x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Serious melodrama

A cinematic interpretation of the Mumbai terror attacks made by a little-known Bollywood filmmaker is stirring up plenty of controversy.

The Bollywood film Total Ten depicts last November's attacks in Mumbai. Says its director, Surinder Suri:
The Bollywood film Total Ten depicts last November's attacks in Mumbai. Says its director, Surinder Suri: "I'ts more like a docudrama. There is very little fiction."

I am handed the phone and a tense voice comes on the line. "I'm underground right now," it says breathlessly. "I'm at a secret place. On June 17, at my home address, someone threatened me: 'If this movie is released, we will kill you.'"

Welcome to the world of Bollywood B-movie melodrama. Rajan Verma, the Hindi theatre actor cast to play the terror suspect Mohammed Ajmal Amir Kasab in Total Ten, Bollywood's take on last November's horrific Mumbai attack, is stirring it up. He says his family is begging him to cut his ties to the controversial film. "I think maybe I will leave this movie because it's so dangerous. My family is pressuring me to leave this movie right now."

Throughout the call, the film's director, Surinder Suri, who has passed me his phone, basks on his sofa, smoking a cigarette and watching with a calm, good-natured smile as his lead actor threatens to quit. He doesn't seem worried. Even if Rajan isn't hamming it up for the press - and I suspect that he is - the film has already been completed, so there's not much he can do. It is all grist for the publicity mill, generating a bit of steam as the film readies itself to go to the censors this week.

"This is the story of a city in India that's called Mumbai," Suri says as he warms into his pitch. "In my film, Mumbai is like a character. This city is going on with its business and suddenly someone comes and attacks it." When Suri's film went into production in April, the prospect of the Bollywood kitsch factory getting to work on a tragedy that killed over 170 and injured more than 300 was too much for the media to resist. It racked up column inches in the Indian press and led to articles in the UK's Times and Guardian newspapers.

But Suri maintains it is a serious piece of work. "It's more like a docudrama," he says solemnly. "There is very little fiction. I spoke to a lot of people in the police force, people who were there, and people at the police station who were involved in the arrest." Not that this was his original intention. "I belong to the style where films have to have these feel-good factors," he admits. "When I was writing it, I was thinking of putting songs and dances in it. I recorded some songs for the movie. But then I didn't shoot them because I thought it would make a mockery of the whole thing.

"It doesn't have the scope, because the minute you add feel-good factors to it, it seems so frivolous," he says. Total Ten is hardly a blockbuster film: the budget of about 30 million rupees (Dh 2.25m) is about what the average vehicle of a megastar such as Shah Rukh Khan would spend filming a single song-and-dance routine in South Africa or the Swiss Alps. But of the 48 films on the atrocity whose titles were registered by Bollywood producers in December and January, it is the most credible.

Suri is now putting the finishing touches to the film in post-production. He is gearing up for a major release: "I'm in advanced conversations with people who want to release the film all over India. It's not just Mumbai. People are interested in releasing this film in Kolkata." Mayank Shekhar, a film critic with The Hindustan Times, refuses to believe this. "It's just some random C-grade movie," he says dismissively. "Whenever anything happens in the news, there are these producers who claim to be making a movie to get some publicity, but they never show in mainstream theatres."

Last month, the story of Shiney Ahuja, the Bollywood actor accused of raping his maid, got a similar treatment as a slew of titles was announced. "It probably won't get released, and if it does, it will be in small-town theatres. I don't think a multiplex will take it." Suri claims to be more than a C-grade director, though. His father was a well-known producer, and he worked, he said, as an associate director on LOC Kargil, an epic war film made with an all-star cast in 2003.

But his cramped flat in the Andheri suburbs tells a slightly different story. It is decorated with posters for trashy looking thrillers made in the Tamil and Telugu languages, which Suri dubs into Hindi as a business sideline. His last film, still unreleased, was about a businessman who falls in love with a girl in a Mumbai dance bar. He makes much of the film's verisimilitude. "I'm lucky in one way because I have an actor whose name is Rajan Verma, who has a striking resemblance to Kasab. He's 99 per cent identical." Another actor, Homi Wadia, he adds, has a close resemblance to Hemant Karkare, the senior Mumbai police officer who was killed during the attacks.

Those who witnessed the filming are more doubtful. "Rajan Verma is far too buff and good-looking to play Kasab," says a journalist who was on the scene. Comparing Verma's publicity shots to the Kasab who sits daily at trial in Mumbai's Arthur Road jail, 99 per cent appears to be pushing it. Even the AK-47s the actors use on set look a little like stage props. During filming, Total Ten was constantly under siege from the forces of chaos, Suri says. "When we were trying to shoot the part where they came by the sea route, one of the boats overturned. I don't know how it happened. So the shoot itself could have become a disaster."

After building a set at Sankraman Studios in Mumbai's Film City, Suri had to take it apart and ship it to the city's outskirts. "Some Hindu fundamentalist had objections to making this kind of film," he says. "So I said: 'Fine, we will move.' A friend gave me his factory in Mira Road, so we put up the set there. I had to recreate the whole thing again, twice. This is a small-budget film, so, as you can imagine, the cost multiplied."

There were also problems at the filming of the dramatic climax, when Kasab is captured after a daredevil charge by a policeman carrying nothing but a bamboo truncheon. "They began filming it on location at Marine Drive, and made the mistake of telling Bombay's entire press pack about the shoot," says the journalist. "The reporters drew too much attention to the shoot, so the police shut it down."

When Suri shouted in exasperation at the press: "Who invited you guys here?" he was told politely that it had been his own PR team. At another shoot later in the week, a fight broke out among the crew after someone insulted a Sikh. Suri rejects any charge of glorifying or making light of terrorism. "Terrorism is the very thing which can't be glorified," he says. "How can you glorify an activity where some people kill some other people and those other people are innocent?"

He had the idea for the film shortly after attending the burial of a close friend, a waiter who was killed at the Oberoi Hotel. "I went to his burial and, in maybe a couple of weeks, the idea started to germinate in my mind to make a film about this." Suri himself narrowly missed the massacre at Mumbai's Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, taking a train north shortly before the attackers arrived. "Ten minutes," he says, clutching his fingers. "I'm lucky. There's somebody above who loves me."

Before going ahead with the film he asked the family of his waiter friend if they had any objections. "I said: 'Shall I make a film or not?' At the time they were really angry and they said: 'If you make this film, maybe the law and order system in Mumbai will improve and become better.'" He says the film is not against Muslims. "I have a lot of Muslim friends. I've read the Quran and nowhere does it say that in jihad you can kill an innocent. This fascinates me. So somewhere in the film, I have a Muslim woman whose husband was a rickshaw driver who is killed. Through the medium of that lady, I've tried to deliver that message that nowhere has jihad meant killing an innocent person."

He claims he isn't even making the film about Kasab and his fellow terror suspects. The "Total Ten" in the title refers to the officers of the Mumbai Police who were awarded medals for gallantry, not the 10 who carried out the attack. Nonetheless, Kasab's defence lawyer, Abbas Kazmi, has already argued that by going ahead with the film, Suri risks prejudicing the Kasab trial. "Any depiction of the attacks would jeopardise the proceedings," he argues.

It may be that Kazmi has little to worry about, however. Even if the film makes it past the censors, there are big questions over whether it will ever get a wide release. But by then Suri will already be on to his next big project. "For the next one, we are making a film which is pure entertainment," he says. "It's five females on the beach, with one man filming them." It is not, he asserts, a B-movie.