The Silver Screen War

in talkies

(sepoy sez: you can find an introduction to purdah on the about CM page)

Greetings CM readers, Sepoy has generously offered me a spot on his soapbox, a turn at the helm, a cameo in his story? Um a chance to reach out to some gentle minds…I would like to begin by discussing the current South Asia project I am working on, somewhat related to TALIBOTHRA, in that it is about the co-mingling of religion, politics and mass media. More precisely I am trying to follow the shifting figure of the terrorist in the Hindi language film industry and am curious about how Islam comes into the picture, and in fact about the precise definition of a terrorist, an “aatankvaadi”[ātaṅkavādī]. At the moment I am not sure what forms this sniffing around will take, perhaps a paper, perhaps a class, perhaps neither? Let me know what you think…

Usually I stay away from such egregiously wide canvases and I despise the simplistic, sociological, film-is-a-mirror-of-the-Indian-State-and/or-Indian-subconscious type readings of popular Hindi films. In my mind such approaches negate the agency of the filmmakers, ignore the ambivalence of cinematic narratives and engage in propagating ideology-driven, reductive readings of Hindi cinema. I could name names but that would be pedantic and beside the point.

So why am I now doing what I hate done by others? I suspect I was propelled down this path by articles on the failure of Iraq war movies; the Times article is online but the better piece by Scott Hamrah in N+1 #7 titled “Jessica Biel’s Hand: The Cinematic Quagmire,” is unfortunately not. After screening nearly every film about the Iraq war released theatrically between 2002 and 2008, Hamrah draws some smart conclusions about both the political and cinematic situation in the US today that point to the impossibility of a Platoon, Apocalypse Now or Deer Hunter being made today. And then I read Sepoy’s posts on the US media hysteria over Afghanistan and Pakistan…unlike the Nazi, absolute-evil WW II villain in Hollywood movies, terrorists in contemporary US films are never directly Afghanis/ Saudis/ Iraqis or Muslims, the viewer has to do some work to get to those categories. The war on Terror is not the war in Iraq. At least not yet. But in India, the not-war on Terror is the only war we know, and is in fact the same war with Pakistan we have been not-waging since 1947.

Popular Hindi films made in the last ten or fifteen years have terrorists that are clearly marked as Muslim, and further have some narrative link to Pakistan. This was not always so, terrorism on the Indian screen had other names and other historical contexts (Freedom fighters like Bhagat Singh, Naxalites, Tamil Tigers, Northeastern insurgents). But now they are all Islamic psychopaths, trained and funded by the Pakistani government, intent on destroying India. I give you the four phases in the love affair between terrorism and the Indian film industry:

I: Just friends

In my mind Gabar Singh from the spectacular 1975 Sholay is a terrorist, albeit he has no interest in bringing down a State, or any cause beyond being evil. More traditional terror genealogies (like those found here and here) would probably start with the 1986 Karma by Subhash Ghai, a crude amalgam of Sholay and 70s Hindi cops ‘n’ robbers films. Karma features a terrorist turned mercenary played by Naseeruddin Shah—an actor to remember as I run through the terror films today. However Karma, is about vigilante justice and personal vengeance, the State only begins to get involved in the nineties with films like Mehul Kumar’s Tirangaa (1992) or Droh Kaal (1994) made by Govind Nihilani, starring Om Puri and our man Naseeruddin Shah. However, in both these films the exact political causes remain murky and the players are anonymous, the emphasis is more on espionage and reliable intelligence than violence and chaos.

An interestingly different terror film in this period is Gulzar’s Maachis (1996), set in Punjab in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination and the Sikh killings. This film humanizes (and thus complicates) the figure of the terrorist by presenting a possible how-he-became-one story. Such forays into alternate narratives of terrors remain rare, but thankfully do exist. Of the handful of other films that explore other histories of terror Maachis is perhaps the most widely distributed, but it would still be considered an art-house Hindi film with limited audiences.

II: First thrill

Everything changed with the Bombay blasts of 1993. Thereafter Terror in Hindi film had a target city and a cause. This is also when the talented Mani Ratnam entered the national stage with his stunning terrorism “trilogy” Roja(1992)-Bombay(1995)-Dil Se(1998). These three films are among my favorite Hindi-language films because of their breathtaking cinematography and amazing music (by AR Rehman). It is Roja which directly features the situation in Kashmir and presents us with Indian Army (good) versus Islamic militants (bad) for the first time. In the late nineties a handful of mediocre mainstream films continued to build on this scenario and link domestic terrorism with Pakistan – Jaan (1996), Border (1997) and Sarfarosh (1999) with, of course, Naseeruddin Shah.

The odd film in these few years was Santosh Sivan’s Tamil Theeviravaathi featuring a female terrorist from a nameless organization determined to blow up a nameless politician (er Rajiv Gandhi anyone) in 1999. Once again we see that rare attempt to move away from a conflation of “terrorist” and “Muslim”. Such a move will not occur again until Mani Shankar’s Tango Charlie in 2005 that deals with the situation in the Northeast of India. However, both are art-house films with limited distribution and impact.

III: Saying it out loud

The military events at Kargil in 1999 launched a slew of Indo-Pakistan war films. A few were romance films on patriotic steroids like Anil Sharma’s Gadar: Ek Prem Katha, Yash Chopra’s Veer-Zaara, and Kunal Kohli’s bizarre Fanaa. The majority were action-war films on patriotic steroids like VV Chopra’s Mission Kashmir, Raj Kanwar’s Farz, J. P. Dutta’s LOC Kargil and Farhan Akhtar’s Lakshya.

Perhaps the most bizarre of these testosterone monsters is Rohit Shetty’s Zameen which starts with a historical event: the attack by Islamic militants on the Indian parliament in 2001 but then spirals into the skies and never lands on anything resembling reality. Of course this aerial nature is no coincidence for Zameen is clearly post-9/11 in its obsession with airplanes as weapons. From this point onwards, there was no turning back for the Bombay film industry: terrorists in India=Islamic militants=Pakistani minions.

IV: After the thrill is over :

The final phase, as I see it, is too recent to definitively categorize as it begins with the attacks on Mumbai last Nov, or “26/11” as many call it. There are a number of terror films already on the market: Santosh Sivan, the director of the Tamil Theeviravaathi is back with Tahaan, a film about a Kashmiri boy and his donkey caught up in the Kashmiri war, it aspires to be Au hazard Balthazar but cannot help being Koi…Mil Gaye; Speaking of formulaic junk there is Kunal Shivdasani’s Hijack that stretches the global terror network scenario to its full, thin limit with B grade special effects and actors; I have not seen Neeraj Pandey’s A Wednesday starring the veteran terrorist-actor Naseeruddin Shah but I hear it is good, and not just from the savvy New York Times. Another 2008 film I want to watch is Nishikant Kamat’s Mumbai Meri Jaan, starring the magnetic Irrfan Khan.

As I end this speculative list of films I want to mention a few more art-house ones that deal with the theme of terror in vastly different ways: different from both each other and from the slew of films I discussed. I should add that both of them were directed by women—the only female film makers thus far— Aparna Sen’s Mr and Mrs Iyer (2002) and Nandita Das’ Firaaq (2008) starring our old friend Naseeruddin Shah. Unfortunately, I have yet to see the Das film but was very disappointed with the Sen. I found the story of Mr and Mrs Iyer predictable and politically facile and its cinematic structure was generic and clichéd. Firaaq promises to be richer, though perhaps more harrowing as it is set in Gujarat after the 2002 communal riots, and perhaps is not even a terror film strictly speaking … I have a weakness for mosaic narrative structures in films, episodic vignettes that build around a central node (a period, a place or an event). As a film on violence I suspect this one will be no more illuminating than any of the rest and simply a liberal attempt to humanize the enemy and break down the “us” versus “them” discourse.

So what did I learn from this short journey, except that the mainstream Hindi film industry—a huge, uniform juggernaut that deserves the name Bollywood—is getting less inclusive, less varied, less individual and more jingoistic? Was there even any other result possible given the nature of the modern entertainment industry and global capital? I happen to disagree with the Culture Industry as Mass Deception folks and think that there are always spaces for dissent, ways to differ. Call me a fool, go ahead.

The failure I have charted here has more to do with two factors: the limitations of the Hindi film form and the limitations of the discourse on terrorism. The masala-musical Hindi filmi narrative form is not designed to capture political complexity, or explore historical conundrums; it is designed to entertain, to make people lust, laugh, swoon, sing and be terrified or angry. Any admirable treatment of terrorism within the confines of this form would look a lot like Mani Ratnam’s Dil Se. When I think of films that succeed in other parts of the world in representing political quagmires and cataclysmic violence the first films that come to mind are Gillo Pontecorvo’s ultra-realist, documentary-style Battle of Algiers or Alain Resnais’ ultra lyrical, experimental Hiroshima Mon Amour, neither one of which is anything close to the formulaic, hyperbolic Hindi form. The most obvious way a hybrid, sensationalist form would deal with terrorism would be to spin it into an over-the-top action-filled nationalist saga, or an over-the-top Romeo and Juliet type love story—examples of which clutter our screen today.

As for the subject matter: terrorism in the beginning of the twenty-first century, particularly in South Asia…I know of few fictional narratives I admire that deal directly with it (Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale is probably my favorite on international terrorism). The core term itself is simple, the OED defines it as: “A policy intended to strike with terror those against whom it is adopted; the employment of methods of intimidation; the fact of terrorizing or condition of being terrorized.”

This could in fact describe the “policy” of a number of creatures in horror films or monster films (alas, genres not largely popular in India). This definition also allows for a wider exploration of the structure of terror, the varied nature of an aggressor-victim relationship and so on. I find this interpretation or definition hugely promising. Unfortunately, it is the post Bombay attacks and post 9/11 definition that is unequivocally accepted by all the Hindi film narratives produced today and not the earlier one: “Terrorism is an ideology of violence intended to…cause terror for the purpose of exerting pressure on decision making by state bodies. The term “terror” is largely used to indicate clandestine, low-intensity violence that targets civilians and generates public fear.” [Terrorism in asymmetrical conflict: ideological and structural aspects, By Ekaterina Stepanova, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, quoted in Wikipedia]

If this is indeed the accepted theme, there is little a cinematic narrative can do beyond what we have in cinema (from anywhere in the global) today. It is this discourse that unites the US, Israel, UK, Spain and India into an axis of victims, terrorized by international Islamic groups.

Finally it should be said that I am not surprised to see the Hindi film industry snap into line with the international discourse on terrorism. After all it was the city of Bombay that bore the brunt of the worst of the attacks on civilians in India in the last 50 years. Other cities see sporadic, small bomb blasts, or intermittent riots but it is Bombay who gets the maximum treatment. Even after its avowed cosmopolitan openness. Would not the film industry freak out just a little bit?

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