Under my byline

Imagining terror

Posted in Art, Books, Living by Rrishi on 20 September 2008

Life imitating art, art imitating life?

Terrorists are rarely creative people — they read from a prepared script. Usually that script has been written and tested in the doing by other terrorists and also, perhaps even more often, by agents of state terror from very ancient times onwards. The history books are full of terror; and the further back one goes, the more non-fiction one finds in the surviving corpus.

Art learns from life, as life can draw upon art. What was done to Delhi last week and to other cities in recent times (not what anybody would call art) has shaken but not surprised us. Terrorism has become far too common and widespread, in our geopolitics and in our imagination.

It’s because terror is so ordinary that artists try to understand it, to lay to rest the how and the why questions to which the terrorists themselves offer only partial answers, through actions and pronouncements. In performing this role, artists have occasionally gone beyond actual events to imagined circumstances — so, sometimes, it is life that is prefigured by art. We look at terror on the stage of the imagination, in three of our most powerful media: film, art and books.


Raj Kumar Gupta wondered if his directorial debut, Aamir, would connect with audiences. The film’s hero Rajeev Khandelwal, as a London-returned doctor, becomes, in a span of barely 24 hours, an unlikely terrorist. His task: to plant a bomb — unknowingly — in a crowded Mumbai bus. What made audiences cringe was that Khandelwal was like one of them: well turned-out, educated, happy to sip a coffee on a London pavement, to pack a suitcase with goodies for home. “We have to bring reality to the fore. If you’re looking at the character of Aamir, you should exclaim, ‘All right, he could have been me, or I could’ve been him,’” says Gupta with a shrug.

Of this year’s Hindi films, an increasing number have terrorism as the tenor. Mukhbir, A Wednesday, Mumbai Meri Jaan, Contract (some allege that the recent Ahmedabad bombings were a straight lift from one of the scenes in this film), Hijack, Ruslaan, Tahaan, Mission Istanbul. Then there’s Black & White, a Subhash Ghai film that didn’t do well but was, as Ghai puts it, an attempt to understand the psyche of a terrorist. “I wondered why anyone would do something so gross, planting bombs in trains, buses, garbage bins, everywhere,” he says.

Even as Bollywood started looking at “terrorism”, Professor Rakesh Chopra of JNU investigated its beginnings by looking at Gulzar’s Maachis, Mani Ratnam’s Roja and Govind Nihalani’s Drohkaal. In a paper, “Cinema and Terrorism in India, 1990s”, Chopra quotes director Gulzar, who acknowledges that “Fear and how people live with it is a new area of exploration for me… Maachis has a sur of anguish that permeates the film and is expressed as an anger against circumstances.”

Of course, films like Fanaa and Mission Istanbul (the latter even showed Osama bin Laden’s videos from the Al Jazeera channel) barely scratch the surface, interspersing the terrorist story with song-and-dance routines. And Anurag Kashyap’s film Black Friday, focussing on the 1993 Mumbai blasts, was banned before it was finally released in 2006.

Chopra’s paper also observes that films on terrorism have middle-class protagonists and that popular sympathy is solicited for them. Suicide bombers in Maachis, Fanaa and Dil Se have a certain romanticism. Rahul Dholakia, director of Parzania, admits, however, that most films don’t reflect the true identity of a terrorist, preferring to offer “snazzy” characterisations instead.

The terrorist in a Hindi film isn’t always the villain. There are many films in which the hero turns — for unavoidable reasons — to terror. Apoorva Lakhia, who made Mission Istanbul, pointed out in one interview: “Terrorism affects so many people on either side that no party is right or wrong. Both think they are correct in doing whatever they are doing.”

Even commercial directors like Karan Johar have been impelled towards the topic of terror. His next film, My Name is Khan, revolves around a terrorist; and so does Jagmohan Mundhra’s Shoot at Sight. And while in the 1980s and early 1990s the terrorist was a character like Mogambo or Dr Dang (whose mission was to either sell the country or blow it to bits by means of cardboard-like missiles), the current crop of films, one can argue, attempts to understand why real individuals cross the line to become terrorists.

Internationally, terrorism has taken a structured cinematic form only post-9/11. Before this, terror themes shared a genre with spy thrillers and gang war. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, a string of films like Trail of the Terrorist, Looking for Answers and Hunting bin Laden were produced in the USA. A little later, United 93 chronicled events on one of the hijacked planes, and Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center told the story of two police officers trapped in the WTC’s rubble.

Some films show the effect of terror on society. American East (2007), a drama about Arab-Americans in post-9/11 Los Angeles, highlights racial profiling, cultural confusion and blind Western suspicion of all Muslims. My Beard Forever (1999) looked at racial profiling before 9/11.


War, violence and terrorism have engaged a number of contemporary visual artists. TVS Santosh’s large diptych When Your Target Cries for Mercy builds on the arresting image of a young soldier wearing a helmet, night-vision goggles and other paraphernalia, while Jitish Kallat’s recent Vox humana series of drawings uses bomb-dropping motifs.

As Shaheen Merali, a British artist-curator, writes in his curatorial note to “Everywhere is War (and Rumours of War)”, an ongoing exhibition at Mumbai’s Bodhi Gallery, “Incendiary devices have replaced cash crops, and hate-mongering and machismo have replaced a mix of stagnated policies of change and peace… Artists… have found fertile ground in which to express their despair… about the loss of voice in our current, tumultuous times.”

A more complicated take on terrorism — and not just a statement on decentred, global terror or an expression of despair at the random butchery and loss of life — is Iraqi-American artist Wafaa Bilal’s Virtual Jihadi, a “hacked” version of the popular video game Quest for Saddam. In Wafaa’s version, which created endless controversy and was ultimately (and controversially) banned, the artist casts himself as a suicide bomber on a mission to assassinate President Bush.

For Domestic Tension, a performative installation, Bilal spent a month in a prison cell-sized room in a gallery in Chicago in May 2007. Visitors were invited to shoot paintball guns at him — yellow for the “support your troops” ribbons. In all, 60,000 people shot him, and hackers programmed the gun to fire automatically!


“His speech was a scorching denunciation of American conditions, a biting satire on the injustice and brutality of the dominant powers, a passionate tirade… As if by magic, his disfigurement disappeared. He seemed transformed into some primitive power, radiating hatred and love, strength and inspiration. The rapid current of his speech, the music of his voice, and his sparkling wit, all combined to produce an effect almost overwhelming. He stirred me to my depths.”

So an associate described anarchist ideologue Johann Most, who in 1885 published a famous pamphlet on The Science of Revolutionary Warfare — perhaps the first how-to handbook for terrorists. That quote demonstrates the unparalleled power of the written word to convey the painful core and beguiling simplicity of acts of terror.

Europe, like India, is no stranger to terror — think of the left and right extremists of Italy, the IRA, the Basque ETA. Nevile Shute’s Most Secret (1945) was early in asking “terrorist or freedom-fighter”. Shute wrote about French resistance fighters who used napalm flamethrowers to kill the crews of German gunboats.

Political assassination is also terror — look no further than Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal, in which Charles de Gaulle is the target. In Shaun Harron’s The Whore-Mother (1973), the protagonist is a disillusioned but trapped IRA man. And in his thriller Question of Identity (1987) Bob Cook raised the idea of the Red Brigades using a single, massive attack to provoke a population into rebellion by showing the government to be incapable of protecting its citizens.

In India, the terrorism-counterterrorism thriller rules so far — with such titles as Vikram A Chandra’s The Srinagar Conspiracy (2000), Aniruddha Bahal’s nuclear-fuelled Bunker 13 (2003) and Mukul Deva’s recent Lashkar.

West Asia is home to many terror stories. In John le Carré’s The Little Drummer Girl (1983), a British woman is trapped in Palestinian and Israeli brinkmanship. Algerian novelist Yasmina Khadra’s recent The Sirens of Baghdad is, topically, a first-person account of the making of an Iraqi suicide bomber.

From America, two examples: Tom Clancy, whose Debt of Honor (1994) prefigured the airplane attacks of 9/11 — a Japanese pilot driving his 747 into the US Capitol; and Thomas Harris’s Black Sunday (1975), which described a thankfully still-fictional disaster: the poison-gassing of the Super Bowl, America’s biggest football game.

Graphic art’s unique ability to combine image and text for maximum impact has been harnessed to describe terror: memorably by Art Spiegelman (who designed the all-black cover of the New Yorker of September 2001) in In the Shadow of No Towers (2006), a short but heartfelt representation of the impact of 9/11 on the artist himself — who lives a few blocks from Ground Zero.


In America, a tacit understanding keeps filmmakers and writers from fictionalising 9/11. With the few exceptions mentioned above, it is as if it is too soon and too real to make a story. Western media audiences need to believe that there is dignity in death — hence the near-total absence of images of corpses in the aftermath of any terrorist event, and even (more troublingly) in the coverage of war.

Indian media, on the other hand, have not balked: TV news showed, again and again, the woman in a red and yellow salwar-kameez lying dead on Barakhamba Road last Saturday. But in an endless parade of death, how long will she be remembered?

In the West, the wound is kept fresh by a taboo; in laissez-faire India, the skin hardens.

(Introduction, section on books, and conclusion written by me. Sections on film and art contributed by Abhilasha Ojha and Neha Bhatt, and Gargi Gupta respectively.)


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