Monday, November 09, 2009

Encounters in "A Wednesday"

I watched the movie "A Wednesday" very late, last week. I had heard much about the movie and Kamal Hasan had remade it in Tamil.
I did not like the movie at all. This is a belated analysis of the movie. This is just my opinion, I am not claiming to be a connoiseur of fine movies.

(By the way, if you have not seen the movie, please be aware that this is NOT a proper review. It reveals everything about the ending. I am taking this liberty because I think the movie has been out for more than six months now. Don't read further if you want to watch the movie. This analysis is more about political beliefs than anything else.)

Before you stat reading this post, please visit the link - The Hindu -Ishrat Jehan's encounter.

The Story
The Police Commissioner of Mumbai gets a call warning him about five bombs set to explode at 6 PM unless he fulfills certain demands. We are introduced to a couple of second level police men. One of them is Arif Khan, who seems to enjoy bashing up people. He is with the ATS and the police themselves call him a psycho and a problem guy.
The guy who set the bombs, Naseeruddin Shah, then proceeds to demand the shipping of four terrorism suspects to the Juhu airport. In an abandoned runway, amid lots of drama with cell phones, three of the suspects are killed by Shah's bombs. The fourth one escapes, but then the police shoot him on the request of Shah.
Why did Shah do this? He explains in a lengthy dialog with the commissioner that he is just a common man and is tired of being killed by terrorists.
In the final shot of the movie, the commissioner does find Shah, but then leaves him free after shaking his hand.

The Writer and his stand
I have seen that in India, directors create movies with dubious moral stands (such as demeaning women). Then when questioned about such stands they ask us to enjoy the movie as a story. That is, they ask us not to attach any "meaning" to the movie.
Thus, a director like Parthiban can show a movie in which a raped woman ends up seeking and marrying her own rapist. Rajinikanth or Surya or Vijay can insult women's dresses and teach women how to behave all the time. But when confronted, they claim that it is just a story.
So, the first question to ask is if writers take stands about social issues or not in movies. It is recognised throughout the world that this is, indeed, the case, most of the time. A story in a movie is a point of view. It is somewhat like an argument. The writer positions characters around the argument and shows them in a bad or good or gray lights. This is particularly true of "commercial" stories. It is certainly true that when a shrew is shown to be slapped in a movie, the writer is guiding you towards certain judgements about women.
This is NOT the case with every story. I am not saying that stories are written with bad and good people in mind. But I think we are all intelligent enough to know when a writer is trying to guide us.
In this light, who are the "heroes" in "A Wednesday" and who are the bad people? What does the writer guide us toward?
The movie is not at all subtle in this regard. Naseeruddin Shah is shown as a "common" man again and again. He calls himself as a represntative. At the end of the movie, the commissioner lets him go (in spite of him killing three people) with a proud handshake.
So, the writer expects us to identify with Shah. He wants us to sympathise with the commissioner. And he wants us to spare no thoughts to the men killed for "terrorism".
Now that we are clear about what the writer is saying, is that a moral stand? I will not ask this question of every movie, but this movie, clearly, tries to make a political statement. It is not "just" a story. The writer is writing about contemporary events and asks us to judge a consequence of that.
This is where I had a big problem with the movie (I had other, more aesthetic issues which I discuss later).
The idea that some vague "terrorist" can be encountered at any point of time, without a trial, is morally abhorrent. And in this movie there is not enough shown to "judge" these guys.
At one point, Naseeruddin Shah says that people are kept in jails for ten years without a judgement - but that happens with EVERY case in India. By that logic, why shouldn't we be killing murder suspects? Why only "terrorists"? There have been serial, mass killers who have killed more people than some terrorists. Shouldn't we be killing people in the streets?
Once you have decided that a trial is just a bureaucratic requirement, then why stop with terrorists?
In fact, the cruel arm of the Indian state punishes more innocent people, by keeping them without trial in jails for as much as seven or eight years. Why didn't anyone make a movie out of THAT?
If Shah, the common man, has to be angry with someone, anyone at all, it should be the delayed justice system. Instead focussing on a formless "terrorist" who can be killed just like that, how morally repugnant is that?
To me, it is clear that Shah is the murderer in the movie. At least he should have been showed as deranged. This is why I could like the Tamil movie "Evano Oruvan" ("Dombivli Fast" in Marathi) better than this movie.
The director is not required to give a solution - but at least do not PERVERT the original issue.
The most revolting scene in the movie was the policemen killing Ibrahim in cold blood. Do people really think encounters are fun hunting of "terrorists"?
If you have not visited the link above yet, here it is, again: The Hindu -Ishrat Jehan's encounter.

The Revenge story
Now, we all enjoy revenge movies, of course. We all like it when a single man takes revenge for his family or lover. But there is a difference between that and this movie.
You see, in a revenge movie, the director has already shown US the viewers, who is responsible for the crime. At that point there is a direct, personal line of connection between the crime, the murderers and the vigilante.
In "A Wednesday" I saw no such connection -
1. There was no personal connection between Shah and the "terrorists"
2. There is no connection between the CRIME and the terrorists either.
So what the hell?
This is why I felt that the movie was deeply dishonest. I felt they had made it to exploit the resentments of people after the Mumbai attacks while really coming up with no innovative stand.

The Aesthetics of the movie
1. I told my friend that this could have been made as a telefilm or something more appropriate for television. The big twist in the movie was just the revealing of Shah's intentions. I did not think that was so mind-blowing that they make a movie out of it.
2. There are ZERO other innovations in the story. The entire "detection" process was a cop-out with a contrived "cool" hacker solving everything.
3. What is with Hindi movies and pretentious characters? I have heard NOBODY in my entire life saying "I love you" and "I love you too" over the phone. Only American television characters talk that way.
4. The movie also shows people in very predictable wooden stereotypes - the hacker, for example. This idea of a "cool" young computer geek is so stupid. I am in the industry and I can tell you I have never seen such people.

I would actually suggest that these guys make real Indian movies instead of thinking they will make an "almost Hollywood movie" as they say in reviews.


Karthik said...

Then what do you say about Kamalhassan who again used this script for his image booster as so called angry common man? did you see Kamal's Tamil version promotions in televisions? its something like if somebody don't like this movie then he is not patriotic..... :)

Sailesh Ganesh said...

A few thoughts of my own (some possibly redundant in the light of what you have written):

1) Every writer/director/actor should be afforded his/her freedom of expression. In other words, the right to make crappy movies, the right to make movies that could anger others, and the right to make movies that pander to the emotions of the majority.

2) This does not mean that their movies should be exempt from a rigourous critical examination. When someone writes an article or a book, it is open to criticism by others. No reason why the same logic should not apply to a movie.

3) It is simply not acceptable for any person to take the law into his/her own hands. No matter what the excuse. If the law is not just, protest against the law, make an effort to change it. If justice is not served, then work as stakeholders in making it better. Granted that doing this in India is extremely hard, and that many people will choose the easy (illegal) way out, but that does not make it right.

4) People are as disgusted as the common man shown in the movie about terrorists attacking the country with impunity. The only difference being they don't take the law into their own hands, but most probably do fantasize about something similar. The problem here is that while no one can deny that India is a victim of terrorist activities, vigilante activity has a good chance that the innocent gets punished simply because he was at the wrong place at the wrong time.

5) You talk of a direct connection between the vigilante and the criminal and crime. I dearly love my city, and was upset for a few days after the gun shooting last year. When I went to see the Taj earlier this year, I couldn't stop the anger I felt inside. You can term this irrational, but is this connection I feel to my city any less than the connection you imply?

While I wouldn't be appreciative of something like what happens in the movie happening in real life, the movie does provide a sort of escapism, it is a mirror to my own feelings. It shows the frustration felt by the common man and dramatizes it. To me, the ending is not something that encourages people to act similarly; rather the shock value of it is meant to show that we, the people, need to start acting like we care, not just feeling like we do.

Your turn.

Ramiah Ariya said...

I never did imply that making such a movie inspires or encourages people to take law in their hands. I don't think people are stupid. So, I have no problems with the making of this movie - all that I have done is criticize its basis. Again, I never did mention anything that implies that the movie should not have been made or that the writer should be punished because of its content.
Nor did I say anything about the irrationality of anybody's connection with their city. I think you are misunderstanding my specific criticism of the internal consistency of the movie. In a movie you expect some kind of causal connection between a crime, its committer and the person taking revenge. I think the connection between Shah and the crime is tenuous, but the connection between the crime and the committer is non-existent, AS EXPRESSED IN THE MOVIE. This has nothing to do with what we feel or fantasize about. The writer SHOULD have made the case about the terrorist's killings, but did not. Instead he shows the killings as some kind of joke, towards the end.

I want to point out that my criticism is mostly directed at the writer, as expressed in the movie itself.
1. The writer chose the wrong target to emphasize and then proceeded to ham up this causal connection.
2. The writer chose a morally indefensible stand.

Now, about one of your specific statements:
"People are as disgusted as the common man shown in the movie about terrorists attacking the country with impunity. The only difference being they don't take the law into their own hands,"
Just with reference to this movie - Shah did not take the "law" into his hands. In this case the law has NOT YET CONVICTED the "terrorists". The story has not shown how these terrorists are responsible for any crime. Thus Shah is not established as a vigilante. This is a core reason why I felt Shah was the murderer.
I hope I am clear - vigilante justice is always something we "fantasize" about - true. But in this particular movie the "justice" is directed against people whom the story itself has not established as criminals.

This is why this movie fails EVEN as escapism. Escapism is not an excuse you can use to justify shoddy stories (although that is how Bollywood seems to interpret it).

Kunal Janu said...

Like Sailesh Said, In a country like our's It's just fair that we execute these terrorists after they are proved guilty.

Remember the Hijack? Air India Flight from Kathmandu to Delhi was hijacked, India had to let go of 3 terrorists (whose names I don't recall) plus pay up a good sum of money to solve the problem.

One of the released terrorists went to being on a plane that attacked the World Trade Center, one of them was responsible for attack on the Indian Parliament, and the chief of these guys was one of the planners of the Mumbai attacks in December 2007. Saaed masood I think who Pakistan claims to be innocent!

All this because we let them live.. I'm not trying to be over patriotic about the situation, but really does anyone hijack planes or bomb trains for the release of murder suspects or serial killers?

Are we even talking about national Security in parliament? There was an order to have guards 24 X 7 on the Marine Line.. But a News channel showed us that there were no police men seen anywhere on the marine line at 1 am in the night.

The movie was to remind us people about the incident. The director shows the helplessness of a common man who wants to change something for good but is forced to take the law into his own hands. Yes, letting go of him at the end was overly dramatic but for How long are we to accept that thousands of homeless children would sleep on an empty stomach, while a terrorist can demand a chicken biriyani and still get it! There are so many laws, none implemented!

Ramiah Ariya said...

I think you are missing the point - nobody is saying there are zero terrorists in the world. But terrorists are not a separate race or something. You cannot call someone a terrorist in a movie and assume that all else falls into place. You have to atleast show some kind of link between the act of terrorism and these particular guys. No such link was shown in the movie.
You can make revenge movies, but whoever heard of a revenge movie in which A kills B, and then C goes and kills D, someone entirely different?
What this movie tries to tell you is that terrorists are some kind of demons whom you instantly recognise and then kill. What this movie also tells you is that terrorists are such demons that you can kill one instead of someone else and it is completely fine.
This is not just an argument about a flaw in the story - it is in fact a FUNDAMENTAL problem in the way Indian media characterizes terrorism. They show terrorists as people who are not really human, who have no rational motives and also, as some sort of a group that can be substituted for each other.
This movie plays into all that.

You and Sailesh talk about a common man taking law into his hands out of frustration - but this common man kills someone entirely different!! That is not just because the story made a mistake - it is in fact a fundamental FEATURE of the way the story describes terrorists. That FEATURE is wrong. And that feature shows why people like Ishraat Jehan get killed.
Once you have accepted nameless encounters of people who may have done no wrong, the next step is stories like this, which glorifies such killing, even though the killing makes NO sense.
The writer was simply looking at a visceral satisfaction that people get seeing anyone labelled a terrorist killed, even if that "terrorist" has no link to any actual terrorism in the story itself.

Anonymous said...

We are not in 1950 or 1960s, where movies were made with slow scenes explaining each and everything. It is understood that, those terrorists were involved in some kind of terrorist act, which would have killed n number of people.

And, I wish you were present in the place where the mumbai shootout happened. If at all you know the pain, I don't think, you will ever understand, what the movie is talking about.

I don't get your point. What do you mean by this movie is killing somebody entirely different ? Well, so it be. Don't you get the message ? It is a message to the terrorists and to our government that, no more, justice shall be delayed. Those who are guilty will be or should be punished. According to this movie, those 4 terrorists have committed some crime(which we are not cleared about) and they got their punishment.

Why don't you assume that there is one scene, where all these 4 terrorists bomb blast a train or something ? Is that what you want ?

Ramiah Ariya said...

Better Hindi movies were made in 1950s and 1960s than now.
As I mentioned in one of the comments, the writer leaving out an important piece of the causal chain is NOT a mistake or out of subtlety. Subtlety does not involve swallowing whole pieces in establishing a case. As I said, it is not a bug in the story - it is a very important feature.
Why do you think the writer goes into all the trouble to show Arif Khan's nature, or the other policeman's family but has nothing to show for acts of the terrorists themselves? Aren't the latter more important to the story than the former?
That is key in understanding where the writer comes from - the writer dehumanizes terrorists and terrorism purposely and callously and shows encounters as some kind of proper vigilante justice. He makes this case even though encounters have been proved to be staged killings of even innocent people in India (as in the Sohrabuddin case).
That is a deeply conservative political message and I am writing in proper response.
From your comments about justice, I don't know what to say - I think the rule of law is what we are defending to some extent from the terrorists. I don't see how Shah's actions in the movie help in that direction anyway.
I can only analyse a movie as it is shown. I find it significant that the writer leaves out important pieces and presents a shoddy case. I don't know why you are asking about including some scene - how is that my concern?

Anonymous said...

Dear Sir,

"The writer leaving out important pieces of... bla bla bla.." Except you, everybody else feels that is not important. So, no more comments on this.

You have taken one (Sohrabuddin)incident into consideration and you have written one big blog to say that the writer dehumanizes the terrorists and terrorism. :-) What else do you want to do ? Should we build a temple and do pooja for them ?

Just think of the people, who would have lost their loved ones and from that angle, what do you want to say ?

Ajmal kasab has killed so many innocent people and he is in jail, still living. It's almost 1 year, since the mumbai shootout. The movie says, kill him. Simple !

First understand, "Terrorists are not humans." Let me make my point clear, It doesn't mean that everybody else are humans. I do understand that even if the whole world says so, you are not going to agree on this. I am happy that there are very few people like you, who didn't understand this movie as you have understood.

So, Be yourself. I am happy about myself and all the others who got the message of the movie and thats what matters to me.

Have a good day.

Pradeep said...

Among other things, he did mention that, if at all we get angry, we must direct our anger towards the justice system. This is a reasonable point isn't it?

Here for author:
You say, "And in this movie there is not enough shown to "judge" these guys"....I have seen the tamil version and in that he gets some kind of confession (mujhe fakhr hai....or something) from those terrorists before killing them. Isn't that enough evidence? The writer knew that the blasts are fresh in the mind of the audience.

Sailesh Ganesh said...

Shankar, I remember a scene in the movie where Naseeruddin Shah asks the terrorists to identify themselves. Each of them says his name followed by terrorist incident he was responsible for. Proof enough for you? Or do you think some innocent man decided to claim something for himself just to get free?

Ramiah Ariya said...

There are two main problems in this movie. I have tried to treat them independent of each other.
The first is the story's internal consistency. The movie involves killing people in cold blood. Police perform one of these murders.
Let us think back about any of the revenge or vigilante justice movies we have seen. You will see that there is a clear line between the people who are punished with death and the people who are either let go or merely injured. The difference, from a common "law" perspective is that even within vigilante justice, we look for some real "justice". Strictly speaking revenge movies show extra-judicial killings. BUT we are able to buy into them because there is a common justice we can identify with.
To me, that threshold, in which I can understand an extra judicial killing (and buy the writer's line) is pretty high. I think you have to show a criminal act - and that criminal act has to result in some innocent person's death - so that I buy police laughing among themselves as they kill a person.
Now, the commenters in this article have uniformly implied that threshold is much lower for them. They say that just saying someone is a terrorist is enough to show a killing in cold blood.
Please remember that the movie still has big logic holes.
Are the "terrorists" convicted or not? If they are convicted already, what is gained by killing them? If they are NOT convicted, how does the writer make the connection that they are guilty? How does Shah KNOW that they are guilty?
Finally, from a purely utility point of view, what is gained by killing people who are already in custody? I have not gone near this question because it implies that murder has some utility value.
All of these questions are left unanswered in the movie.
I don't think the problem is one of understanding, as Anonymous says. There is nothing that subtle about this movie. The question is that of acceptance.
What does it mean for our society when people still insist that this very low threshold is enough to show a killing?
THAT is the question I have tried to address through the political message of the movie. That is the second aspect that is disturbing.
Sohrabuddin's case is not isolated. I linked to Ishraat Jehan's story in the post itself.
We all complain that India is corrupt and that government officials have too much power. Yet when it comes to encounter killings, we are ready to give the benefit of doubt to the most powerful government officials. Where do the incentives lie for policemen? It lies in killing suspects so that they do not have to go through evidentiary procedure or a trial.
We do not even send our family women to local police stations for passport verification. Yet we somehow support encounter killings which are clear murders. Why is that?
Lastly, does "everyone" really support encounter killings? We are a conservative society, and it would not surprise me if a majority support it. But laws are not made with majority opinion in mind. Laws are intend to protect the weak. Remember that the courts and libreal NGOs have consistently come against encounters because they understand it for what it really is - an effort by an incompetent police force to exercise brute violence and get away from doing their jobs properly.
Anonymous, you may say terrorists are not humans - but then why are murderers, rapists and arsonists given a trial? In fact if it was upto us ("everyone") to define who requires the law and who does not, I am sure we will be killing people for traffic disputes.

Kunal Janu said...

Valid arguments Ram, Yes, The director could have used the portions of showing the officers wife to show these terrorists having committed the crime.
The writer i guess was just narrating the victim's side of the story. How police officers families are affected, and what goes about the lives of people who travel in the trains daily.