Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Art of the Informer


1. a person who informs against another, esp. for money or other reward.
2. a person who informs or communicates information or news; informant.


1. a person employed by a government to obtain secret information or intelligence about another, usually hostile, country, esp. with reference to military or naval affairs.
2. a person who keeps close and secret watch on the actions and words of another or others.
3. a person who seeks to obtain confidential information about the activities, plans, methods, etc., of an organization or person, esp. one who is employed for this purpose by a competitor: an industrial spy.

Informers and Spies are old as human civilization. For whenever a great power (be it a nation or an empire) existed, there were people who utilized informers or spies to find ways to bring down that power. While the terms spy and informer are used interchangeably quite often, there is a subtle difference between a spy and an informer. A spy might employ multiple informers at any given time but an informer is always alone on the lowest rung of the intelligence ladder. One can call an informer the tiny particle that quietly resides in the nucleus of an organization, quietly observing the dance of the electrons and those other highly charged particles. An informer gathers whatever valuable piece of information they can and then has to find a way to relay that information to others on the outside. Now this is not to say that a spy cannot become an informer. From time to time, a spy would have to go undercover on their own and embed themselves within an organization and act as an informer. In fact, some spies might even have graduated from the level of an informer. Another difference between the two would be related to the transmission of information. The informer provides concrete information, something that they have heard or seen. Whereas, spies also engage in the game of misinformation whereby they circulate some lies from time to time to either cause a reaction or to even fish out the truth. The spread of misinformation also has the danger of a "blowback" when the misinformation results in reactions that have dangerous consequences. For example, Steve Coll's book Ghost Wars hints at how misinformation might have contributed to some of the mess that resulted in the Russian occupation of Afghanistan, a mess that is still to be sorted out.

Through the years, films have been packed with plenty of worthy examples of informers. Titles such as Govind Nihalani's Drohkaal, Mike Newell's Donnie Brasco, Wai-keung Lau & Alan Mak's Infernal Affairs remade by Martin Scorsese as The Departed come to mind. In Drohkaal and Donnie Brasco, police get an informer to break through a terrorist cell and a mafia gang respectively as those are the common settings found in most informer films. But the genius of Infernal affairs was that it simultaneously showed informers existing both in the police world and the mafia gang, thus resulting in a brilliant calculated game of chess. In a way, Infernal Affairs took the complicated world of international espionage and adapted it to the street level of informers.

As different as all these above films were, they all had one thing in common -- the informer was a tough man able to withstand the rigors of living with the enemy. On the other hand, Mani Shankar has done something very unique with Mukhbiir in that his informer character is a 19 year old lad. The young age of the informer gives the film a very different complexion and gives flexibility to his character in three areas:

Innocence: Since the informer (Kailash played by Sammir Dattani) is quite young, one can believe the look of innocence on his face. In fact, it is this innocence that allows the informer to warm up to a gang leader in Hyderabad and to win the leader's sister's lustful affection. At times Kailash appears to be a little child at heart and his playful nature allows him to befriend a young boy thus easing the path to a critical victory in the end -- the young boy is in charge of a fax machine in a nearby store and Kailash comes up with a very believable agreement with the boy to fax key secrets to the police.

Lack of history: The fact that Kailash is an orphan plays a key role in him looking up to his police officer boss (Rathod played by Om Puri) as a father figure. This relationship establishes a feeling of warmth and mutual trust and is crucial to the story's development. Although, at times one gets a sense that Rathod is using Kailash for his own needs but Rathod's wife, who treats Kailash like a son, ensures that Rathod promises to lookout for the boy. Also, since Kailash has no real history of any relationships, he can easily move from one city to another.

Lack of Self: This is the most important aspect of Kailash's young age. The fact that he has not seen enough of life or truly discovered his identity ensures that he can easily live in any environment. At the film's start, we find Kailash living in North East India and he eventually moves to Hyderabad before being positioned to the underworld circle in Mumbai. Kailash is able to easily slip into another's identity and is quite comfortable no matter where he has to stay. In the film's third assignment in Mumbai, Kailash has to covert to Islam. Quite remarkably, he is able to convert without any difficulty and gives himself fully over to his new religion. This is proved useful in a key scene where he is drugged unknowingly and put through a lie detector test. Any other person might have blurted the truth out but since Kailash believes completely in his new identity, he passes the test with flying colours.

Overall, Mukhbiir is a real surprize discovery. In fact, just like the character of Kailash, the film appears to have slipped under the radar. Mani Shankar has shown some promise in his earlier films, especially in 16 December, but this time he gets it completely right by properly giving the time to develop his character and even the situations that Kailash lands himself in. There are plenty of relevant details shown on how information can be transmitted or the degree to which Kailash has to risk his life. A perfect example of the level of detail shown in the film occurs at the film's start where Kailash drops a sketch of a terrorist from the travelling bus. Rathod picks up the sketch, takes a picture of it using his cell phone and emails the picture to the police headquarters where they are able to run a match against their database to confirm the identity of the terrorist. The entire sequence takes less than a few minutes and considering that every minute counts for Kailash's safety, it is interesting to see the chain of command that allows such decisions to be made.

As good as the film is, it is not without flaws, especially considering the events that lead to the film's resolution. But this is a minor complain given the strength of everything else on display. And in one aspect, this film is a close kin of Govind Nihalani's Drohkaal given how the informer is left to fend for himself when others around him are killed.

Rating: 9/10

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