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New York’s Middle East Success Story
SRK, Aamir and Salman are not the Power Khans in Cairo. Everyone here knows of one Bollywood star—Amitabh Bachchan—be it the shopkeeper who whistles his songs, the journalist who perennially carries his photograph in the wallet or the chauffeur who feels threatened by his wife’s obsession with the angry young man. But last fortnight a different Khan made a dent in Big B’s fiefdom. Kabir Khan, director of New York, represented the youthful face of Bollywood at the 33rd Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF), with his film on the illegal detention of Muslims in post-9/11 US having already witnessed unprecedented success in the Middle East. The film went beyond the diaspora to grab the large Arab audience as well. The Indian press may have been merciless but journalists in the Gulf were receptive. Aijaz Zaka Syed, opinion editor, Khaleej Times, wrote: “The witch-hunt and victimisation of innocent Muslims as portrayed in the movie is not a figment of Bollywood imagination. It’s a frightening reality not limited to unfortunate individuals who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Madholal Keep Walking
Besides New York, three other Indian films at the CIFF dealt with the theme of terror and its aftermath. Jai Tank’s Madholal Keep Walking, which won the best actor award for Subrat Dutta, is a simple, modest, but at times moralistic and sentimental tale about how the Mumbai train blasts of 2006 altered an ordinary commuter’s life and how his Muslim neighbour, Anwar, gets rounded up by the police for possible involvement.
Raman, Travelogue of Invasion
Dr Biju’s Malayalam film Raman, Travelogue of Invasion, looks at terror with an ideological eye-view. Biju calls George Bush a “political terrorist” and critiques US imperialism. The film has two parallel tracks, one set in India shows how globalisation creates economic and cultural imbalances in developing nations, the other is about the US’s violent invasion of Iraq. Lastly, there was Neeraj Pandey’s sleeper hit of last year, A Wednesday, that takes the audience into the mind of a terrorist and shows how terror results in more terror.
The films garnered curiosity, evident in the filmmakers’ interactions with the press and audience. Tank’s “personal” approach on the issue of terrorism was appreciated but he was also questioned on why he made his message too direct. For an audience that identifies Indian cinema with Bollywood kitsch and is unaware of our recent range of terror films—Mumbai Meri Jaan, Tahaan, Sikander, Aamir, Black and White—these movies were a revelation. “Madholal turned out to be very different from what I’d expected. It was a real portrayal,” said Croatian critic Daniel Rafaelic. “Religious differences didn’t seem to matter and then, all of a sudden, the integrity of the Muslim neighbour is at stake. The film shows how terror impacts individuals,” said Dutch critic Dineke de Zwaan.
Kabir’s intense interaction with the audience lasted about 90 minutes. For the filmmaker, who had first visited Cairo in ’95 with journalist Saeed Naqvi for an interview of President Hosni Mubarak, it was about forging new bonds. “An old lady whispered something to me in Arabic, kissed my hand and walked away. I wish I could have understood what she said,” he says.
The tug of New York is not hard to explain. It is an engagingly structured, Hollywoodian thriller boasting of a fabulously shot New York. “It blends mainstream with offbeat. The subject is topical but the treatment is entertaining,” says Gaurang Jalan, advisor and India representative of CIFF. “Films on terrorism are common but not all of them receive good press and public appreciation. New York is a well-made film...when the package is good the audience enjoys it,” says R. Swaminathan, India’s ambassador to Egypt.
For German critic Enrico Bosten, it was interesting to see “a critical movie about post-9/11 US made from a non-western point of view”. And it’s one that also steers clear of stereotypes of Muslims. The audience cited the cliched visual referencing of Islam in most films—people offering namaaz, men sporting beards, dressed in pathan suits or robes, mentioning Allah in every second sentence—and how New York had none. A journalist said he was happy to see “Allah” had not been mentioned even once and yet the film was relevant to the Islamic world. But the biggest reason the film worked on Arab street is because most of the illegal detainees post 9/11 have their origins here. “You can replace the three Indian students with Egyptian, Jordanian or Moroccan and the film will still hold,” says Kabir.
The film also got its share of flak, for showing the warped side of American politics and then eulogising it effusively in the end. Some viewers felt Kabir had “overbalanced” things by presenting the American perspective via Irrfan Khan’s FBI officer character. Bosten couldn’t relate to “the constructed message”. “It didn’t give me any new answers,” he said.
Despite grossing US $1.5 million at the box office, New York is estimated to have lost close to a million dollars to piracy in the Middle East. But its success could open up newer markets for Indian films. “We have managed to make inroads into territories where our films don’t get released theatrically,” says Kabir. Yashraj has been approached by Arab distributors for theatrical and television rights of New York in Egypt and Morocco. Karan Johar’s forthcoming film, My Name is Khan, which is being distributed worldwide by Fox, will also get released in Cairo next year. Perhaps then, SRK, Aamir and Salman will inch their way towards becoming the Power Khans.
(Namrata Joshi was part of the Fipresci Critics Jury at the 33rd CIFF.)