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On Black Friday

Released nearly two years after its completion, Black Friday recreates the events that followed the 1993 bomb blasts in Bombay. This article comments on the realism and structure of the film, while asking pertinent questions about the manner in which the police is portrayed.

On Black Friday

Released nearly two years after its completion, Black Friday recreates the events that followed the 1993 bomb blasts in Bombay. This article comments on the realism and structure of the film, while asking pertinent questions about the manner in

which the police is portrayed.

SMITA MITRA

A
nurag Kashyap’s Black Friday based on the book by S Hussain Zaidi, focuses on the 1993 Bombay bomb blasts that rocked the city in the aftermath of the Babri masjid demolition and the communal riots of 1992-93 December-January that followed. Following a prolonged court battle, Black Friday finally saw the light of day almost two years after it was made. The film opens three days before the blasts when in a routine police arrest, a suspect reveals a plot to bomb Mumbai with “kala sabun” (RDX). Three days later, the city is ripped apart by 10 carefully orchestrated blasts that tear through the stock exchange, a cinema hall, hotels, the passport office and other crowded areas, killing 257 people and injuring scores of others.

Kashyap deploys a non-linear narrative that moves back and forth in time as he tracks the blasts, investigation, plot, conspiracy, involvement of Tiger Memon and Dawood Ibrahim, collusion of the customs officials who turned a blind eye to the RDX landings, intelligence failures and the lucky breaks that made it possible for the investigating officer Rakesh Maria and his team to crack the case. Kashyap tracks the methodical and often instinctive but ruthless investigation that allowed Maria’s team to nab 168 conspirators in the matter of a few weeks. While closely following the book, Kashyap leaves out references to Sanjay Dutt’s alleged involvement in the acquisition of AK 56, before the blasts! This “faithful translation” and the desire to be “objective” to the “truth claim” of the book is clearly driven by the apprehensions regarding the controversial and sensational nature of discourses surrounding the 1993 blasts. Given the fraught relationship between popular cinema, sectarian politics, communal and religious fundamentalism, it is understandable that the director is heavily invested in remaining faithful to the original text; it is easier to deflect criticisms about reopening of old wounds or counter charges of inciting communal passions. The problematic reception of Parzania that opened a week before Black Friday is a case in point. It has received critical acclaim largely from the multiplex audiences and press but has been banned from exhibition in Gujarat, though Black Friday managed a clean chit in a Saamna editorial by Bal Thackeray. Clearly the film is inhabiting various slippery terrains of its own narrative and ideological drives along with its reception and circulation in the public domain which cannot be simplistically explained away.

Unfolding the Events

Black Friday painstakingly recreates the role of Tiger Memon who engineers the blasts as retaliation against the communal riots. However, the film manages to complicate Memon’s reasons for masterminding the blasts. It is not merely driven by an inchoate rage in his perceived humiliation of his religious and communal identity post-Babri masjid demolition and the riots. He clearly masterminds the blasts as revenge for the destruction of his office and business, the destruction of his “dhanda”. The early morning sequence of Memon’s anger and helplessness is shot against the backdrop of his burning car and office with billowing smoke and dying fires as he flings his cigarette away and screams, “Akkha Mumbai ko jala dalega main”. Memon manages to gather together

Economic and Political Weekly April 21, 2007

a motley crowd of angry and frustrated Muslim youths who had all suffered familial, social and religious persecution at the time of the riots. Memon’s narrative in the film is juxtaposed with that of Badshah Khan’s, a small time tailor who lost his shop and livelihood in the riots. Through Khan’s experience, the film enters the complex social world of petty, small time gangsters who become pawns in the transnational play of terror and capital that seems to have acquired a permanent status in the popular imaginary of the contemporary. The helplessness of the foot soldiers is poignantly narrated through Khan’s journey as he is forced to be on the run after the blast, moving from his native village in Rampur to Delhi, Jaipur and Kolkata in a futile attempt to evade arrest. The lack of alternatives and the impossibility of escape are driven home as Khan realises that his passport has been burned, the money stops coming and he is left with no choice but to surrender to the police. Khan is finally forced to accept Rakesh Maria’s assertion that he was equally a victim of Memon’s conspiracy.

The myth of the underworld looking after its own is busted in Black Friday, and the image of Dubai as a safe haven and an escape space remains ephemeral for the marginal and fringe gangster. Kashyap manages to create empathy for these figures and the lack of choices and employment alternatives that drive them to become managers and henchmen for the ‘bhais’. Memon’s secretary Asgar is abandoned by him to face police torture while Memon himself escapes well in time (incidentally, he is still absconding). The film signposts the nature of sectarian politics, formulations of the Muslim gangster figure and the consolidation of the “Dawood myth” in a quirky, comic and in your face sequence. In the comic interlude of Dawood Phanse’s encounter with Dawood Bhai, the film is clearly citing the popular circulation of the mythic status that the gangster enjoys within his community. Within the filmic narrative, he also becomes the summit and consolidation of evil forces behind the blast conspiracy, another citation to the shadowy figure who inspires the circulation of various terror conspiracies for the contemporary. It is this parallel circulation of capital, power and knowledge that the film mobilises that gives it its contemporary resonance.

Kashyap wanted to cast Irfan Khan as Badshah Khan and Naseeruddin Shah as Tiger but in the days following the Gujarat riots, when the film was being shot, the two actors declined to play controversial Muslim characters. A crucial cinematic choice that Kashyap and his producers had to make was whether to balance the case or to be honest to the overall film – ultimately they chose the latter and Kashyap structured the film as a thriller where, in his own words, “the police investigation is not just a driving force but the protagonist of the film”. The title card of the film, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind” becomes an attempt to understand the transformative nature of certain acts committed by the self-appointed moral guardians of one community and the acts of retaliation by another community. The decision to not fictionalise the characters forced the film into a major court battle. The TADA court was still in the process of collecting depositions and the Bombay blast accused obtained a high court stay on the apprehension that the release of the film would prejudice the verdict. After a long and protracted legal case, the Supreme Court finally cleared the film for release in its September 30, 2006 order.

Portraying the Police

The critical appreciation for Black Fridayshould not blunt us from recognising some of its failings. Most importantly, the attempt to evoke sympathy for the overworked police force through the figuration of Rakesh Maria can best be described as naïve. Maria’s banana filching, ducking his head in the water and sitting down with a Muslim family to share the evening meal after ‘roza’ are staged to humanise him. Maria’s impassioned outburst about how the gangsters could not succeed is hyperbolic rhetoric. The torture sequences taken from Maria’s point of view implicate the spectator as we enter the problematic terrain of strategies and mechanisms of evidence and confessions that most police investigations routinely deploy. If the police investigation is the “protagonist” of the film then clearly Maria is the figure through which that negotiation is enacted for us. The director attempts to balance the police brutality by trying to humanise Maria but the structure of the narrative leaves one with a sense of unease as there seems to be a suggestion of the “rightness” of Maria’s position within the ideological economy of the film, even if the narrative drive tries not to condone police brutality. He is not shown to directly participate in the enactment of torture but his overarching and looming presence seems to offer a certain kind of legitimisation of state terror, a case of the end justifying the means.

The power of Black Friday, despite its shortcomings ultimately resides in its performance of police violence and its cinematic representation of Bombay. The manner in which the police arbitrarily picks up suspects, bringing entire families for questioning and torture, the third degree on a suspect to obtain a signed confession where the officer grabs his crushed thumb to put his thumb impression and nonchalantly flicks the torn and bloodied nail away, does away with any pretension of even acknowledging that the discourse of human rights of terrorism suspects have a “space” in the system of law enforcement. The film pulls out more gut wrenching sequences out of its closet as we witness the sick wife of a suspect being slapped and thrown around in the ‘thana’, or the threat of lock-up rape being invoked to obtain information from a restaurant owner friend of Tiger who eventually kills his family and commits suicide to escape police torture. Along with the police brutality, largely shot indoors, Kashyap is able to evoke an interesting sensorium of the city and its relationship to violence. The crowded density of the Muslim neighbourhood is cinematically rendered through a focus on peeling walls and garbage littered plastic and polythene dumps. The maze of the fringe shanties of the city constructed on the water pipelines emerges as the highpoint of one of the major chase sequences. Bombay’s iconicity as a city of dreams, romance, films and tourism is systematically decentred as the city appears dark and dystopic.

Kashyap’s cinematic choice of the docudrama structure works in Black Friday but he could have avoided the repetitions. The use of agitprop freeze frames of disfigured blast victims, the long drawn out torture sequences, the sepia, yellow texture of the thana with graffiti and dirty white bathroom tiles, documentary devices such as white and black chapter titles, voice over narration, television footage of the Babri masjid demolition, public artis and rallies of the Shiv Sena along with the non-linear narrative structure are used to mobilise gritty realism. This deployment of a specific kind of “reality effect” (Barthes’ term) to signpost the “real” creates a certain tone and ambience that gives a certain charge and energy to the narrative of violence and carnage that Kashyap is able to evoke cinematically. The question remains that

Economic and Political Weekly April 21, 2007 can the “reality aesthetic” be the only aesthetic that can be deployed to cinematically narrate violent ruptures and moments of crises that we are grappling with in the contemporary? That seems to be the preferred choice if one looks at both the film under review and Parzania. The opening sequence is particularly striking as it evokes the horror of the violence and bloodshed that the bombing inflicted on the innocent people outside the stock exchange. Kashyap’s use of crane shots and slow motion in this sequence leads the spectator into the narrative of carnage and the subsequent brutal police investigation that follows. The haunting music by Indian Ocean is an added bonus in the film and Rahul Ram’s vocals with Piyush Mishra’s lyrics for the end credits are a chilling reminder of the futility of sectarian and communal strife.

Black Friday will remain an important film in Indian cinema because it explores a particular relationship between violence and the city, and unpacks its narrative through the cinematic staging of a particular moment of rupture in the recent past. It manages to do so not so much through character psychology but by locating itself in the experience of violence that shattered the fabric and image of Bombay and transformed it into Mumbai. It asks important questions about the cyclical nature of urban terror and the way in which urban ghettos get further ghettoised. It signposts important nodes of this turbulent transformation of the contemporary urban experience – a tectonic and paradigmatic shift that feeds off and circulates via conspiracy theories and paranoiac threat perceptions about “us” and “them”, about the “self” and its “other” about official institutions and local players seeking their own forms of legitimisation and power. The film makes it possible for us to formulate important questions about the claims made on behalf of regimes of transparencies and good governance and the various local players who are equal participants in the global circulation of power, capital and knowledge. Both these regimes seem to be equally invested in operating through grids of intrigue, violence, conspiracy theories and paranoia. Most significantly perhaps the film articulates for many of “us” and “them” a sense of loss of trust in the city of our “dreams” where it is no longer possible to ask the same questions of the city in the same manner.

EPW

Email: mitra.smita@rediffmail.com

Economic and Political Weekly April 21, 2007

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