From Tacky to Sensitive: How Indian Cinema Reacted to 9/11 

Subhash K Jha examines cinema after the tragedy of 9/11.

8 min read
Filmmakers talk about cinema after the tragedy of 9/11. (Photo: Altered by <b>The Quint</b>)

(This article was originally published on 11 September 2016. It is being republished from The Quint’s archives to mark the 16th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in 2001.)

Every historic catastrophe, man-made or otherwise, spawns its own cult of creative art. I am sure the Parisian attack will bring in its wake a slew of cinematic interpretations. The 9/11 terror attack was no exception.

Bollywood and Hollywood latched on to the dramatic potential of the terror deluge. There were notable films like Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Karan Johar’s My Name Is Khan, Rensil d’Silva’s Kurbaan, Kabir Khan’s New York and Neeraj Pandey’s A Wednesday.

Rensil began shooting his treatise on Islamic terrorism before 9/11. How far did the terror attack change Rensil’s film? At that time he had said to me,

The official poster of Rensil D’Silva’s <i>Kurbaan. </i>(Photo Courtesy: UTV Motion Pictures)
The official poster of Rensil D’Silva’s Kurbaan. (Photo Courtesy: UTV Motion Pictures)
I’m shooting the film exactly the way I wrote it initially. What has happened doesn’t alter the worldview on terrorism. It only strengthens it. I’ve been warned that there has been a saturation as far as films on terrorism are concerned. But I believe every filmmaker has his own take on terrorism. Unfortunately, the alignment of terrorism with Islam remains unchanged.
Rensil D’Silva, Filmmaker 
Filmmaker Rensil D’Silva feels the alignment of terrorism with Islam remains unchanged. (Photo Courtesy: <a href="">Twitter/@FilmyTweetsNow</a>)
Filmmaker Rensil D’Silva feels the alignment of terrorism with Islam remains unchanged. (Photo Courtesy: Twitter/@FilmyTweetsNow)

That’s where Rensil sees a problem. “People objected to some of my film’s ideas and my character’s ideology. But we can’t turn away from the truth. At least I can’t. My film was not grim. It was about a serious global issue. But it wasn’t a documentary on terrorism. It was designed as a fast-paced thriller.”

Kabir Khan whose film on terrorism New York was a success says, “I’ve been fortunate that my documentaries have allowed me to travel to 60 countries. I’ve seen first-hand what the state of the world is. I think more of our mainstream cinema needs to get the geo-politics in place. Where do these characters in our films come from, and where are they going?”

“I need to make a cinema about what’s happening to our world. Unfortunately, films on terrorism in our country are often high-pitched and jingoistic. And that’s counter-productive.”

“My film, I’d like to believe, was a very balanced view of terrorism. Post 9/11 I don’t think 26/11 changed my perception on terrorism or on my film. Though the attack on the Taj and Oberoi were the most audacious in Mumbai, what about the foiled attack on our Parliament? And more people died in the train explosions of Mumbai.”

“At the end of the day, what do terrorists want? A splash. I’d say a film on terrorism would be exploitative if a filmmaker made a bad film on terrorism. I am aware 36 titles were registered for films on 26/11. No harm in that as long as they are sincere.”

A still from Kabir Khan’s <i>New York.</i>
A still from Kabir Khan’s New York.
Fimmaker Kabir Khan believes that his film has a balanced view of terrorism. (Photo Courtesy: <a href="">Twitter/@kabirkhankk</a>)
Fimmaker Kabir Khan believes that his film has a balanced view of terrorism. (Photo Courtesy: Twitter/@kabirkhankk)

Kabir Khan agrees 9/11 became a kind of cinematic formula. “It definitely became a formula in Hollywood, yes. Though there were no real 9/11 films in Bollywood. Only a lot of 26/11 films.”

Rensil d’Silva disagrees. “Films on subjects like 9/11 are rarely made in an industry concerned mostly with delivering entertainment which is where the formula exists.The majority of the film on 9/11 were delicately handled.”

Three films and three different perspectives on the same theme in 2008 — Kunal Shivdasani’s Hijack, Neeraj Pandey’s A Wednesday and Santosh Sivan’s Tahaan — were portraits in contrasting shades of identical themes.

All three dealt with different facets of terrorism and had a slick spin to offer. Of course, the spin got more sick than slick in Hijack, a tacky take on Hollywood terrorists with Shiney Ahuja playing the larger-than-life, pilot-turned-ground-engineer who sneaks into a hijacked plane and rescues the hapless passengers.

Neeraj Pandey’s A Wednesday was very American in format and style of storytelling, while Santosh Sivan’s Tahaan was more Iranian in tone and texture. One aspect of Hindi cinema’s tryst with terrorism that invites attention is the sheer volume of ‘action’ that underlines the drama.

Characters somersault nimbly into the horizon to beat the baddies. And you wonder if terrorists are the latest villains in masala kingdom after smugglers, rapists and politicians.

A still from <i>A Wednesday.</i>&nbsp;
A still from A Wednesday. 

The main reason why these films on terrorism don’t appeal to as wide audiences as they should is their masculine vision. None of these films has room for fleshed-out women characters. Hijack somehow squeezed in Esha Deol and Kaveri Jha, both of whom came and went in a rustle of delicacy during times of explosive exuberance.

The poster of Kunal Shivdasani’s <i>Hijack. </i>(Photo Courtesy: Eros International)
The poster of Kunal Shivdasani’s Hijack. (Photo Courtesy: Eros International)
My idea behind making Mumbai Meri Jaan was to show how people survive a personal tragedy. I was more interested in the characters than the tragedy of the train blasts. I recreated the blasts rather than using news footage. It took me 15 days... I did a lot of technical research about the locations and timings of the blast. Beyond that everything in Mumbai Meri Jaan was fictional... I passed close to where one of the blasts occurred. That traumatised me and I  poured my heart out into Madhavan’s character.
Nishikant Kamat, Filmmaker 
The official poster of Nishikant Kamat’s <i>Mumbai Meri Jaan. </i>
The official poster of Nishikant Kamat’s Mumbai Meri Jaan.

Neeraj Pandey who has directed A Wednesday says when we talk of the resilience of the Mumbaiites after every attack we’re only looking for another word for acceptance out of compulsion.

Tanuja Chandra who made the delicate sensitive but little-seen film about a Sikh family in the US after 9/11 called Hope & A Little Sugar says, “What prompted me to make this film?The idea that something that happens thousands of miles away can come from the same emotions that we in India have experienced, then the impossible yet possible idea that even after such deep-rooted hatred, forgiveness is possible... The only way to touch upon the issue in any significant manner is to make movies with some complexity and that doesn’t always work with audiences.”

<i>Yun Hota Toh Kya Hota </i>latched on to the tragedy merely to sensationalise it.
Yun Hota Toh Kya Hota latched on to the tragedy merely to sensationalise it.

Explains the prolific filmmaker Ananth Mahadevan, “Unlike films on the Vietnam war, 9/11 has not been dealt with in depth in the movies. Loose Change was a stunning documentary that implicated the White House in the tragedy. In India, Naseeruddin Shah’s Yun Hota To Kya Hota was a sensitive film that climaxed at the Twin Towers. Many films, however,latched on to the tragedy merely to sensationalise it. These collapsed like the Towers.”


Abhishek Sharma who gave a hilariously satirical spin to 9/11 in Tere Bin Laden says, “I think it was the follow up on 9/11 by the Bush administration that angered me and propelled me to make Tere Bin Laden a satirical film based on issues such as Islamophobia, the American Dream, and war on terror. No doubt that 9/11 was a terrible act of violence and it impacted all of us, but somewhere all of this is a result of a reckless American foreign policy that has divided the world. Even a large chunk of Americans believe so as reported by papers today.”

Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist was volatile in theme. It dealt with the sensitive issue of Indo-Pak relations and Islamic fundamentalism after the 9/11 attacks on the US. While the film questioned a young US-based Pakistani stockbroker’s relationship with his religion and culture it also depicted a relationship between the Pakstani hero and an American woman, played by Kate Hudson.

Abhishek Sharma’s <i>Tere Bin Laden</i> was a satirical take on the tragedy of 9/11.
Abhishek Sharma’s Tere Bin Laden was a satirical take on the tragedy of 9/11.

The mix of fundamentalism and cross-cultural Pakistan-American romance was not quite the recipe for world peace that the White House has recommended. Mira Nair raved over Mohsin Hamid’s novel’s elegance. “It was essentially a dialogue between two characters , the Pakistani Changez and the American Bobby.I was stuck by the elegance of the theme.”

The official poster of Mira Nair’s <i>The Reluctant Fundamentalist.</i>&nbsp;
The official poster of Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist. 

The film under-performed at the box-office. Would it have worked better if Mira chose Ranbir Kapoor or Imran Khan for the main role? Mira chortles, “That’s a very sharaarati question. I’m sure those guys would’ve gotten in their own interpretation of Changez’s character. But what Riz Ahmed gave to the film is invaluable. Just as I can’t imagine anyone but Tabu in that role in The Namesake (though we had tried other actresses) likewise The Reluctant Fundamentalist without Riz seems impossible now.”

“He had the Karachi background of the protagonist Changez. So he could speak fluent Urdu. And though he’s Britain-based he had the perfect American accent required for the role.”

Kamal Haasan’s Vishwaroopam is another very important film on the post-9/11 scenario. Personal interests, we are told, are easy to put aside if you can define heroism from a context far greater than your own good.

The deeper thrusts of Kamal Haasan and Atul Tiwari’s devious screenplay leap out of this compact epic drama which takes off into the Taliban terror outfit in Afghanistan and thence to the New York suburbia where domestic normalcy is replaced by a kind of ceaselessly renewable violence that has gripped working-class lives ever since the 9/11 attack on the US made it clear that international terrorism here to stay. Deal with it.

Just about the only desirable thing that emerges from the horrific folds of global militancy are some great adventure sagas. While Irrfan has dropped his ‘Khan’ to avoid cultural identification, Kamal Hassan who is often mistaken for a Muslim in America is in a seriously defiant mood. He is thinking of changing his distinctly Muslim-sounding name to a more pronounced Islamic-sounding ‘Qamal Haasan’. “Just to show a sense of solidarity with my Muslim brothers,including Shah Rukh whom I am very fond of.”

The poster of Kamal Haasan’s <i>Vishwaroopam</i>.&nbsp;
The poster of Kamal Haasan’s Vishwaroopam

It’s not just Shah Rukh with his ‘Khan’ surname that gets special treatment at the hands of the Americans. You could get the US immigration guys into a frenzy over a Hindi name simply because it sounds Muslim.This, Kamal Haasan discovered recently at an airport in Canada when he was on the way to the US for a makeover for a role. He was detained and questioned because both his names sounded distinctly Muslim.

Kamal Haasan is eager to change his name to Qamal. (Photo Courtesy: <a href="">Twitter/@DiehardKamalian</a>)
Kamal Haasan is eager to change his name to Qamal. (Photo Courtesy: Twitter/@DiehardKamalian)

Kamal Haasan feels racial and cultural suspicion exist in every society. “Talk to an Afghani who comes to visit India . Afghani students can’t get rooms to stay in India. There’s resistance to Afghani passports in India. And why are we so touchy about American treatment? They have a 9/11 to caution them. With 9/11 Australia is hostile to Indians. India should stop acting paranoid about racial profiling.”

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