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 Cinema After 9/11

Subhash K . Jha

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Every historic catastrophe, man made or otherwise, spawns its own cult of creative art. I am sure the Parisian attack will bring in its wake  a slew of cinematic interpretations.

The 9/11 terror attack was no exception. Bollywood and Hollywood latched on to the dramatic potential of the terror deluge. There were notable films like Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentlist  Karan Johar’s My Name Is Khan  Rensil d’Silva’s Kurbaan, Kabir Khan’s New York and Neeraj Pandey’s A Wednesday.

Rensil began shooting his treatise on Islamic terrorism before 9/11. How far did the terror attack change Rensil’s film?

At that time he had said to me, “I’m shooting the film exactly the way I wrote it initially. What has happened doesn’t alter the worldview on terrorism. It only strengthens it.I’ve been warned that there has been a saturation as far as films on terrorism are concerned. But I believe every filmmaker has his own take on terrorism. Unfortunately the alignment of terrorism with Islam remains unchanged.”
That’s where Rensil sees a problem. “People objected to some of my film’s ideas and my characters’ ideology. But we can’t turn away from the truth. At least I can’t.My film was not grim. It was about a serious global issue. But it wasn’t a documentary on terrorism. It was designed as a fast-paced thriller.”

Kabir Khan whose film on terrorism New York was a success says, “ I’ve been fortunate that my documentaries have allowed me to travel to 60 countries. I’ve seen first-hand what the state of the world is. I think more of our mainstream cinema needs to gets the geo-politics in place. Where do these characters in our films come from, and where are they going?  I need to make a cinema about what’s happening to our world. Unfortunately, films on terrorism in our country are often high-pitched and jingoistic. And that’s counter-productive. My film, I’d like to believe, was a very balanced view of terrorism.Post 9/11 I don’t think 26/11 changed my perception on terrorism or on my film. Though the attack on the Taj and Oberoi were the most audacious in Mumbai, what about the foiled attack on our parliament? And more people died in the train explosions of Mumbai. At the end of the day what do terrorists want? A splash. I’d say a film on terrorism would be exploitative if a filmmaker made a bad film on terrorism. I am aware 36 titles were registered for films on 26/11. No harm in that as long as they are sincere. My film, I’d like to believe, is a very balanced view of terrorism.”

Kabir Khan agrees 9/11 became a kind of cinematic formula. “It definitely became a formula in Hollywood ,yes. Though there were no real 9/11 films in Bollywood. Only a lot of 26/11 films.”

Nishikant  Kamat agrees that films on the theme of global terrorism somewhere lost their cause and sensitivity.

Rensil d’Silva disagrees. “I don’t think films after 9/11 were formulistic. I think films on subjects like 9/11 are rarely made in an industry concerned mostly with delivering entertainment which is where the formula exists.The majority of the film on 9/11 were delicately handled.”

Three films and three different perspectives on the same theme in 2008 Kunal Shivdasani’s  Hijack, Neeraj Pandey’s A Wednesday and  Santosh Sivan’s Tahaan, were portraits in contrasting shades of identical themes. All three dealt with different facets of terrorism, and had a slick spin to offer.Of course the spin got more sick than slick in Hijack, a tacky take on Hollywood terrorists with Shiney Ahuja playing the larger-than-life, pilot-turned-ground-engineer who sneaks into a hijacked plane and rescues the hapless passengers.

Neeraj Pandey’s A Wednesday was very American in format and style of storytelling, while Santosh Sivan’s Tahaan was more Iranian in tone and texture.

One aspect of Hindi cinema’s  tryst with terrorism that invites attention is the sheer volume of “action” that underlines the drama. Characters somersault nimbly into the horizon to beat the baddies. And you wonder if terrorists are the latest villains inmasala kingdom after smugglers, rapists and politicians.
Let’s not get carried away. No need to reduce terrorism to a formula specially when the films on the theme are not doing well. What we get finally in these films is a fine gallery of performances.
The main reason why these films on terrorism don’t appeal to as wide audiences as they should is their masculine vision.None of these films has room for fleshed-out women characters. Hijack somehow squeezed in Esha Deol and Kaveri Jha , both of whom came and went in a rustle of delicacy during times of explosive exuberance.

Said Nishikant Kamath: “I see these films as a sign of the times. We’re going through very troubled times. Cinema is meant to be reflect contemporary reality. All these films on terrorism coming together was just a bizarre not a bazaar coincidence.My idea behind making Mumbai Meri Jaan was to show how people survive a personal tragedy. I was more interested in the characters than the tragedy of the train blasts.I recreated the blasts rather than using news footage. It took me 15 days to shoot the blast scenes. That the blasts happened in trains was a grim fact I had to incorporate in my film. I did a lot of technical research about the locations and timings of the blast. Beyond that everything in Mumbai Meri Jaan was fictional.Eventhough the characters are made up I’m sure a lot of people went through the same emotions after the blasts. I haven’t experienced any of the things shown in my film. But I’m sure they’ve happened to people. I lived with my characters for two years. They drained me emotionally. I came very close to the 1993 Mumbai blasts. I passed close by to where one of the blasts occurred. That traumatized me and I  poured my heart out into Madhavan’s character. He expressed the fears that I felt when the blasts happened. I feel any act of extremism over a city causes the anthill effect. A stone hits the anthill, the ants are traumatized. But they immediately get to rebuilding their anthill.”
Neeraj Pandey who has directed  A Wednesday says when we talk of the resilience of the Mumbayites after every attack we’re only looking for another word for acceptance out of compulsion.
Tanuja Chandra’s who made the delicate sensitive but little-seen film about a Sikh family in the US after 9/11 called Hope & A Little Sugar says, “What prompted me to make this film?The idea that something that happens  thousands of miles away can come from the same emotions that we in India have experienced, then the impossible yet possible idea that even after such deep-rooted hatred, forgiveness is possible.That human beings do have the capacity to love one another.The subject of 9/11 is a deeply complex issue and movies necessarily need to take sides in order to be effective.That makes this a difficult subject to tackle.More than being formulistic stories about 9/11 have over the years caused a kind of emotional fatigue in people because its images are among the most visible in recent history.And yet I think we’ve barely begun to understand the kind of  seismic effect it has had on the world. The only way to touch upon the issue in any significant manner is to make movies with some complexity and that doesn’t always work with audiences.”

Explains the prolific filmmaker Ananth Mahadevan, “Any big incident evokes a cinematic reaction,and 9/11 was most tempting. But Hollywood films that followed like United  93 only dealt with a portion of the catastrophe. Unlike films on the Vietnam war, 9/11 has not been dealt with in depth in the movies. Loose Change was a stunning documentary that implicated the White House in the tragedy…In India Naseeruddin Shah’s Yun Hota To Kya Hota was a sensitive film that climaxed at the Twin Towers. Many films, however,latched on to the tragedy merely to sensationalize it. These collapsed like the Towers.”

Abhishek Sharma who gave a hilariously satirical spin to 9/11 in Tere Bin Laden thinks such films  acquired their own legitimacy. “It became a genre of its own specially in the George Bush era. In fact Hollywood used it as a western propaganda tool rather than as tool of creative expression. Indian films on the theme of global terrorism have been much more balanced and unbiased. I think it was the follow up on 9/11 by the Bush administration that angered me and propelled me to make TereBin Laden  a satirical film based on issues such as Islamophobia, the American Dream, and war on terror. No doubt that 9/11 was a terrible act of violence and it impacted all of us, but somewhere all of this is a result of a reckless American foreign policy that has divided the world.Even a large chunk of Americans believe so as reported by papers today.”

Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist  was  volatile in theme .It dealt with the sensitive issue of Indo-Pak relations and Islamic fundamentalism after the 9/11 attacks on  the US. While the film questioned a young US based Pakistani stock-broker’s relationship with his religion and culture it also depicted a relationship between the Pakstani hero and an American woman,played by Kate Hudson.

The mix of fundamentalism and cross-cultural Pakistan-American romance was not quite the recipe for world peace that the White House has recommended.

Mira Nair raved over Mohsin Hamid’s novel’s elegance. “It was essentially a dialogue between two characters , the PakistaniChangez and the American Bobby.I was stuck by the elegance of the theme.”

The film under-performed at the boxoffice.Would it have worked better if  Mira chose Ranbir Kapoor or  Imran Khan for the main role?

Mira chortles, “That’s a very sharaarati question. I’m sure those guys would’ve gotten in their own interpretation of Changez’s character. But what Riz Ahmed gave to the film is invaluable. Just as I can’t imagine anyone but Tabu in that role in TheNamesake(though we had tried other actresses) likewise Reluctant Fundamentalist without Riz seems impossible now. He had the Karachi background of  the protagonist Changez  .So he could speak fluent Urdu.And though he’s Britain-based he had the perfect American accent required for the role.”

Kamal Haasan’s Vishwaroop is another very important film on the post-9/11 scenario. Personal interests, we are told, are easy to put aside if you can define heroism from a context far greater than your own good. The deeper thrusts of Kamal Haasanand Atul Tiwari’s devious screenplay leap out of this compact epic drama which takes off into the Taliban terror outfit in Afghanistan and thence to the New York suburbia where domestic normalcy is replaced by a kind of ceaselessly renewable violence that has gripped working-class  lives  ever since  the 26/11 attack on the US made it clear that international terrorismis here to stay.Deal with it.Just about the only desirable  thing that emerges from the horrific folds of global militancy are some great adventure sagas .

While Irrfan has dropped his ‘Khan’ to avoid cultural identification  Kamal Hassan who is often mistaken for a Muslim in America is in a seriously defiant mood. He is thinking of changing his distinctly Muslim-sounding name to a  more pronounced Islamic-sounding ‘Qamal Haasan’.

“Just to show a sense of solidarity with my Muslim brothers,including Shah Rukh whom I am very fond of.”

If Irrfan thinks it’s a liability to be called a Khan, Kamal thinks it’s equally incriminating to be named a  Haasan.

“It doesn’t matter whether I am really Muslim or not. If I have to suffer for my name I’m willing to do so,” says Kamal.

It’s not just Shah Rukh with his ‘Khan’ surname that gets him special treatment at the American treatment. You could  get  the US immigration guys into a budge over a Hindi name simply because it sounds Muslim.This, Kamal Haasan discovered recently at an airport in Canada   when he was on the way to the US for a makeover  for a role. He was detained and questioned because both his names sounded distinctly Muslim.

Says Kamal Haasan, “My father did a very mischievous thing, maybe because I was born when he was 50, and by then he had developed a sense of humour about human quirks and contradictions. He gave me  a Muslim-sounding name.And the ambiguity of my name does confuse the Americans. I enjoy that. My father too enjoyed the the ambivalence. In fact he was keen that I spell my name ‘Kamal’ with ‘Q’ in  a  very Islamic way.I had almost listened to him. Then I backtracked. But I feel I should go for it.While he was alive he would often ask  me if  I was mistaken me for a  Muslim.”

Kamal Haasan frequently gets into the ‘suspicious’ segment of the US immigration department. “Sometimes they take me aside and ask me questions.Just because we do business with America they think we are questionable. If we’re so touchy about immigration rules in American, we shouldn’t be doing business with them.”

Kamal Haasan feels racial and cultural suspicion exist in every society. “Talk to an Afghani who comes to visit India . Afghanistudents can’t get  rooms to stay in India .There’s resistance to Afghani passports in India.And why are we so touchy about American treatment? They’ve a 9/11 to caution them. With 9/11 Australia is hostile to Indians. India should stop acting paranoid about racial profiling.”

Shah Rukh Khan whom Kamal Haasan is very fond of, would be pleased to know he has undivided support from the senior actor.

However Kamal cautions, “We don’t need to over-react just because this Khan is a Shah Rukh. I don’t think Shah Rukhhimself  minded the detention. I know the gentlemen. He would never say, ‘I am Shah Rukh Khan, so I should be treated differently from other Khans’.I think he said, each time he wants to feel normal he visits the US . His fans might feel injured on his behalf. But it can’t be helped. The Americans are an injured nation.They’re being just be careful. It happened to me and I had to miss my flight.There was no great apology or anything.It’s rules they’re following.”

Kamal Haasan doesn’t recommend a separate treatment by the US immigration to Shah Rukh. “I’d recommend that they be kind to all Khans. They can’t generalize about all Khans. It’s as awful as saying all Americans are stupid.”

As for Irrfan dropping his Khan surname Kamal Haasan is willing to go the opposite way. “I’m ready to change my name fromKamal to Qamal.I’m often mistaken for a Muslim and I don’t correct the misconception. My brothers Charu Haasan and Chandra Haasan don’t have to  face this. Please remember the fabric of our nation is woven with saffron, white and green. We can’t pull out any of the colours.We have to co-exist. The crusades are over.”

 

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