Friday, November 27, 2009

When Movies Trouble: 'Kurbaan'

I do not believe that movies should be responsible. Or be inoffensive. Or be historically accurate. Or that they should represent the generally perceived notion of 'truth'. A movie is simply one (or more) person's view of a situation and it is what they are choosing to show to the rest of the world. Nothing more. In a free world, every person should be free to make a movie as they please. And every viewer has a choice to either see it or not. If they choose to see the movie, afterward they can either agree with it, or vehemently protest. Anything outside of that would result in committing that biggest of offenses: censorship. Art should not only engage and illuminate and entertain. It should also on occasion provoke, offend, frustrate and enrage. How else to engender discussion about wildly opposing views? How else to reconcile polarizing differences? How else to, no matter how briefly, stand in the shoes of someone you find hateful?

All of the above may sound lofty. But I say this within the context of feelings invoked after watching the Indian movie: 'Kurbaan' (Sacrifice), written by Karan Johar and directed by newcomer Renzil D'Silva. If you are planning on watching this movie, you may be best served by stopping right here (and coming back after seeing the film). Since I will be bringing up critical plot elements of the movie, including its conclusion, please consider this your fair and final SPOILER WARNING. 

As I was sitting in my cinema seat watching 'Kurbaan', I found myself increasingly troubled by the film. Don't get me wrong; in the current climate of mind-numbindly neutral cinema, I am glad for films that have the power to elicit strong reactions, even if negative. I will rush to acknowledge that 'Kurbaan' is technically a very well-made movie. It is clear that all of the filming was conducted on location on what must have been difficult shoots. And the film boasts some of the better acting talent from the indian subcontinent. But what does it all add up to? Ask someone else. If there is an underlying message to the movie, it was lost on me. I do not believe that all movies need to have a message. But this one goes out of its way to invoke some mighty large issues: nothing less than the state of the war on terror in the world today. For a movie that comes advertised as a red-hot, topical take on terrorism and religious fundamentalism, it turns out to be oddly toothless in the end. How else to explain a movie that goes about picking on one hot-button issue after another and then decides to spend its last hour on a well-oiled but tired, conventional exercise in will-the-bad-guys-manage-to-detonate-the-bombs-or-not? 
Publicity still for the movie, 'Kurbaan'
Let me elaborate. Here is a movie about a sleeper cell of Islamic terrorists in New York who are planning on blowing up the city subway stations. A dangerous premise for sure, but also amenable to providing interesting insights if handled carefully. Instead the film indulges in surprisingly schizophrenic treatment of the material. We are asked to sympathize with the lead character; he has become a terrorist (it is explained in broad-stroke narration) because his wife and kids were killed during a bombing in Afghanistan. But we are also presented with scenes where he efficiently and cold-bloodedly kills several individuals including many local policemen in New York. So what are we to think of him? The movie has characters in a classroom debating about how so many more Afghani civilians have been killed by the joint US and UK forces than Americans who died during 9/11. It is mentioned that America has engaged in war for pursuit of oil, and we should pause before placing all of the blame for the current situation on Islamic terrorists. All this while the movie emphatically reinforces every stereotype about Islam itself; of the eight or nine male Islamic characters in the story-line, all but one are revealed to be terrorists! It has a scene where a Muslim man is asked to undergo a random security check at an American airport, and he complains afterward that he got picked only because of his appearance and his Islamic last name. And this comes not ten minutes after the movie has shown how a Muslim suicide-bomber boards a plane and successfully manages to blow it up. What IS your point, Mr Johar? Why a commentary on racial profiling when your plot seems to present a strong rationale for justifying it? The movie has the heroine recoiling from a terrible deceit and forced to live under oppressively strict Islamic code (with her head covered, and the men and women usually separately clustered, the men talking gravely about important matters and the women cooking). And then the movie has a scene where an older Muslim man (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) ruefully complains that young Muslims are hesitant to protest about how they are treated in America for fear of being labeled fundamentalists. So the movie wants us to be sympathetic toward the plight of Muslims in America, even as the film itself paints them in the worst possible light? 

And so it goes back and forth, as the movie simultaneously patronizes and offends all of its characters. Let us set aside all religious and political considerations; this is just lazy scriptwriting; we have here a writer who wants to keep every faction happy even as he is impugning all of them. The snake devouring its own tail. Other Indian movies have explored the subject of terrorism in the past with varying degrees of sensitivity; 'Maachis', 'Dil Se', and 'The Terrorist' come to mind. All three movies were flawed in small measure or large, but at least those films had the courage to present their story with a single-mindedness of narrative perspective. They took a stand and stuck with it in the telling of their story. Not so, unfortunately for 'Kurbaan'. What to make of a film that indulges in self-righteousness without declaring what it is self-righteous about. 

I am not troubled by the fact that this movie troubled me. I liked that. As mentioned at the start, any movie/book/painting/art-form that can incite and provoke and lead to fervent discourse is of value. What troubles me however is how little has been said of these issues in other reviews of this movie. In fact it is the lack of discourse on the treatment of the subject matter in this film that surprises me. What does it say about the state of things that the Indian press is inclined to expend way more ink on the lead actress' (Kareena Kapoor) exposed back during a scene than on how little is ultimately heard of these filmmakers' voices for all the shouting and noise in this movie. 


  1. Yazdi, this is a well constructed argument of the points about this movie that bothered you.


  2. Thanks Naveed. I feared I may have over-reacted when I first posted this. But my opinion on this has stayed put since then.