Thursday, December 04, 2008

Black Friday Revisited

'Are you aware that there are sixty crore Hindus in India? Can you finish them all? Do you think that the United Nations will keep quiet? What about India’s mentor, Russia?'

The discussion continued, occasionally very heated, as various options were raised.

Shaikh Ahmed spoke up eventually. 'But can't we scare the Indian government and the Hindus into submission? The best thing to do will be to turn the tables on the Hindus. If we can intimidate Hindus in such a manner that in the future they will not in their wildest dreams try to subjugate the Muslims..'

This thought seemed to appeal to all present, and heads began to bob in agreement. Taufiq clapped his hands and said it was a superb idea. But once again silence descended on the room.

Tiger spoke up. 'Bombay is the pride of India, its financial nerve centre. It is also the place where Muslims suffered the most during the riots. Why not display our might and power there? Any attack on Bombay will have international repercussions. The government will be shaken. The world leaders will be shocked. Let us plan to take over Bombay. We can capture Mantralaya, the municipal corporation building and the airport, hold political leaders hostage and cripple the economy. We will draw international attention to the downtrodden Muslims of the country. We will...'

Dossa, who sounded impatient and irritated, interrupted, 'But how can you do it? From where will the money come?'

'Money is no problem,' Taufiq interjected. 'But do you think it can do done successfully?'

'With proper planning the CIA has toppled governments and taken over countries. We have to only disrupt one city. I already have a network. We need to fine-tune it further and rope in some committed young people to execute the job,' Tiger said.

Suddenly the room was electrified. The glum faces lit up. The discussion grew animated.

-- pages 38-39, Black Friday: The True story of the Bombay Bomb Blasts by S. Hussain Zaidi.

The above words could have taken place a few months ago but they were spoken almost 16 years ago in December 1992 as highlighted by S. Hussain’s extremely well researched and engaging book, Black Friday. The planning of a terrorist operation in Bombay, executed by multiple bombings on March 12 1993, was fueled by the violence that took place in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid mosque demolition.

The Babri Masjid at Ayodhya had been a bone of contention between Hindus and Muslims for over five hundred years, since the time when Babur’s general Mir Bagi had destroyed a temple there in 1528 to build a mosque he named after his master. For many Hindus the mosque was reputed to be built at the birthplace of Rama, an avatar of Vishnu, and hence a sacred site. The antiquity of the mosque had given it similar sanctity for many Muslims.

Things were at relative peace until the existence of the Masjid was used by some right wing Hindu political parties, especially the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to further their cause. The BJP wanted to demolish the Masjid and construct a temple in its place. The mosque was demolished on December 6 1992 and unleashed a wave of riots and violence across the country. "The worst incidents took place in Bombay, Ahmedabad, Banaras and Jaipur. There was widespread violence in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Bidar, and Gulbarga."

The demolition of the mosque caused a lot of anger in the Muslim world and directly led to the bombings on March 12, 1993. Black Friday (both the film and book) shows that even though there were outside forces who were involved in the planning of the bombing, none of it would have been possible without the smuggling underworld network established by Dawood Ibrahim & Tiger Memon.

There were initial steps in the complex operation: first, to secure the arms and armaments and transport them to Bombay, and second, to recruit Muslim youths from Bombay and train them to cary out the bombings.

The weapons, including AK-56s, RDX and grenades, were smuggled into Bombay via the same complex network used for smuggling goods, so that meant local thugs and corrupt policemen were in on the take. Although, most people involved in the smuggling of the RDX had no idea what was being smuggled. Some were satisfied with the answer that the goods were something to avenge the blood of their Muslim brothers while others quietly looked the other way.

The golden aphorism of the underworld is that anything that is known to more than two people is no longer a secret. There are hundreds of informers or khabris in Bombay. They straddle the two worlds of the underworld gangs and the law enforcement agencies.

Almost all the people recruited or involved only knew that Tiger Memon was involved in the planning; they had no idea of the foreign groups who poured money into the operation. Tiger conducted the planning meetings himself and was responsible for the initial list of the targets as per Badshah Khan’s confession:

Tiger bhai announced that the targets had been selected and finalized. 'The first targets are the Air-India building at Nariman Point; the Bharat Petroleum oil refinery at Chembur; the share market at Fort; and the gold market at Zaveri Bazaar. Then there are five five-star hotels: the Sea Rock, the two Centaurs, Oberoi Sheraton and Taj Mahal; the top film theatres: the Metro, Regal, Excelsior, Sterling and Plaza; Shiv Sena Bhavan at Dadar; the BMC building at VT; Sahar International Airport; the RPO at Worli; and Mantralaya.'

The final list was shortened after one terrorist recruit was caught by the police. Fearing that he might reveal the operation to the police, Tiger Memon decided to carry out the attack within three days of the recruit’s arrest. Anurag Kashyap’s film version of Black Friday actually begins with the arrest of this recruit. In the end, few targets such as the oil refinery were dropped because of the difficulty in planning for the quick attack (the book highlights the planning in detail). It was shocking to read that the Taj, Oberoi and the Metro cinema were in that initial list as all three locations were targeted last week.

As for the training, the book does an excellent job in showing how the recruits were transported across India to Dubai and eventually to Pakistan where they were trained on how to use the Kalashnikovs and the RDX, among other weapons. A lot of the training details are rendered first hand from the confession of Badshah Khan. One can only imagine that similar camps were used this time around to train the terrorists.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the book is documenting the investigation process that resulted in the aftermath of the bombings. Because of the clues left around (the Maruti van with weapons and RDX, the unexploded scooters), police were able to quickly get some leads and chase some names down. Although, the entire process of convicting the criminals took months, with the court trial lasting almost 13 years. In fact, the release of Anurag Kashyap’s film version of Black Friday was delayed by the Indian courts for almost two years because they felt his film would influence the bombing trial.

The film

In January 2007, Anurag Kashyap’s Black Friday was finally released. Although it is hard to know how many people in India saw it. In North America, the film got a limited release and was easily missed. Only 5 reviews are listed on Metacritic. Although, Matt Zoller Seitz included the film as his #1 best film of 2007. Kirk Honeycutt's review was very positive:

Anurag Kashyap's "Black Friday" is a superb and devastating piece of cinema that with justification can be compared favorably to Gillo Pontocorvo's classic "The Battle of Algiers" in its dispassionate yet sweeping journalistic inquiry into cataclysmic social and political events. While the events described may seem remote to some American viewers, our current encounter with modern-day terrorism gives "Black Friday" a clarion immediacy.

Kirk is right about the relevance of the film, although I do believe the film’s structure might make people feel distanced from the film, as highlighted by the review of Variety’s Derek Elley who commented that the "well-cast pic will appeal to specialized auds already tuned into the subject-matter but has limited theatrical chances offshore."

The film is not easy to watch as it does not spoon feed elements for the audience but good cinema does require or even demands its audience to pay attention. Even though Black Friday does throw around a dizzying amount of names and characters, one can still grasp the overall framework of the terrorist operations by watching the film without reading the book. Although reading the book enhances the experience as it allows one to navigate the topography of the film, meaning one can easily place each character and each dialogue in context. In fact, I found myself knowing exactly who each character was and their relevance to the case just by observing the scene. In that regard, the film does an excellent job of extracting enough detail from the book.

The film stands brilliantly on its own as it a case study of how terrorist operations are planned, executed and even investigated by the police. Plus, we get an insight into how terrorists go about recruiting young men and even training them. Even though the film is firmly rooted in the Bombay blasts, one can imagine similar structure and planning has gone on with other terrorist activities around the world.

Black Friday answers many questions about international terrorism:

  • Where does the money for terrorist activities come from? -- In case of the Bombay attacks, it was a combination of international terrorist organizations, many of them who had no previous connections to India. The organizations were able to pool money for the sole purpose of revenge.

  • How are men recruited for terrorist activities? -- Angry young men are found willing to die for their cause via local connections. If the recruits are local men, all the better because they know the terrain the best.

  • Where do the weapons come from? -- Money is one thing but getting weapons is the key. In the book and film, it is clearly shown that the guns and grenades were obtained from Pakistan. Investigation revealed that the grenades used were manufactured from an old Austrian machine bought by Pakistan in the 1970s.

  • How are the recruits trained? -- There are only a few places on the planet where young terrorists can be trained. It is essential to find a place where the government will not interfere when loud bombs and machine gun fire takes place in isolated country-sides or mountains. The films shows the training sites to be in Pakistan, but Afghanistan would apply equally.

  • How are weapons smuggled in the country? -- No outside force can cause havoc in a city without local help. In the case of the Bombay blasts in 1993, it was the local network established by Dawood Ibrahim and Tiger Memon that allowed the weapons to make their way into the country.

  • Kashyap’s film is not only relevant but also responsible in trying to objectively show the events without taking sides. We see how the terrorists plan their operation while also seeing how the police can abuse their power in the goal of finding the truth. There is one element that Kashyap has included in the film to illustrate this point. Devoting a few minutes to the case of Rajesh Rajkumar Khurana adds nothing to the overall terrorist plan but it shows how an innocent man was wrongly arrested and intimidated. Khurana spent only a night in jail but during that night, some of the local police men showed that they were willing to rape arrested women to get information. Khurana was taunted that if he did not provide information, his wife would suffer the same fate. The next day after Khurana was released, he went home and shot his family, including his wife, their 3 year old son and 2 year old daughter, and drove them in a car, before shooting himself. Khurana was completely innocent, a fact later admitted by the police. This segment forms one of the most haunting scenes in the film. What goes through a man’s mind that he shoots his young children and calmly puts them in a car before taking his own life? In another instance in the film, inspector Rakesh Maria (Kay Kay Menon) is asked by a reporter about the human rights violation in arresting innocents. Maria responds by saying that what about the human right violations of the innocents that were blown by the bombs? The film shows the difficulty of working within law and order to find justice but also raises questions of ethics and honesty.

    A running time of 150 minutes may appear long but considering how much material the film covers, it is easily understandable. When I first saw the film almost two years ago, I found the film quite engaging and even included it in my top films of 2007. Although, I had found myself questioning the length of certain segments, for example why so much time was spent on showing Badshah Khan’s journey across India, Bombay-Delhi-Rampur (Uttar Pradesh)-Jaipur & Tonk (Rajasthan) to Calcutta. Reading the book now, I can understand the relevance of including every scene in the movie. Badshah Khan was the only arrested terrorist that gave a detailed account of the training, planning and execution. Without his testimony, a lot of the elements might not have fit into place for the investigation. And the film shows that the length of time spent by him traveling across India only increased his frustration and convinced him to testify to the police.

    Technically, the film is perfect as the camera angles are smart and switch perfectly between close-ups (only showing the eyes of certain characters in some situations) and long shots. In fact, at times there is so much action packed in a single frame that one cannot remove their eyes from the action. Plenty of scenes are filmed with amazing realism that one forgets that this is scripted cinema. The arguments between Badshah Khan and his gang come to mind when Khan learns that his passport has been burned. The camera spends enough time on the action as we see the argument swell up, almost boil over and then cool down. Kashyap also includes actual documentary footage of the attacks, speeches and even the demolition of the mosque seamlessly within his film.

    Overall comments:

    Dismissing the film by saying that it only applies to audiences who are familiar with the Bombay blast trial is akin to saying that the Godfather films are only of interest to people who know about the American Italian mafia or that Gomorra will only make sense for audiences who have read about the Naples Mafia or that Johnny To’s Election films are meant for audiences familiar with the Hong Kong Triads. Black Friday is much more than just a study of the Bombay Blasts; it is unlike any other film to come out of the cinematic world in the last decade. It is a precious cinematic treasure that is an essential guide to understanding the dynamics of global terrorism.

    Black Friday (2005, Anurag Kashyap): 10/10
    Note: all quotes are taken from S. Hussain Zaidi’s insightful book.


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    One Day Picnic said...

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