by the ‘terrorist’ speaks of the emotional, affective response of a people toward strategically planned acts of violence or threats of violence. The ‘terror’ at the root of ‘terrorism’ is a collective sensation across a society which must be processed in emotional terms. A terrorist and the people he or she targets are in fact locked into an emotional relationship. By imagining terrorism through the romantic generic lens of Bombay’s popular film-making tradition, we can learn new ways of comprehending the phenomenon. In the films discussed here, Dil Se, The Terrorist, and Maachis, the terrorists are all portrayed in sensitive human terms. Though this is in part the legacy of the history of the notion of terrorism in India, which has had an impact on characterizations of revolutionary activity in literature and film there for the past century, these films bring to the genre a new twist. Since all three films feature an intrepid female terrorist, we are given a new lens through which to consider the role of the terrorist in society. The creation of characters who are female suicide bombers works on a number of levels to complicate conventional notions of what terrorism means and what drives individuals to join terrorist movements. On one level, the femaleness of each character, and her inability to play out traditional gender roles of wife, lover, and mother, suggest that terrorism is the last resort of a people and is chosen when conditions of oppression are so extreme that basic life-cycle roles must be curtailed. On an allegorical level, we can read the phenomenon of terror through gender and consider the conditions of extreme oppression of a people closely parallel to those of patriarchal domination and oppression of women. Terrorism then becomes the last resort to make one’s voice heard in an unequal relationship.
Dil Se (1998)
Mission Kashmir (2000)
Shree 420 (1955)
The Terrorist (1999)
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- Bhagat Singh (1907-1931) was a member of the Hindustan Socialist Republic Army and was executed by the British in 1931. He was linked to a number of attacks on the British, including the 1928 murder of the British official Saunders and the bombing of the Central Assembly Hall in 1929. Following the earlier film on his life, Shaheed (1965), five biographical movies are being released this year alone about Bhagat Singh, including 23rd March 1931, Shaheed (2002) and The Legend of Bhagat Singh (2002). The sudden resurgence in interest in Bhagat Singh has been linked to the current climate of nationalism in India following recent cross-border conflicts with Pakistan over the Kashmir issue. Chandrashekhar ‘Azad’ (1902-1931) was Bhagat Singh’s mentor, and was assassinated by the British in 1931. Subhash Chandra Bose (1897-1945), also known as ‘Netaji’, was originally a member of the Congress Party and a colleague of Gandhi’s. Later he decided that the only way to beat the British was through allying with the fascists in Europe. Bose forged ties with Hitler and formed the Indian National Army with the help of the Japanese, who released a large number of Indian Prisoners of War to him. After a military conflict with the British Indian Army that ended in the defeat of the INA, Bose died on his way to Japan in a plane crash. [↩]
- Portrayals of the humanized terrorist have a long history in Indian fiction writing going back as far as the Bengali novel Anandmath (1896) by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee perhaps and appearing in many other language literatures. [↩]
- In the study of classical and pre-modern literary genres, these poetic ‘rules’ are of paramount importance. In Sanskrit poetics, the vocabulary of emotions has been classified into eight or nine ‘rasas’ or flavors, literally ‘juices,’ with corresponding landscapes, colors, weather, animals, and the like. It would be a stretch to say that Bombay cinema follows the dictates of traditional Rasa Theory, but more aptly, one could say that Bollywood has a rasa theory of its own, perhaps not so elaborate as in classical models, but still rather complex. For a readable treatment of rasa theories, see the introduction in Martha Selby, Grow Long, Blessed Night: Love Poems from Classical India, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.) [↩]
- For an excellent and detailed work on contemporary Assam, see Sanjib Baruah, India Against Itself: Assam and the Politics of Nationality (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999). [↩]