Hotel Mumbai and blood-money box-office: Media and whitewashing of terrorism

First Published 11, Sep 2018, 11:16 PM IST
Hotel Mumbai film Media terrorism 9/11 26/11 slumdog millionaire
Highlights

Both this recent film and Slumdog Millionaire revelled in filmmakers' utter callousness towards the victims of terrorism and a kid-glove treatment offered to a community, ideology and even a nationality that might be offended, if not targeted, if they are held accountable for the violence perpetrated on innocent Indian civilians

On this anniversary of the tragedy of 9/11 terrorist attack of 2001, it seems doubly disturbing to learn about a new movie calledHotel Mumbai starring Dev Patel, Anupam Kher and others which reportedly “humanises” the killers of Mumbai’s children on November 26, 2008 and also avoids mentioning the role of Pakistan in the atrocity.

One of the lead actors, Armie Hammer, is quoted in the Hollywood Reporter as saying: “I really liked that the people inflicting the terror, the gunmen in the movie, were not just two-dimensional faceless instruments of evil… (but) they were people, they were kids, and in a way kids who were tricked into doing this."

This tendency to sanitise terrorism under the guise of creative empathy raises some important moral questions, not only about those who prosper from doing so, but also about everyone who participates in consuming such products as entertainment. I share below an excerpt from a book I am currently working on about media’s Hinduphobia in which I recall what it was like going to see the movieSlumdog Millionaire in America a few days after the monstrous attacks of 26/11.

Entertainment is taken for granted as if it were a birth right in today’s consumer society. But do we not also have a duty to reflect on our ties, indeed, our debts to the real world?

A few days afterSlumdog Millionaire reached movie screens, Pakistani terrorists struck Mumbai.

I went to watch the movie in a small art-house theatre in Berkeley a couple of days after the attack. There was a large map of India in the lobby, and a group of well-meaning, elderly Americans were hesitantly looking around to see where that… that trouble had taken place.

What disturbed me most aboutSlumdog Millionaire was not its shit-jumping, Hindu-bashing, or relentless hostility to reality (that was apparent only after years of observation and debate, frankly).

What was disturbing was the final, happy, hit-song and dance sequence of the movie, its location to be precise. The only thing I could think about while watching Jamal and Latika dancing to ‘Jai Ho’ in the CST station was that there was probably blood drenched all over that very place we were now so obliviously consuming for our pleasure.

For months after the 9/11 attacks, the American media avoided displays of the twin towers, or anything else on TV and cinema that might be reminiscent of the tragedy. It wasn’t mollycoddling. It was a sign of respect. It was a sign that, sometimes, in the face of horror, the least we can do is to withhold something of our own desires and impulses, an offering of our body and self to the memory of those who are gone, and to the pain of those who survive still.

I wonder why the Government of India did not take a stand at all onSlumdog Millionaire. Actually, no one did. At best, we argued about slums and poverty porn. Academia, the subject of the last chapter of this book, showed itself in very poor light too. A whole scholarly anthology would be produced on the movie, and all that it had to say about Hindus was that they were fundamentalists, and that the movie imposed Hinduness on Jamal (among other proof offered for this is the fact that the ‘Jai Ho’ song reminded the author of a devotional song to a Hindu goddess), and lamented that Jamal was not shown as being Muslim sufficiently enough.

The truth is that we have all been so severely desensitised that we excuse barbarism the moment we see next to a tragedy the word “Hindu.”

26/11, and the normalisation of its enormity through quiet media sleight of hand, are reminders that the fight against Hinduphobia is quite frankly a fight that even non-Hindus have a moral, political, and existential stake in. In almost every terrorist attack on Indian civilians, it is, after all, not only Hindus, but others too who have suffered. Yet, we have a bizarre situation in the intellectual consensus on south Asia today that somehow Hinduphobia is not a real concern, and that it is Hindus, Hinduism, Hindutva, or even “Dharma” that is somehow a cause of danger for people in South Asia. When Pakistani terrorists are unleashed on a destructive combat mission against innocent civilians on a frightening scale, we are told by Pankaj Mishra, The New York Times, Arundhati Roy, and now perhaps this new movie that somehow it is inappropriate to call it what it is. In the aftermath of 26/11, they told us it was more appropriate for us to worry about what the Hindutva backlash against Muslims might be. Now they tell us in this new movie that the “kids were tricked into doing this”.

The elephant in the room cannot be avoided by this logic either. If the terrorists were just “kids” who were “tricked”, why does this new movie reportedly avoid naming the nationality of those masterminds who did the tricking either? And if the masterminds were to blame, then why do these apologists for terror avoid focusing on the religious supremacist beliefs of these masterminds and slip off into hypocritical pieties about how poverty caused them to pick up guns against rich Hindus (I mention the hypocrisy because I am yet to see an op-ed in The Washington Post about the poverty and fear of cattle-theft among poor Hindu farmers that produces the occasional so-called “cow terrorist”).

I think it is very important to recognise that these systemic biases are a lot more than creative whims or academic idealism. There are interests that stand to gain from them, and in persuading whole generations of growing children that there is some kind of romantic and moral reward for mass murder. In the old days — correction — in the old days and in the quarters of the poor and uneducated to this day, that moral reward was/is presented in simple religious terms.

But then there is also a whole new generation of global middle and upper-class youth high on deracinated idealism that will not buy into violence in the name of religion. But for a cover image onRolling Stone (the famous American music magazine that put the Boston Marathon killer’s photo on the cover), or a sense of belonging with other deracinated people intoxicated by belief that they are part of a modern crusade against a non-existent Hindu fascist-capitalist project, the normalisation of violence in terms of economic explanations (even when the cause was so obviously military and religious), becomes a useful tool for conversion (if not literally in religious terms, at least morally, in terms of excusing or even celebrating violence).

From whatever reports and reviews have appeared so far, it seems that Hotel Mumbai falls into this category, just as Slumdog Millionaire did in its own way too. I remember the outrage that marked the release ofSlumdog Millionaire in India so soon after the 26/11 tragedy and the fact that in the end, India chose to rub its own nose in the dirt by buying into the movie's claim to entertainment and nobility. Now, we have to wait and see what kind of misguided reception awaits this new propaganda test on our mice and rabbits in their mental cages.

Make no mistake, this is a slow generational campaign. We already have a large swathe of the Indian population that is so young that it has no idea what kinds of evil dangers we survived. In America, this academic year which has just started marks the entry to college of probably the first cohort that was born so close to or just after 9/11 of 2001, and therefore with no direct memory of it. I remember that bright blue morning all too well, and the fear so many of us had for months and for even years. For nearly a decade, I would discuss in my media violence class what the students were doing “that day”. First, it was about being in high school. Then, middle school. Then, just vague, distant memories for the children about something that happened in kindergarten when their teachers sent them home early.

We must be grateful for peace. But we must be vigilant not to ignore the cultural war that is raging, seething with madness against this world, even in times of this seeming peace. Those are not kids, sir. Those are grown men, armed by powers with intent and scope beyond even your own governments whose criticism you all take for granted in democracies. You think you are “humanising” them, but all you have done is dehumanised yourself, egregiously.

I would like to acknowledge Arjun of Hindu Human Rights UK for alerting me about this movie.

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