The 26/11 tragedy, retold

The Mumbai attack inspired several films, artwork and literature all over the world

gallery-image Visual impact: Photographer Prashant Godbole revisited the terror attacks sites, like the Leopold Cafe.
gallery-image and Nariman House, in 2016.

The voice is steady, and the command chilling. “Yes, do it. Sit them up and shoot them in the back of the head. Do it, do it! I am listening,” says a handler from Pakistan, recorded in the intercepted call during the 60-hour siege of the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower Hotel in Mumbai in the 26/11 attacks, 10 years ago. The 10 brainwashed young boys from Pakistan, captured in many CCTV cameras at the site of the firings, aren’t aghast, though. One of the victims at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus described in the HBO documentary, Terror In Mumbai, aired a year after the attacks: “It was as if they had a toy gun in their hands”, and they chose to play with it, pulling the trigger when they felt like it.

The handler’s voice becomes more threatening as the film progresses. Several such recordings of calls made by the handlers are played out in the documentary, which also humanises the terrorists. On one occasion, they are ordered to pile up and burn the mattresses, carpets and sheets in the hotel room. But, the terrorists take in their five-star surroundings. They are mesmerised. “There are big computers here, with 30-inch screen,” says one of them. Another goes on for a few minutes describing the opulence that has struck them.

Artists take time to create a work, because they do not want to look at a tragedy insensitively. —Alka Raghuvanshi, art curator

The 65-minute documentary also tells the tale of a Turkish woman who made a veil from her black shawl so that she and her husband can pass off as a Muslim couple; of a house-help’s equanimity in the Jew study centre, Nariman House, to escape quietly with the child of the Jewish family that was under attack; of the captured terrorist, Ajmal Kasab, who was interrogated by the Mumbai Police; and of the Mumbai Police force that was caught off-guard in a situation they had never thought they would come across. The film not only captures the plight of the victims, but that of the 10 gunmen, too, who are victims at the hands of their parent organisation, Lashkar-e-Taiba, which was on a mission to surpass the terror created by Al-Qaeda―to become the most fearful terror outlet.

Telecast in the same year, another documentary―Mumbai Massacre―an episode from the PBS series, Secrets of the Dead, recreates the version of the victims. The Turkish Muslim couple, Seyfi and Meltem Muezzinoglu, feature here as well, narrating their account of being held hostage for eight hours, and how Islam is not synonymous with terrorism. It also features hotel staff from Taj and Oberoi who stood firm in the face of adversity. On the PBS website, describing the process for the film, the makers state: “Early on we decided that we would not attempt to explain the politics and geopolitics of the attack; that our focus would be strictly personal. The interesting thing about that decision is that in diving deeply into the personal experiences of the people caught up in the siege, a very rich account of the politics naturally emerged.”

Another documentary, Surviving Mumbai, by Victoria Midwinter Pitt brings together candid and personal accounts from the ordinary and extraordinary people who were caught up in the siege. It has now been turned into a feature film, Hotel Mumbai, starring Dev Patel, releasing this month.

The 26/11 attacks could have spawned numerous works of art, literature and cinema,but there have been few, especially from India. And that, too, very passive attempts. This, when more than 20 film titles were registered with the two Mumbai-based motion pictures associations, within a year of the attacks. However, these filmmakers were called out for their insensitivity of registering these titles on the heels of the attack.

One of the first to bear the brunt was Ram Gopal Varma, who visited the Taj hotel within two days of the siege ending, with Vilasrao Deshmukh, then chief minister, and his actor-son Riteish Deshmukh.

“I had never gone there with the intention to make a movie. But media only knows to create sensationalism. Why I finally made the film (The Attacks of 26/11) was because of the chance interaction with (former Mumbai police commissioner) Rakesh Maria and (senior police inspector) Vijay Salaskar's wife, besides the conversations with the constables who were at CST station,” says Varma about his 2013 film.

While Varma was at his Yari Road residence when the attacks took place, Assamese filmmaker, Jahnu Barua was at the International Film Festival of India in Goa. There, he saw people from Mumbai, worrying for the safety of their loved ones. He thought that filmmakers would be eager to tell the stories of fear and trauma. But, for two years, there was no substantial work on the attacks, except for a few random exhibition of photographs. He was surprised by the lack of stories even when the 26/11 attacks were of the same magnanimity as the 9/11 attacks in the US.

A still from Baandhon A still from Baandhon

Barua toyed with the idea of making a film for months, and eventually, made a low-budget, independent film―Baandhon―in 2012. “One thing I was clear about is that I didn't want to show bloodshed or violence in the film I make, I wanted to capture the impact it had left,” says Barua.

Baandhon doesn't jump on to the macabre like Varma’s film. It is set in a small town in Assam, where an old couple is worried over the safety of their Mumbai-based grandson, who is not reachable on the phone during the attacks. There is not one footage of the attacks, and yet the film touches your core. It wasn’t easy for Barua to make a film on something as disturbing as the attacks, and he wanted to give it an emotional touch.

French filmmaker Nicolas Saada's Taj Mahal (2015) also tells a compassionate story. The film, which received a lukewarm response on its release, is now on Netflix, and tells the story of a girl stuck in the five-star hotel during the attacks.

Brinda Miller, who curated the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival, for almost a decade, says that the footfall at the art fair was less the year of the attacks as the city was still reeling from its aftereffects. “As far as artworks are concerned, I don’t remember anything consequential.”

It is never easy to draw inspiration from a tragic event, says art curator Alka Raghuvanshi. “Any art form takes time to take shape. There are multiple reasons for that, the most important being lack of funding, followed by how you want to portray the subject. Artistes, usually, take time to create a work because they don’t want look at a tragedy insensitively,” she says, adding that 10 years is nothing. “It can take longer to portray the real pain. Some of the works that are out there, aren’t necessarily as evoking as it should have been. But may be something along the lines will come up in time.”

Steven Spielberg, for instance, secured the rights for a film after receiving the story of Oskar Schindler from Schindler's Ark, but never felt comfortable making the story. It took years to convince himself to make Schindler's List (1993), a Holocaust movie, that left him emotionally drained. Initially, he wanted his friend and peer Martin Scorsese to direct the film. Scorsese refused, saying that only a Jewish filmmaker could do justice to it. Spielberg then asked Roman Polanski, a Polish-Jewish Holocaust survivor whose mother died in Auschwitz, to direct the film. Polanski, too, refused, finding the subject too personal to touch, He ultimately made The Pianist (2002), based on a Holocaust memoir of a Polish-Jewish musician Wladyslaw Szpilman.

For Varma, it wasn’t as emotionally draining when he made his film. “I never thought of it in terms of India-Pakistan, Hindu-Muslim. For me, it was an incident. One of the most criminal incidents in post-independent India. I felt there was some audacity that 10 people can walk into a city of millions, hold it hostage and leave 40,000 police personnels stunned and unable to react to it... It seemed like war and the police is not trained for war,” he recalls.

In May 2014, a ten-feet tall baby face, made of fibreglass, was installed at the traffic signal at Nariman Point. Created by Chintan Upadhyay, who is now embroiled in his ex-wife's murder case, the sculpture has murals from classical artworks and scenes from contemporary city life, including the 26/11 terror attacks.

Violence has that effect, says Raghuvanshi. “When such carnage takes place, it ought to inspire people in their artwork. Violence was used as an inspiration in a lot of art pieces in the next year’s art fair, but for some strange reason anything hardly stood out to have a recall value.”

Much like how Pablo Picasso’s Guernica came into being. Picasso, who was commissioned to create a large mural for the Spanish display at the 1937 World's Fair in Paris by the Spanish government, made a dispassionate attempt. It was only after hearing about the April 26 bombing of Guernica that poet Juan Larrea urged Picasso to consider the bombing as his subject. The artist read war correspondent George Steer’s eyewitness account and created a masterpiece that would be remembered for ages.

In 2016, photographer Prashant Godbole revisited the survivors for an exhibition, #ShatteredNotBroken, curated by Scarecrow Communications. He met people whose lives were turned upside down after the attacks. Vishnu Zende, the railway announcer who witnessed the firing at CST, cannot make himself go to the station anymore. “He has taken up a desk job at the Kalyan station and refused to go to the CST station even for the picture,” says Godbole, whose photographs were framed in shattered glass and the funds raised was used to help the families of martyrs of the Uri attacks.

Several books were churned out post the attacks. Take for instance, To the Last Bullet by Vinita Kamte and Vinita Deshmukh. Vinita Kamte lost her husband, additional commissioner of police Ashok Kamte, in the attacks, ad the book unravels the shortcomings of the Mumbai Police. A 2012 documentary, After The Bullet, a part of Women without Borders’ Sisters Against Violence Extremism (SAVE), not only traces how the attacks affected Vinita Kamte’s life, but also brings in voices of women from Pakistan.

The virtual game developed by Shivam Sai Gupta. The virtual game developed by Shivam Sai Gupta.

There were digital games, too. Shivam Sai Gupta was 13 when the attacks happened, and he saw them unfold on TV at his home in Patna. He created a game, Terror Attack: Project Fateh, “to motivate people to stand up against terrorism and create awareness”.

“I wanted to intimate and inspire people against terrorism. That time, I realised everyone was playing American games on terrorism and military. There was no emotional connect to India. I had a strong connect with Mumbai where I travelled frequently for my medical check ups,” says Shivam.

In 2013, after investigative journalists Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark published the book, The Siege, one of the most authoritative take on the Mumbai attacks, things changed. The narrative was soon turned into an interactive online experience, a newsgame that led the players to safety routes while different sites in the city were being burnt down. The game was taken town later, but the idea has found acceptance and there’s another newsgame based on Levy’s book, The Exile, on Osama bin Laden’s flight after 9/11.

Shivam, now 23, says if you have been touched by violence, it stays with you forever. “You keep thinking of ways to make people more aware. I am thinking of how to use virtual reality for the cause. If you look at the core issue, my mission is still to increase empathy between people and eliminate suffering and hatred which is killing the world,” says Shivam.