The reviews were all over the place and Dharma productions reputation of being the peddler of overseas based candyfloss romances was something that suggested this film could not be real or hard-hitting. So I went with suitably lowered expectations to the afternoon show of Kurbaan with my Kashmiri Muslim friend. There was a long line at the ticket window, for the Twilight movie – mostly females of all ages. (Aside – a mother with her 10 year old daughter was buying tickets for the Twilight film, that raised many disturbing questions for me, but I’ll save those for now). We went in as the previews were beginning and had to find seats way in the front in a theater that was about 80% full.
The film was relentless and well paced and hard hitting, but I will save the political discussion for last. It was certainly not a flawless film, and that is sad, because it had the potential to be excellent. The Dharma elements were very subdued though and seen in the opening scene at India Gate, prayers at Jama Masjid, National monuments, and then in NY with the faces painted in Stars and Stripes and the Statue of Liberty shot. Was there need for these? I think the audience would have wised up to the locations anyway. Saif (Ehsaan Khan) meets Kareena (Avantika), dupes her to steal her taxi and then meets her again at a college where she teaches and he is about to begin teaching. He expresses his OBVIOUS interest and gradually wears her down over innumerable cups of coffee, and when she has to go back to New York, he is the one who sacrifices things to go with her, after wedding her. Things go really well for this golden couple and they buy a house in an “Indian” neighborhood. That is when the cracks begin to appear in the fabric of Avantika’s life. The neighbors are all Muslim, presided over by Bhaiyyaji (Om Puri), and their spouses wear hijabs and are ruled by Aapa (Kirron Kher in an Afghani avatar). Avantika’s normal life is disrupted by a visit from a distressed Hijab wearing Salma (Nauheed Cyrusi). After that Avantika is rapidly drawn into a maelstrom of events that changes her life forever, and threatens afresh a nation already bruised by 9/11. Drawn into this web are reporters Riyaaz (Vivek Oberoi) and his lady love (Diya Mirza).
The action is taut and situations well staged, perhaps the ONLY thing missing, no doubt due to $$ constraints, is the sheer power of the US authorities that you would expect after a bomb takes out a UN mission on a plane. So yes, LOTS of screaming sirens, and uniformed SWAT teams swarming each location was certainly to be expected and not there in overwhelming force. BUT for the first time, the foreigners in the cast were real people and not caricatures or stupid. The story of one terrorist cell, and the human beings behind these characters, the impact of their beliefs and acts on the people all around them, made for an “intimate” peek at terrorism. The film was beautifully shot – and not just the beautiful locales in parts of the film, but the excellent hand to hand and firearm combat, car chases, subway station and train chases were all realistically and crisply shot. The best part was that while the film had excellent music it was never used in a way that impeded the flow of the story, it was always a backdrop and complemented the film. The background music of Saleem Suleiman (and the actual music too) was excellent and never overpowering or jarring. The dialogs packed a punch and realism. When Vivek (in character as a man wanting to do something radical in the name of Islam) tells the American student “Yes we will leave as soon as you leave our country”, I had the completely mixed feelings of “Yes that is real” and “Come on, get real” and thought later that that was so apt given the character and the situation.
This brings me to the acting. The best performance was delivered by Kareena Kapoor. She was excellent as the forward (she was Amrika return after all) and deliberately coy teacher in Delhi, then as the glowing wife in the early part, and then as the sullen and suspicious wife in the latter part. Next I will accord praise to Vivek Oberoi – he was great as the modern and secular Riyaaz and then the pretend fanatic. That moment in the diner, when he finally pulls the trigger and then has to go and throw up, was superbly real. Saif Ali Khan was in character as the “dead on the inside” guy who first seduces and then uses Avantika. I just wish that that frisson of FEELING we saw flit over his face when Avantika announces her pregnancy, would have been a little more obvious. But Saif always was more nuanced than overstated and he did fit the overall ambiance of the film. Om Puri was very good, as always. Kirron Kher was a surprise package as the Afghani Aapa, she played the role with aplomb and with realism, and her speaking style reminded me of many an Afghani woman I have encountered here.
So this brings me to the politics of Kurbaan. I had heard so much about the film not having a soul, showing every Muslim as a terrorist, and covering no new ground in what it told us. I disagree on all counts and propose to you that Kurbaan is a brave and honest effort that should be lauded. It gives us an intimate look at religious fundamentalism, its paternalistic beginnings, the marginalization of women, the isolation of the individual to keep him within the narrow confines of pauperized thinking. One could argue that the liberal Muslims in Kurbaan (Diya Mirze and Vivek Oberoi) were American Muslims and educated, but is that a wrong characterization? And to counter that one can point out that Kulbhushan Kharbanda (playing Vivek’s dad) was more of a fundamentalist, though not in an activist sense. And on the flip side we had a woman (Nauhaad Cyrusi) who was Hijab wearing, but choosing to question what was happening to her, and trying to rebel against it. So for one small milieu of Muslims we had a range of types, not unlike what we would see in real life.
And finally a word about the politics of terrorism. Is it bad? Hell yeah. Can it be justified under any circumstances? Heck no, not in my book. What about the needlessly dead civilians, the mothers and babies who died, the mutilated bodies, the mayhem? OK, so to take care of that we will go ahead and create more of the same… That is a useless attitude and will never get us anywhere. An eye for an eye never worked and never will. Why do terrorists do what they do? To extract revenge for what happened to them? Then what about 18 year old suicide bombers who were never “personally” affected by war or anti-Muslim acts? I will go with the awesome dialog written by Anurag Kashyap and Niranjan Iyengar and spoken by Vivek Oberoi – You do it because you like the killing! Finally someone has the courage to speak it like it is and I bow to this sentiment.
As we were leaving, my friend, who was taut as a drum throughout, and quite affected by the film, said that this is why Kashmir survives. Common man has figured out that the militants are not in it for him, but for their own twisted motives, and so they have no support from the masses. It is time to wake up and realize that the only way to stop terrorism is to stop justifying it.