Sense of Helplessness
“‘Wait for the rest of the movie.’ Should I write that down?” Instructed by his controller by cellphone, a terrorist in Mumbai last November wants to be sure he had the phrasing down. When the authorities arrived, he was to issue a warning that the chaos wreaked by 10 gunmen over the previous three days was “just the trailer.”
The cellphone conversation is chilling for all kinds of reasons, not least being this idea that the violence has only started. As narrator Fareed Zakaria notes in Terror in Mumbai, premiering 19 November on HBO, the “main film” may be yet to come. Dan Reed’s documentary traces the events of those three days in Mumbai last November by using the recorded conversations as well as local footage—some shot by witnesses with cellphones, some recorded on surveillance cameras, and still other images shot by the journalists who arrived on the scene long before police or the Indian Coast Guard or Navy appeared. The images are horrifying: broken bodies lie on floors slick with blood, the Taj Mahal Hotel spurting flames. If this “trailer” was intended to disturb viewers, it has done its work.
Zakaria observes that the controller, known only as “Brother Wasi,” remains calm throughout the ordeal, underscoring to his emissaries the importance of their mission, encouraging them to stay focused even when they are distracted. When one of the gunmen at the Taj Hotel pauses to note the office computers (“30-inch screens! It’s amazing!”), Brother Wasi scolds him: “Haven’t you set fire to them?” As the terrorist begins to list what he’s seeing—the huge windows, the two kitchens—Brother Wasi sets him back on course: “Start a proper fire. That’s the important thing.” the shooter answers, “We’re just about to. You’ll be able to see the fire any minute.”
The fires are necessary to attract television cameras, Brother Wasi knows. He’s watching the attack on international stations back in Pakistan, after all. By the time it’s over, 170 people will be dead, another 300 wounded. Nine of the gunmen will be dead, and the last, 21-year-old Ajmal Amir Kasab is captured, after he and Abu Ismail kill some 58 people at the Chatrapathi Sivaji Terminal rail station (also known as Victoria Terminus, or VT). Kasab’s interrogation reveals that his father sold him to the terrorists (so that his brother and sister could be married, the young man cries). He also reveals some vital information (he names “mastermind” Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, subsequently arrested in Pakistan and on trial in secret), but here it is most compelling for what it reveals about the gunmen in Mumbai. He is terrified, tearful, and apparently surprised at where he’s ended up (wounded and worried on a gurney at Nair Hospital). He’d been told, he says, that he would be a martyr, that his death would be glorious (martyrs faces would “glow” as they left this earth). Asked if he had participated in other actions, Kasab protests, “Nowhere else. This is my first one. You do it once and you die.”
His training had been “very strict,” he says, asserting that he and his eventual partner were not allowed to speak to one another during their three months of training, their targets assigned at the last moment, just before the terrorists hijacked a fishing boat and landed in Mumbai on 26 November. The film includes some reenactments, namely, blurry POV-on-the-street images to suggest what the gunmen experienced as they took cabs to their destinies (and left bombs inside the cabs, timed to explode one hour later, so the mayhem would appear random and occurring “everywhere”). These are less effective than the phone conversations that sound over them, as Brother Wasi speaks to his shooters, calms and guides them.
Brother Wasi tells Abdul Rehman and Fahadullah, the men who killed some 30 staff members and guests the Trident Oberoi Hotel, “Today’s the day you’ll be remembered for, brother.” Zakaria adds here that the police, “bewildered by the ferocity of the attack,” made “no organized attempt to enter the hotel.” This leaves guests like Turkish businessman Seyfi Müezzinoğlu, along with his wife Meltem, on their own. When the terrorists realize he is Muslim, they don’t kill him, he remembers. The scene is nightmarish (“I had never known it, that blood can be so slippery”) and imprecise, even as he hears the gunmen receiving orders. At the Chabad House, a Jewish Center, Brother Wasi reminds his killer, “I told you, every person you kill where you are is worth 50 of the ones killed elsewhere.” When the gunman wonders whether he should keep hostages or kill them, Brother Wasi makes the decision: “Yes. Do it. Sit them up and shoot them in the back of the head.”
“Pray that God will accept my martyrdom,” says one gunman as he feels about to die. While the terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba (the Army of the Good) has taken credit for the attack, the resonant effect, as Zakaria observes, is the use of disenfranchised young men to carry out the mission. This is the point made clearest by the audio recordings in Terror in Mumbai. While it’s important, certainly, to “get the military and foreign policy right,” as Zakaria narrates, the ground in which the violence takes root is local and personal, not ideological. “We need to change the sense of hopelessness and the culture of hate,” he says.
The film doesn’t begin to do this. It’s not in the business of looking into the killers’ histories or interviewing anyone who might know their experience. Instead, it presents them as scary monsters, disembodied voices and blurry video images, as well as snapshots of dead bodies, shown to Kasab when he was captured in order to shock him into a sense of “reality.” Here, this reality is only a fragment—sensational and frightening, not yet a step toward resolution.