It was a remarkable year in which movies scripted the fear, hope and humanity of ordinary people in times of hate and terror.
The year 2008 was often overcast with many moments of dread and rage, born out of recurring terror attacks and a revival of communal violence in many corners of this teeming nation. It is not surprising, therefore, that a dominant theme of cinema thi s year was precisely this looming threat over the lives of ordinary citizens. These concerns pierced even through our western borders, and some brave major films from Pakistan — which drew appreciative Indian audiences — also echoed the same questions.
The finest celluloid statement for me was one that came — and went — relatively unnoticed and under-rated, “Mumbai Meri Jaan”. Its narrative was built around the Mumbai bomb attacks, asking not who committed these terrible crimes and why, but what the violence and horror did to the lives of ordinary people. It accomplished this through a series of memorable vignettes. An endearingly idealistic corporate employee refuses to travel by taxi to work as this would expand his carbon footprint; instead he takes the local train, to the amusement and despair of his friends and family. He refuses to leave India for lucrative employment overseas. But then he misses death by a heartbeat, as the compartment next to his explodes with the terrorist bombs, maiming his best friend. He is seized by terrible fear and doubt, his idealism starts to crumble and he even plans even to immigrate — to run away from all the horror — but his spirit eventually heals as he witnesses ordinary people carry on with their lives with unostentatious courage. A television anchor who often has exploited the grief of others to build telegenic images of suffering, finds herself used in the same way when she loses in the blasts her fiancé. A Tamil immigrant roadside tea-seller avenges those who had tormented him — the wealthy of the city — with a series of hoax bomb calls to shopping malls. These create panic and stampedes each time, to his initial jubilation, and eventual remorse and redemption.
But the soul of the film lies in its portrayal of the conflicting world-views of a young man who is seized by hate against all Muslims after the bomb explosions, and an ageing policeman who has, when the terrorists attack, only a week of service left in the police before he retires. The youth stops an elderly Muslim seller of pav bhaji and demands to search the bag slung on the terrified man’s bicycle, for bombs. He is restrained by the policeman, but he knocks down the man in uniform and manages to run away. Nights later, the policeman again finds him drunk on the streets, and the youth prepares to be thrashed and punished. The policeman chooses to speak to him instead, about the futility, danger and injustice of labelling people of an entire community for crimes that a few people commit. His tone is never didactic or sentimentalised; instead the tenor is of masterly authentic homespun idiom, in a triumph of subaltern cinema which is especially rare in today’s times.
The portrayal of terror is most bleak and despairing in “Aamir”. In a gripping but frightening narrative, we watch a young Muslim doctor who returns home from the U.K. drawn into unknowingly planting a bomb in a public bus. He understands this too late, and fails to save the bus passengers despite his desperate last efforts. He dies as well. It suggests the inexorable vulnerability of anyone of us to become a helpless pawn in the stratagems of terror.
But the film on the theme of terror that won the greatest public attention and applause this year was “A Wednesday”. It actually anticipates the middle-class anger that widely followed in the wake of the Mumbai commando attack of 26/11, the wrath of the anthem promoted by scores of television channel debates and candlelight marches: “enough is enough”. In the film, an anonymous “common man” can no longer brook what he perceives to be the weak-kneed ineffective handling by government of the threat posed by terrorists, so he resolves to take matters into his own hands. He traps police officials to blow up suspected terrorists who were otherwise jailed and facing trial. It articulates with celluloid élan but cold and chilling ethics, mounting middle class impatience with democratic protections and the due process of law in the battle against terror. Its politics left me worried and disturbed. There is no evidence that laws that enable States to curtail human freedoms succeed better in convicting or deterring terrorists; on the contrary, real or perceived injustices are the very soil on which terrorism best thrives.
Communalism among officers in the armed forces was depicted for the first time in the brave film “Shaurya”, which turned out to be chillingly prescient, because many months after the film’s release, astounding and shaming revelations tumbled out into the public domain, of a serving army officer’s engagement with a private enterprise of Hindutva terror. The film was also unflinching in its depiction of human rights abuses by armed forces officials in Kashmir against children, and the scapegoating of a Muslim army officer who tries to prevent this.
The Kashmir story
The prolonged and brutalised conflict in Kashmir was again the theme of a film of stunning visual beauty, “Tahaan”, which looks at the chronic violence through the innocent eyes of a young boy in search of his beloved donkey. All the elements of the battle-lines that form an integral part of daily living of the Kashmiri are depicted in the film: half-widows whose husbands were picked up by security forces and never returned, and who do not know whether to mourn them as dead or hope for their return one day alive; the humiliation of searches, frisking, crackdowns; and the tragic exile of the Pandits. Despite this, Kashmiris feel that the film still is the version of the story of the conflict of the rest of India: the militants are shadowy and menacing figures, casually willing to risk the child’s life as an innocent bomb-carrier, whereas the security men are portrayed as more genial, laughing and tolerant with the boy even as he penetrates their cordons. This is not the binary reality that Kashmiri people have themselves lived with for two deeply troubled decades.
It is again through a young boy’s eyes that we observe the callous and irrational borders that we have drawn in our world today, not just between nations but also between hearts. In the Pakistani film “Ramchand Pakistani”, based on real-life incidents, a young Hindu dalit boy from a nomadic community strays across the border into India, followed by his father who tries to rescue him. Both are thrown into an Indian jail in Rajasthan for many years, until their final release, the boy now so grown that even his mother who still waits for them can barely recognise him. Despite many avoidable flaws, including an extraordinarily caricatured depiction of a woman jail officer, the film is deeply affecting, with a haunting sense of loss and sadness that persists long after it is over. In particular, I will carry with me the memory of the boy’s face reflecting his father’s helplessness and humiliation in custody, such as when his father is asked to strip to confirm his religious identity, and we see only the boy’s shame and bewilderment. It recalls images from one of the greatest neo-realist films in world cinema, de Seca’s “Bicycle Thief”. The film is a universal indictment of bureaucracies the world over.
For God’s sake
Another significant film from across the border, “Khuda ke Liye”, is a painfully introspective exploration of religious fundamentalism. The story is woven around the radicalisation of a Westernised young man. He attempts to “rescue” his cousin from her proposed marriage to a White Christian man, by forcefully abducting her in marriage, raping her and detaining her in a remote village in the borders of Talibanised Afghanistan. The film falters for me only when it does conclude that he committed unforgivable crimes, but on the authority of religious scriptures rather than the secular law of the land.
This remarkable year of cinema in this part of the world scripted the angst and fear of ordinary people in times of hate and terror. But it also tracked their hope and humanity — battered, frayed but resilient and enduring. Filmmakers on both sides of the border ultimately sang of a dimmed, but durable, optimism and humanity in these difficult and turbulent times.