Zero Dark Thirty(2012), through Indian Eyes

Zero Dark Thirty(2012), through Indian Eyes

Dir: Kathryn Bigelow

The phenomenon that is Jessica Chastain, as Maya

The phenomenon that is Jessica Chastain, as Maya

The Death of Osama Bin Laden was greeted by a gigantic 1.2 billion people smirk in India.Look we told you, he is in Pakistan, the military there is hiding him, the ISI is the most evil organization in the world, and so on.But our smirk did not register.The most powerful nation on earth had its closure.We gloated when the Pakistani generals were smarting under this huge put down, after all the Americans had conducted a huge military operation on their soil, next door to their elite military academy.And never mind their past chumminess.

Very recently the Taliban killed a group of health workers in Peshawar.The reason, the health workers are now seen as part of an American conspiracy.The CIA did conduct a polio camp to gather intelligence in Abbotabad. The good people killed last month are a continuing collateral damage on the war on terror,not counting of course the lives destroyed as a result of not receiving the polio vaccine.Pakistan had a dream run during the cold war with the Americans, now that dream is shattered every time an American drone takes out the bad guys by remote control.

A gallery of monsters or heroes depending which side you are on.

A gallery of monsters or heroes, depending which side you are on.

Zero Dark Thirty is a compelling film with a real chance of making the largest number of people, yet, to introspect and come to their own conclusions about the war on terror, its troubling origins and its continuing cost.After one Sunday of watching Bin Laden’s killing on the news networks, most Americans and the rest of the world went back to business.Several scholarly books and newspaper articles tried to overwhelm us with information and commentary on the greatest manhunt ever.Most of these did not find itself into the consciousness of the masses who continue to struggle with economic realities despite the “Osama Bin Laden is Dead and General Motors is Alive” rhetoric. Zero Dark Thirty arrives at an opportune time.

The debate about torture is meaningless, we will always be willing to kill for stuff that the powerful value, like political mileage.Its a technique as old as the hills.Obama may try to rise above torture, but drone strikes are nothing but a rich nation swatting flies for political gain. Drones are neat, so must have been torture when it was invented.Rendition, the 2007 film by Gavin Hood was an impassioned commentary on torture and put a huge question mark about its effectiveness. Our man Shah Rukh Khan got off lightly with a little random check at US immigrations and it predictably encouraged him to make a terrible film about the burden of being a Muslim in post 9/11 USA.

The raid on Bin Laden den is shot brilliantly and manages to thrill.

The raid on Bin Laden den is shot brilliantly and manages to thrill.

Zero Dark Thirty  is brilliantly scripted and shot by the team of journalist/screenwriter Mark Boal and veteran director Kathryn Bigelow. It holds our attention for all of its 150 mins runtime, which is remarkable because we all know the ending.In the course of the very complex hunt for Bin Laden we see lots of torture, small victories in eliminating some key players, large losses in the continued terror attracts around the world except on American soil, and more importantly a regime change.We are swept up in the passion of Maya, a low level CIA operative played by the increasingly brilliant Jessica Chastain. She pursues her hunch about a courier with great single mindedness and embodies the promise of both Bush and Obama to hunt down Bin Laden.

In its own way its also a film about work, how we approach our jobs and how wide the gamut of human experience can be, if we cared to look.The question of what motivates Maya remains open.She remains an enigma till the very end, true to her name which also means “illusion” in Sanskrit. How I wish Maya was an environmentalist!

James Gandolphini plays CIA director Leon Panetta

James Gandolphini plays CIA director Leon Panetta

The most important events in history take a very long time for society to assimilate.The assassination of JFK has still not been resolved, nor of Mahatma Gandhi.Some of the issues that were at the heart of Gandhi’s assassination  will surface in 2014 when India goes to the polls.Its just that they will not be linked directly to his death. Perhaps a long way off in the future there will be somebody like Oliver Stone who will rake up the Bin Laden killing to illuminate issues in America but for the moment Zero Dark Thirty must serve as the first cinematic draft of history.This is another milestone in the growing importance of film as the current medium of choice to engage with history.

We Indians still await closure. The sole terrorist to be captured alive in the 26/11 attacks, the Pakistani national Kasab has been hanged, after running up a huge room service tab.The real bad guys are at large, protected by diplomatic immunity. Thats where the game becomes interesting, covert operations overseas have never been our forte.While western pundits see the war on terror as part of a clash of civilizations, the Muslim Question in India presents a much more complex problem and perhaps a solution for the whole world.

Obama’s address to the Islamic world from Cairo, which was dubbed an apology tour, was a step in the right direction and so is a growing reluctance to go to war in far corners of the world.The Iraq war has amply illustrated the futility of shoving profound political change down the throat of a people who will continue to engage in bloody battles on Shia Sunni lines.

The iconic Situation Room photograph.

The iconic Situation Room photograph.

Zero Dark Thirty shows us the high cost of capturing a high value target, both human and material and the long term cost which must be paid by future generations. A forgotten film by Wim Wenders called Land of Plenty made in 2005 captured a fractured post 9/11 American state in a beautiful and sensitive way. The Clash of Civilizations, a theory proposed by Samual Huntington which identifies cultural and religious differences as the fountainhead of  future conflict, is certainly underway.While the world obsesses over the nuclear weapons Iran is building, it conveniently forgets that Pakistan is the most dangerous and unstable owner of a huge nuclear arsenal.When this clash of civilizations takes a turn for the worse, India is likely to be biggest collateral damage in history, thanks to the Pakistani militaries cunning use of India to maintain its grip on that failed state. Charlie Wilson’s War was a smart Hollywood comedy which depicted the genesis of the whole Afghanistan/Pakistan crisis that is unfolding today.

After watching this film the most immediate question from an Indian perspective is are we willing to make a film about 26/11 with this kind of detail, or any political film for that matter? The answer is obvious, and lies in the joint family unit.We have too many social protocols, to many people to please, too many taboos we can’t break. A genuine political film rooted in reality let alone ground breaking film journalism is not our cup of tea.Till then we can find solace in Vishal Bhardwaj’s Matru Ki Bijli Ka Mandola, which tackles politics very obliquely, dressing it up as black comedy.The pettiness surrounding Kamal Hassan’s harmless thriller Vishwaroopam surely does not give one hope.

As a people we continue to dance in quicksand.

#Zero Dark Thirty is currently showing in Singapore.It is unlikely to be released in Pakistan.PVR Pictures website states the India release date as 15th Feb, 2013.



Categories: Hollywood, Politics

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