Siege in Mumbai Spawns Wave of Films Recounting the Horror

By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post

MUMBAI, India — Auditioning in December for the role of a Bollywood villain, Rajan Verma was asked to act like a man attacking a train or a building. He clutched a toy gun and spewed out what he hoped sounded like a venomous diatribe.

Verma, 28, had no idea what the movie was about. But when the casting director handed him a black T-shirt, beige cargo pants, a blue backpack and a replica of an AK-47 assault rifle, he knew instantly. He was being asked to play one of the assailants in the terrorist attacks launched against Mumbai on Nov. 26 — a date Indians refer to as 26/11.

"We all know Ajmal Amir Kasab's look," Verma said of the lone gunman captured during the three-day siege, who is now on trial for his part in the deaths of more than 170 people, including six Americans. "I immediately refused the role. I did not want to glamorize this diabolical man."

In the end, Verma took the role, and the film, "Total Ten," is to be released this summer. It is the first of a slew of planned movies seeking to revive the horror that paralyzed Mumbai.

"The movie must put an end to the factory that produces people like Kasab," said Verma, who sported ripped, faded jeans and a skin-tight red T-shirt during a recent interview. "I went on a diet, hit the gym and straightened my hair for the role. The toughest part was to bring the animal-like cruelty in my eyes," he added, narrowing his eyes to a glare.

During the siege, which India has accused Pakistan-based Islamist groups of engineering, 10 gunmen attacked 10 sites in the city, including two five-star hotels, a train station and a Jewish outreach center. Since then, filmmakers have registered more than 30 movie titles for projects centered on the attacks, including "Taj Terror," "Operation 5-Star Mumbai" and "26/11 Mumbai Under Terror."

"Directors of low-budget quickie movies seem to be quite happy to tackle films about the 26/11 attacks because of the sensationalism inherent in the incidents," said Nandini Ramnath, a film editor at Time Out Mumbai. "Whatever the merits of the movies, they are bound to make at least some viewers hum the national anthem in their heads. Patriotic kitsch always works."

India's news media have provided saturation coverage of the attacks, the subsequent investigation and Kasab's ongoing trial. In March, residents of a Mumbai neighborhood burned an enormous effigy of Kasab during a local festival.

But the director of "Total Ten," Surinder Suri, says fatigue has not set in.

"Four films have been made on the Kennedy assassination. People still watch," Suri said. "Some stories will always remain an enigma to the human mind, no matter how many times they are explored."

Suri said that his movie opens with 10 men setting out from Pakistan by boat and arriving in Mumbai after a harrowing trip across the choppy Arabian Sea. It focuses on Kasab's story, with flashbacks to the alleged gunman's training in Pakistan and a sequence depicting him killing passengers and policemen at the train station before his arrest on the streets outside. The final scene shows residents pouring into the streets to light candles and shots of the wreathed bodies of policemen and soldiers killed in the attacks.

Unlike typical Bollywood offerings, "Total Ten" will have no song-and-dance numbers and no romantic subplot. The film was shot in three cities between December and April. In Mumbai, Suri shot at the sites of the attacks, causing massive traffic jams as thousands of people gathered to watch. Some bystanders appeared frightened when they spotted Verma, dressed like a gun-wielding Kasab, walking around the train station.

Getting permission from police to film scenes at the actual sites was not easy.

"They said: `It's all over now. Let it be,' " Suri said. "The police are in a hurry to forget it, because they lost so many officers."

But, he added, "the film will be Mumbai's catharsis."

Suri and Verma said they had lost friends in the attacks.

Verma came to Mumbai's movie mecca eight years ago and has acted in two children's movies, one in which he hijacks a school bus and another in which an army of animated rats attacks him with guns. Now he worries that the "Total Ten" posters will be torn down and burned and that he will be a target of public anger.

"The film will release a tide of emotions," he said. "People will want Kasab hanged."

Indian news media have reported that the Kasab character is hanged in the film, but Suri neither confirmed nor denied it. Kasab's attorney, Abbas Kazmi, said he is disturbed by the report.

"Such movies will thrust their conclusions on people, create prejudice and jeopardize the interest of the accused," he said. "The movies will turn into a parallel court."

Not everyone is focusing on Kasab. Filmmaker Sanjay Jha Mastan plans to shoot a political thriller inspired by the attacks.

"I see the whole event through a political lens," he said. "I will show politicians promoting their narrow self-interest by using the excuse of Mumbai attacks. I will not preach. I want to entertain. I will even find ways to include songs in my movie."

Meanwhile, Verma says that most of his friends and neighbors now call him "Kasab," an identity he is anxious to shake off.

A few weeks ago, he said, he received an e-mail from someone claiming to be a Pakistani woman named Razia.

"She wrote that I look handsome in Kasab's character and said she wanted to marry me," he said. "She even attached four photographs."

Verma said he forwarded the e-mail to the Mumbai police.

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