The terrorist attacks on Mumbai on January 26, 2008, or “26/11” in India, have long since entered global ignominy. Bringing those terrifying few hours to the big screen would be a daunting task for just about anyone. Unfazed by the hugely disappointing Department, Varma recoils with The Attacks of 26/11, a bold, unflinching, nearly-flawless work that restores not only Varma’s reputation but also elevates a fantastic big-screen page-turner.
Seen through the eyes of the Mumbai regional police chief (Patekar) reliving and relating the events to a blue-ribbon government body, Attacks is a riveting blow-by-blow visual diatribe assailing the first few hours of that dreadful night that ended with the capture of the first—and only—terrorist of the 10 perpetrators. Maintaining continuity to actual events from the time that a fishing vessel is hijacked off the coast of Gujarat leading up to the attacks in central Mumbai and until the arrival of an elite commando team from the Indian army, Attacks offers a hair-raising, harrowing narrative.
One of the most disturbing scenes ever filmed in Hollywood was from the 1974 seminal horror classic Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The film’s memorable leather-hooded lunatic, nicknamed Leatherface, assaults a group of passing college students who stop to get help after their car breaks down. The singular disturbing scene had a chainsaw-wielding Leatherface framed against a doorway, blocking all those inside from leaving. Raising the chainsaw above his head, his leather-mask grimace spewing cold indifference towards all of humanity, perfectly captured the manifestation of “Anarchy,” with a big A.
Even though Chainsaw and Attacks have vastly different premises, Varma brilliantly showcases Attacks with his own vision of Anarchy. The shocking indifference with which two machine-gun wielding terrorists stroll the lobby of the sumptuous and famed main lobby of the Taj Mahal Hotel—surely one of the most luxurious retreats in the world—calmly killing, re-killing and triple-killing any man, woman and, even more sadly, child that either sits, stands or crawls passes profound commentary on the gross disregard for the very foundations on which civilization is built.
The utter helplessness and chaos that ensued was magnified by the inefficient and clumsy initial response by the police, who literally use archaic tools (stone throwing?) to defend the public. As the terrorists continue their carnage indiscriminately, on fishing folk off the coast of Gujarat, at the Taj Mahal Hotel, the Café Leopold, the metropolis’s main train station, there appears no hope whatsoever—very few, if any, police firing back and no sirens, even in the distance. The only endgame—which the terrorist mastermind makes very clear in the opening minutes—is to create as much havoc and kill as many Indians as possible. It is with a huge sigh relief that one smart and already-bloodied junior police officer plays dead in the back of a van to offer the first ray of hope for the city’s otherwise overwhelmed civil defense apparatus during those horrifying 10 hours.
In the lead, Patekar-as-chief-cop is as bitter and methodical as a precision surgeon who must forever relive a failed operation to save a life—which for him was restoring the sense of well-being that most Mumbaiites take for granted. Patekar’s character, adding mystique to the incongruity in the identities of who’s who in this story, wisely remains nameless—he is only being identified as the Joint Commissioner. Jaiswal, who plays Ajmal Kasab, the captured Pakistani terrorist, in addition to being a dead ringer for Kasab, injects convincing menace as the self-confessed angel of death.
If the scene at the Taj is perfect anarchy, the total indifference in the eyes of a scraggly, older hangman who approaches Kasab to lead him to the gallows offers a small, unsettling consolation, a sign of daily life retuning to “normal.”
This scene effectively allows Varma to transfer control back to civilian rule. Like the endings to Zero Dark Thirty or Argo, the much saluted Hollywood odes to actual events from contemporary history, The Attacks of 26/11 ultimately also celebrates light at the end of seemingly unending darkness.
Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator, Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.