A case can be made that it’s too soon to make a feature film about the Mumbai terrorist attacks of November 26, 2008. The problem with The Attacks of 26/11 isn’t one of timing, but of tone. Director Ram Gopal Varma’s thriller-meets-dramatic-reenactment is exploitative and lacks a compelling narrative.
Obviously, the circumstances of the brazen nighttime attack on landmarks throughout Mumbai are compelling in themselves, but we already know the details from news reports. Ten terrorists from Pakistan came ashore in Mumbai and proceeded to detonate explosives and shoot people at sites around the city, including the train station, a popular cafe, and a luxury hotel. Over a hundred people were killed and hundreds more injured. The only terrorist to survive was himself executed on November 21, 2012.
The first half of The Attacks of 26/11 focuses on the early hours of the days-long massacre. Terrorists are shown navigating the city to their target locations before murdering civilians en masse. Deaths are shown in gory, revolting detail. A girl with a bullet wound to the arm waits for rescue in the train station. A hotel manager’s brain explodes out the side of his head when shot.
As if the gory scenes weren’t off-putting enough, Varma employs typical thriller and horror techniques to add dramatic tension. Violins trill as a receptionist creeps toward a crying infant in a hotel lobby. The visuals shift into slow motion as the receptionist is shot repeatedly in the chest. Offscreen, a gun fires and the baby stops crying.
In a horror movie, it’s fun when the violins trill as the co-ed cautiously walks to the door we know she shouldn’t open. Here, the effect is sickening because the deaths of real people are being treated for cheap thrills. These are people who died just five years ago, not in some war that took place long before the advent of social media and cable news.
The attacks shouldn’t be off-limits for filmmakers, but any film made about them needs to inform, enlighten, or otherwise add to the conversation about them. Varma had the opportunity to do so, had he properly utilized Nana Patekar’s character, the Joint Police Commissioner. This film should’ve been told from his perspective with him as the main character, providing the audience with a guide through such emotionally overwhelming material.
More often than not, Varma shows the Commissioner (his character only has a title, not a name) sitting before a government panel telling them what happened rather than showing the events from his perspective as they happened. When the character participates actively, he does so in redundant flashbacks. For example, the Commissioner tells the panel that he was in the shower when he got the first call from the police control room. Then the camera shows him in the shower, and his wife tells him that the control room just called.
This redundancy and the formality of the government panel setting keep the audience at arm’s length. The panel would’ve been fine as a framing device, but not as the source of the running narrative. Patekar’s best scenes are those when he’s active, fielding calls in the control room or interrogating the only terrorist captured alive, Kasab (Sanjeev Jaiswal).
We see some of the Commissioner’s panic as he tries to orchestrate a response to the attacks, but we are spared the emotional torment he surely experienced afterward. The Commissioner tells the panel that some of the police officers who died were his friends. Since a note at the beginning of the movie explains that some details were altered for the sake of the narrative, why not include a scene in which the Commissioner wishes his friends good luck on what would be their final mission?
Had the audience been encouraged to make a personal connection with the characters, The Attacks of 26/11 could have been emotionally effective beyond the natural human empathy one feels for the victims. Varma’s focus on the spectacle makes the film feel tawdry.