BLAST FROM THE PAST
The events around one of our greatest tragedies are reconstructed in an intense, compassionate and altogether first-rate film.
FEB 11, 2007 – EVEN BEFORE I SAW A SINGLE FRAME OF BLACK FRIDAY, I somehow knew it would be terrific. Part of this is because the director Anurag Kashyap is also the writer behind Satya and Shool and Yuva, and anyone who wrote those is probably incapable of making a bad movie. But thereâs another reason, and thatâs that if Black Friday had turned out to be a stinker, it would have meant yet another setback for Kashyap. He made Paanch and it never saw the light of day. He made Black Friday and it almost never saw the light of day. He announced something called Allwyn Kalicharan, only to see it shelved. And after those beatings, the cosmic law of averages would surely point towards this one being well worth it â and it is. Kashyap the writer makes a silkily electric transition to Kashyap the director, and if thereâs one scene I had to pick to make my case with, it would be the one where a suspect is being interrogated by police officer Rakesh Maria (Kay Kay Menon) and his team. (You know, of course, that the film tracks the investigative efforts behind the who-where-why of the 1993 Bombay blasts.) Weâve seen a similar interrogation earlier â this one, before the blasts â and itâs a pretty brutal procedure, one that leaves the suspect cowering with terror. So now, as this interrogation goes on, we see questions being asked, but thereâs no… violence. Thereâs just a conversation carried on at mid-level decibel, much like idle â if heated â gossip. You keep waiting for one of the cops to lose his patience and start slapping this suspect around, but they ask him instead if he wants a cup of tea. And while sipping this tea, this suspect seems to share our misgivings, that things are too subdued to be true â and then, suddenly, a cop kicks the stool out from under the suspect, the situation begins to explode, and the anticipatory knot in your stomach resolves itself. Ah, finally â thereâs the violence.
Black Friday is a series of such superbly-orchestrated sequences â the longish chase that leads to the capture of yet another suspect; the scene of recruits being trained about weaponry (the expert holds up a detonator and asks the trainees to name the component; itâs a blackly comic spin on âRepeat after me, class…â?) â and the only thing you could fault it for is that it doesnât know when to stop. This is a film so sprawling, so layered and densely textured, so full of juicy detail, that even without the somewhat self-conscious device of the events unfolding in the form of chapters, youâd know itâs based on a true-crime book. (Itâs the one by Hussain Zaidi.) Itâs the minutiae â these jigsaw bits â that eventually helped the cops piece together the overall puzzle, and for a while, youâre grateful that Kashyap abandons notions of pursuing a conventional plot, dwelling instead on someone arguing with a roadside cop for trying to park his car where parking is not allowed, or someone else recalling that while preparing for the blasts, they went to Plaza cinema, where Tiranga was playing, and the show was houseful, so they bought tickets in black and watched half-an-hour of the movie. But at some point, the film goes slack under the burden of all this information, and I began to wish for less detail. Weâre told that Tiger Memon (Pawan Malhotra) masterminded the blasts because his business was razed to the ground during the Bombay riots, so thereâs really no need to actually see this being dramatised later. (Or if weâre going to see this being dramatised, thereâs no reason for us to have been told about it earlier.) Malhotra is superb â I especially enjoyed the cunning way he goes about recruiting Badshah Khan (Aditya Srivastava), with a motivational speech disguised as casual conversation â but the entire bit about his motivation feels like bloat, along with deadwood asides of innocents being set ablaze and the close-ups of dead children and maimed bodies.
But this part about Tiger Memon, though undeniably integral to the story, is about the only time Black Friday comes anything close to conventional, because the cause-effect mechanics at this point â this happened, and so that happened â result in a âvillainâ? in the very traditional sense, one we can boo and hiss at. The other villains are unlike any youâre likely to have encountered in the movies â and Kashyap does a most remarkable thing by stopping his film for a while to dwell on the mind of the hired underling Badshah Khan who, after the blasts, is on the run. (This chapter, appropriately, is titled âOn the run.â?) Srivastava plays this character brilliantly, detailing the physical and mental fatigue of someone who thought he was avenging the crimes against his community (during the post-Babri Masjid-demolition riots) only to discover that he was used to avenge the losses of a single man, his boss Memon. He is told he cannot remain in Bombay any longer, so he travels â from Delhi to Uttar Pradesh to Rajasthan to West Bengal. Heâs away from his family, heâs short of money, his boss wonât take his calls â so when heâs on a tram in Calcutta and he looks at a pretty girl whoâs travelling alongside, you can physically sense the ache inside him for the kind of tension-free normalcy she represents. This is a man who was responsible for killing people and destroying property and almost breaking the spirit of a city and a nation â and yet, what you feel for him at that moment isnât revulsion. Itâs empathy.
The success of Black Friday is that â save for a stray instances of didacticism, like the use of Gandhiâs eye-for-an-eye quote to open and close the film, or the reaction of the Muslim elder at Khanâs hometown to the fact that Hindu innocents have ended up dead (âYeh achchi baat nahin…â?) â itâs remarkably free of judgment. It merely observes its (superb) ensemble cast, and it stays mostly in a grey zone that recognises that people are often neither entirely good nor entirely bad, but mostly victims of their circumstances. (This is probably why the all-black Memon character feels a bit out of place.) And thatâs true of the good guys too. Rakesh Maria, at first, canât bear to look as the cops under him beat up a suspect, but later, when a woman lies sprawled on the floor, he cruelly grabs her by the hair and hoists her up. Heâs surrounded by barbaric cops and his job requires him to deal with people whoâve committed barbaric deeds, and I guess it was only a matter of time before he became a barbarian himself. (He doesnât seem to have much of a balancing home life; the only time we realise he has a life beyond the police station is when a subordinate comes over and tells him, âSir, madam ka phone hai.â?) Kay Kay Menon is very good here, especially when he gives a rouser of a speech where he points out to Khan that Allah wasnât on the latterâs side otherwise he wouldnât have been caught, and in another movie, such a person would be the protagonist, the hero. But thereâs no room for a hero in Kashyapâs world. If anything, thereâs only varying shades of villains.
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