Terrorism, Nationalism, and Bollywood: Analyzing ‘A Wednesday’
By Srobana Bhattacharya
The history of political conflict in India is complex and varied. It has spanned across time in various forms – the Indian independence movement, partition of India, the Sikh conflict, secessionist and ethnic conflict in the North east, territorial and religious conflict in Kashmir, communal riots between Hindus and Muslims, terrorism, and the Maoist conflict. Most naturally, the vast complexity of political conflict has found avenues of expression in Indian cinema. In this article, I discuss how terrorism is represented in Hindi cinema, by analyzing the film, A Wednesday (2008). Events of terrorism, show complex interactions between perpetrators, victims and targets, and other audiences (national and international governments). This complex interplay of interactions has provided numerous plots and subplots for Bollywood. It is crucial to understand how these interactions are represented in popular culture as it often serves as the platform for mass appeal and can be a powerful tool to initiate discussions of nation, nationalism, and political conflict. Terrorism is certainly not a new topic in Bollywood. Anurag Kahyap’s Black Friday (2005), Raj Kumar Gupta’s Aaamir (2008), Kunal Kohli’s Fanaa (2006), Santosh Shivan’s The Terrorist (1997), Mani Ratnam’s Roja (1992), Bombay (1995) and Dil Se (1998), Gulzar’s Maachis (1996) are prominent productions in this genre. Some of these films explore specific terrorist incidents and others look at terrorist profiles and most of these representations are linked to the ideas of nation and nationalism. A Wednesday offers an intriguing opening scene in which an ‘ordinary man’ unsuspectingly places a black bag possibly carrying a bomb in a police station. This opening scene departs from the usual and promises the audience a different portrayal of terrorism, something that is not stereotypical. What is worth exploring in this film is the complex interplay of two types of terrorism, where references of nation and nationalism are inevitable. Whether this reference is neutral or not, is the question that I discuss here.
In the film, A Wednesday, written and directed by Neeraj Pandey, a ‘common man’ played by Naseerudin Shah takes law in his own hands and engages in vigilante action against the Indian police and certain terrorists (Mazumdar, 2011). He is seen as a caretaker of Mumbai city, a critic of the justice system in India and also masterminding the killing of terrorists engaged in previous events of terrorism. His real targets are these imprisoned terrorists who he believes are still active even from inside the prison. Since the police are complacent about this, this ‘ordinary man’ with his elaborate technological know-how games the system and engages in a tense standoff with the police. His brand of terrorism aims at an ‘ultimate good’ and a patriotic stance – to get rid of terrorists and make Mumbai a safe city. He also wants to protect the nation and promote good nationalism. However, the question remains – can the intent of his violence or threat of violence in any form in the name of good nationalism be justified?
A Wednesday explores various nuances of terrorism – perpetration, recruitment, role of religion, police violence, vigilantism and counter-terrorism. However, the central plot often pivots around and overemphasizes the heightened sense of communal tension between the Hindus and Muslims. This film explores two types terrorism – one is the stereotypical Islamic fundamentalist kind and the other is the vigilante type committed by the ordinary man. The former is established as bad terrorism but the latter is good terrorism, committed in the name of protecting the Indian nation. However, by doing this it rejects the inherent destructive nature of terrorism. Terrorism of any kind is after all terrorism and political violence of this variety can by no means be associated with patriotism or nationalism.
In its treatment of political violence, Indian cinema often links it to the idea of nation and nationalism. Virdi (2003) argues that Hindi cinema addresses and explores ideas of Indian national identity. Rai (2003) suggests that it promotes nationalist projects by idealizing the Hindu male while ‘othering’ the Muslim man. Shahnaz Khan (2009) analyzes the film, Fanaa, to show the anti-Islam bias in Hindi cinema and contends that this treatment has the potential to serve as a type of soft power. Cinematic narratives often rely on Hindu rituals and symbolism, thereby promoting a specific vision of Indianness (Khan 2009).
A Wednesday tries to depart from the usual script, but falls into the same mould. This becomes problematic as has been pointed out by some critiques of this film. In her review of the film, Gupta (2008) asks a valid question: “Do we blow up people who blow us up?” Mohammed (2008) mentions that there is an ongoing obsession of associating terrorism with Islam in this film. This is the area of tension in the film and it justifies one brand of terrorism over another –the other being the stereotypical Islamic extremist terrorism. This is clear in the scene where the ‘ordinary man’ demands the name of the prisoners and all the names of these prisoners are Muslim names. This is how the enemy is constructed. The film does explore other indirect enemies – the Indian police and institutional structures, which are not doing enough to prevent terrorism. But, the whole treatment of the Indian state is done through a protective lens. In the second part of the film, it is revealed that the four terrorists were responsible for certain specific terrorist attacks – one was responsible for Mumbai attacks of 1993, the second was responsible for Gujarat 2002, the third was part of the Mumbai 2006 attacks, and the fourth was responsible for a string of attacks for several years. While some of these acts are clear cases of terrorism, others are not. For instance, the case of Gujarat 2002 was not a simple case of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism. Never once, during the film, was it hinted that Gujarat 2002 was a deadly communal riot and this pogrom involved systematic targeting and massive brutality against the Muslims, too. State complicity was also a part of this violence. Therefore, these representations are highly contentious, but powerful enough in distorting people’s perception of political conflict in India.
The gradual revealing of the intent behind the ‘ordinary man’s’ brand of terrorism forces the audience to take sides and to become sympathetic to the cause of good nationalism and patriotism. Every brand of terrorism justifies the intent of violence by creating some form of moral absolutes and the ordinary man’s justification is no different. The film tries to give meaning to his type of violence and ultimately attempts at diffusing the damaging consequence by letting the ordinary man reveal in his last phone conversation that apart from one bomb that he placed in the police station to show his commitment to the cause, there were no other bombs planted in the city of Mumbai. It was merely a threat and it worked to get his demands fulfilled. However, creating fear or threat of fear or violence is terrorism and this makes him no different from other terrorists.
As the plot progresses and especially during the last conversation between the ordinary man and the director general of police, Prakash Rathod, the audience is forced to sympathize with the ‘ordinary man’, displaying symptoms of the Stockholm syndrome[i]. They are pushed to identify not only with the city of Mumbai and the police, which were collectively taken hostage for the most part of this ordinary Wednesday, but also with the ‘ordinary man’. The audience is urged to find a justification of his act and think in terms of moral absolutes. This is apparent in the concluding narrative of the film made by the director general of police, Prakash Rathod – “I understand that the common man was disturbed because of the insecure environment and the incompetence of the governing authorities, but I never imagined a common man would go to such lengths to achieve this end.” Rathod also notes that, “there are no written records about the facts of this incident. It only persists in the memories of those who actually witnessed it, and I further acknowledge that although the incident has ambiguous moral connotation, I personally feel that whatever happened, happened for the best.” This is highly problematic. There is no heroism or patriotism in extremist ideas. The audience is never reminded that and yet again they are left with a narrow understanding of patriotism and nationalism.
[i] The phrase ‘Stockholm syndrome’ was reported to have been coined by criminologist and psychiatrist, Nils Bejerot. It was further defined by Psychiatrist, Dr Frank Ochberg, for the FBI and Scotland Yard in the 1970s (Westcott 2013). The event associated with this term is the Norrmalmstorg robbery of Kreditbanken at Norrmalmstorg in Stockholm, Sweden. During the crime, several bank employees were held hostage in a bank vault from August 23 to 28, 1973, while their captors negotiated with police. During this standoff, the victims became emotionally attached to their captors, rejected assistance from government officials at one point, and even defended their captors after they were freed from their six-day ordeal (Fitzpatrick 2009). The syndrome is perceptible when, as Dr Ochberg says, “the hostages experience a powerful, primitive positive feeling towards their captor. They are in denial that this is the person who put them in that situation. In their mind, they think this is the person who is going to let them live.”
Chakravarty, Sumitha S. 2005. “Fragmenting the nation: Images of terrorism in Indian popular cinema.” In John David Slocum ed. Terrorism, Media, Liberation. Rutgers UP, pp. 232-47.
Fitzpatrick, L. 2009. ‘Stockholm syndrome’. Time Magazine.
Gupta, S. 2008. “A Wednesday.” Indian Express (September 6).
Khan, S. 2009. “Nationalism and Hindi Cinema: Narrative Strategies in Fanaa.” Studies in South Asian Film & Media 1 (1): 85-99.
Mohammed, K. 2008. “A Wednesday.” Hindustan Times (September 5).
Nair, Minu S. 2015. “Stockholm syndrome-A self-delusive survival strategy.” International Journal 3 (11): 385-388.
Rai, A. 2003. “Patriotism and the Muslim citizen in Hindi films.” Harvard Asia Quarterly 7: 4-15.
Slocum, J D (ed). 2005. Terrorism, media, liberation. Rutgers UP.
Virdi, J. 2003. The cinematic imagiNation: Indian popular films as social history. Rutgers UP.
Westcott, K. 2013. “What is Stockholm Syndrome?” BBC News.
Srobana Bhattacharya is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Georgia Southern University’s Department of Political Science and International Studies and can be reached at email@example.com.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.