With the 9/11 attacks, it took a while before it was inevitable that filmmakers took to the series of events - and there were many - and started to adapt some for the big screen, from Paul Greengrass' United 93 and Oliver Stone's World Trade Center. Some quarters may call this insensitive, while others deem it no different from any other big screen treatment of real incidents, from wars to crime to just about any genre. And from the audacity of the type of attacks in 9/11, using commercial planes as projectiles and forever changing the endgame possibility of any aircraft hijacker, the Mumbai attacks also brought equal notoriety in the tactics used, something simple in utilizing a small group of armed men committing nothing but mass murder on the streets of the city.
If you had been glued to your screens during this extended series of shootings and bombings in real time, then the immediate assessment was that the city's police was grossly overwhelmed, being neither equipped nor trained to handle situations like these, because not only was it unprecedented - hearing the Joint Commissioner of Police (Nana Patekar) telling it as it is to a commissioned inquiry - but at the time nobody could have dreamed of how daring this plan could have been, which I suppose the simplicity of it all could have shocked any security force from their complacency.
Ram Gopal Varma recreated most of the night's events, starting from the high seas with the hijack of an Indian fishing vessel used to transport the select group of murderers to within range of Mumbai, before setting off in a rubber boat to its shores, fanning out in different directions to inflict mass mayhem, using the element of surprise and confusion to great effect, not to mention being armed to the teeth with bombs, grenades, and countless of rounds for their rifles. Most of the first half of the film tracked various routes the murderers took, from the Leopold Cafe, to the Taj, and Cama Hospital, amongst others already rigged such as the explosives in a cab that they took, in addition to the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, with others such as the Oberoi and Nariman House being mentioned as targets.
As a film, there's a sense of urgency pulsating through the narrative, told through the perspective of the Joint Commissioner as he recounted events on that faithful day, with the necessary flashbacks to key events being played out by the director. I suppose RGV would have accessed plenty of archived footage and research to bring some authenticity to some of the violence on display here, at times using slow-motion to either focus on the zombie nonchalance of the killers, or for dramatic effect when showing some humanity exhibited by some who had also fallen victim.
While the film had no lack of showcasing the battle zones and senseless violence as inflicted on the entire city, the decision to keep this film to just about 2 hours meant plenty left on the cutting room floor. The Taj and the Oberoi, one of the longest stretches of battles between the police and eventual commandos sent from New Delhi, and that with the terrorists, were never featured, as are how the rest of the group never shown how they were subdued. From accounts of eyewitnesses, there were also enough tales of heroism shown by the Taj staff and many others, but this is not the film used to celebrate these selfless acts. Which is a bit unfortunate given that these acts probably saved countless of lives as the murderers went room to room in harrowing fashion. RGV captured the horror without a doubt, but for reasons unexplained, chose to leave out that of heroism.
Instead, what we got - and I'm not complaining - was the focus strictly on the Joint Commissioner, who had spent more than half the film rooted in his hot seat as he recounted what would be the worst day of his policing career, and that of the solo adversary who had been captured alive in Ajmal Kasab (Sanjiv Jaiswal). The attacks were quickly played out after a brilliant start, leaving resolution as nothing but a passing remark and footnote in the film, preferring to center itself on the ideological battle between the Joint Commissioner and Kasab, which culminated in yet another riveting scene constructed in a mortuary, with Nana Patekar delivering his best performance in the film here with a solo monologue, knowing that he's not able to knock any logical sense into his opponent, but still delivering successful blows nonetheless.
There's a void of characterization, obviously done without in an Us versus Them scenario, and at times it was difficult to watch the senselessness of how victims fall prey just because they were at the wrong place at the wrong time. If only this film decided to expand its runtime as per a typical Bollywood film, but include the many human stories of sacrifice, humanity and heroism that were abundant, that this film could be complete and definitive. As it is, it's probably leaving the doors open for some other filmmaker to construct a more inclusive picture.