The Attacks of 26/11 is probably the most definitive modern Ram Gopal Varma film. It’s the epitome of inconsistency.
Of crassness. Of insensitivity. Of horror. Of atheism. Of audacity. Of voyeurism.
And it also has momentary flashes of brilliance. And understatement.
The good, the bad and the ugly — all at the same time.
It begins like it means business, with a Joint Commissioner Rakesh Maria (Nana Patekar) narrating the sequence of events of 26/11 to a high-profile enquiry committee. Until Varma introduces us to the terrorists who are clearly “evil” as the score and expressions spoonfeed us that these are the villains of the piece. Asuras who will wreak havoc in a godless city. Every crucial shot of terror has a statue or poster of God neatly packed into the frame to endorse the filmmaker’s atheist stance.
You could argue that the filmmaker wants you to see this as a horror film (listen to the score for proof) because there is simply no other explanation for what happened — a bunch of men on a killing spree, staging one massacre after another in crowded landmarks of the city, leaving the police and public helpless. Only that this helplessness is shown with an almost sadistic glee and gratuitous detail that the terrorists may actually be pleased with this depiction.
Depiction is not endorsement, as Kathyrn Bigelow defended Zero Dark Thirty based on the events that led to the capture of Osama Bin Laden.
Yet, the entire first half of the film feels like it’s the terrorist version of Nation’s Pride, the fictional film in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds that had no plot but for a celebrated war hero, a Nazi sniper killing hundreds of Allied soldiers from the top of a tower.
It’s all terribly staged, with scores of people, including women and children, falling dead like flies after being shot. The filmmaker blatantly tries to milk the situation for our sympathy by constantly showing us children about to be shot dead.
But you have to admit it is powerful. It depresses and disturbs mostly because RGV stages these scenes in the locations where the events actually took place. These are images we were in denial about.
The Cafe Leopold sequence packs a realistically eclectic mix of people who frequent the cafe, the interiors of Taj are painfully recreated on well-detailed sets and RGV manages to fill up the entire waiting hall of CST with extras... but it is quite an ambitious task to choreograph a massacre of that scale. People die almost instantly or hide as a homogenous group because a lot of action needs to be condensed for the sake of brevity. This artistic licence takes away quite a bit of the intended docudrama realism.
And just as some of us have settled into the rhythm of watching an exploitative horror film, RGV jerks us back to the voiceover-based narration of events as Nana Patekar (in fine form) over cups of tea, bottles of water and every other thing offered to him during his deposition, delves into his ideological debate with Kasab, completely abandoning the events of 26/11 after the capture of Kasab.
Absolutely nothing from the battle between the terrorists and the commandos at the Taj!
This leaves a gaping hole in the film, not only because it omits a significant chunk of history but also because it sorely affects the sense of balance in depicting both sides. We saw the bad guys hunt down innocents, but never get to see how they were all hunted down. It was our only victory that night and RGV chooses not to show us the endgame.
We had to see THAT to get our closure. That’s what cathartic violence in films is all about.
This film limits its scope to the Kasab story probably because it’s based on journalist Rommel Rodrigues’s book Kasab: The Face of 26/11, but then, the film is titled The Attacks of 26/11, not Kasab.
What we get instead are ideological arguments we have seen before in every single film made about terrorists. What we get are crocodile tears shed on film by a terrorist who was remorseless in real life simply because RGV wanted an ending. But yes, he shows a lot more restraint in the second half and Nana Patekar single-handedly lends the film a little dignity.
Given that taste and sensitivity are bound to differ from person to person, expect polarised reactions. In fact, you will come out with mixed feelings yourself. But there’s no denying that this is RGV’s most significant work since Sarkar.
Director: Ram Gopal Varma
Cast: Nana Patekar, Sanjeev Jaiswal, Atul Kulkarni, Ganesh Yadav
Storyline: The events that transpired during the night of 26/11 when Mumbai was attacked
Bottomline: A voiceover-anchored docudrama turns into a crude horror film and then into a drab ideological debate