Peter Bergen’s Manhunt: From 9/11 to Abbottabad — The Ten-Year Search for Osama bin Laden is one of the best books on the al-Qaeda. It begins with this sentence: “I first met Osama bin Laden in the middle of the night in a mud hut in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan in March 1997.” It’s a pretty darn spectacular beginning and you’ve got to think, if anyone knows this story then it’s a guy who can say that he met bin Laden in a mud hut in Afghanistan.
I was wrong. Because Bergen may have met bin Laden, interviewed people in the CIA and FBI and done all the research in the world, but he doesn’t have the imagination. Who does, you ask? Kamal Haasan, writer and director of the film Vishwaroop, which redefines everything from terrorism, going undercover to intelligence (both in terms of brain power and spying) to Aghan men.
If you haven’t seen this review of Vishwaroop, I recommend you do so immediately. Do not drink while going through it. You will spray your computer screen with aforementioned drink if you do. There are a few reasons why I’m bothering to write this post.
- You need to see images from this film to understand just how entirely magnificent it is.
- I’d like to keep a record of the fact that I saw this film. Especially since there seems to be a sequel in the works, if the last few minutes of the film are any indication. I saw this film on Sunday and I’ve already forgotten some priceless bits so I need to jot this down. It’s not everyday that you get to see a film that goes on for about 3 hours and doesn’t have even a second of logic or sense in it.
- It’s too beautiful to not talk about again and again.
Once upon a time, there was a woman named Nirupama who desperately wanted to get a PhD from an American university and live the great American dream. So, instead of applying to colleges and for scholarships, she said yes to an arranged marriage with an Indian-origin man in America because that would mean a) going to America, and b) getting a Green Card. The man she married was named Vishwanathan and known to his friends as Wiz. He was a Kathak teacher in New York City. This is presumably why he has a high-pitched voice, hair that looks like a taxidermied animal, a limp wrist and excessively swinging hips when he walks. Curiously, said hips don’t move much when he dances. Oh, and he speaks as though he was dropped on his head as a child, repeatedly. Because that’s what denotes an artistic temperament.
(NOTE: There’s been some controversy about Vishwaroop in Tamil Nadu, with some Muslim groups complaining that it’s depiction of Muslims is offensive. Personally, given how Wiz behaves when he’s a dance teacher and the way they show terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, I think it’s the al-Qaeda and kathak dancers who should have demanded the film be banned.)
Nirupama loved her life in America as a nuclear oncologist in a firm owned by a lecherous Bengali man. (We know he’s lecherous because he leans towards her every time he says anything and he doesn’t speak as much as mutter in a growly voice.)
However, she didn’t love Wiz and didn’t care much for his bearded uncle, played by Shekhar Kapur. Determined to end her marriage, she hired a private investigator to get some goss on her husband. The private investigator followed Wiz and was aghast when Wiz, supposedly a vegetarian Hindu, walked into a mosque to do namaz. This is perhaps the only mosque located in a storefront where you can see people praying through a massive glass window. But never mind these details. The investigator followed Wiz and lost him. He did, however, find a couple of menacing terrorists who, in the process of interrogating him, kill him. Terrorists are like that, you see. They don’t lie low and not raise suspicion. They go around killing anyone they find outside their door. Particularly if it is an obviously inept private investigator who has, helpfully, carried his client’s visiting card in his jacket pocket. And of course because terrorists are also slightly clairvoyant, they’re able to tell that this random visiting card belongs to the investigator’s client.
Nirupama’s card mentioned the name of her office. This led the terrorists to The Leaning Tower of Adultery that is Nirupama’s boss who, when not delivering the worst pickup lines in history or running a nuclear oncology business, supplies radioactive material to terrorists. Earlier, he had impressed Nirupama by telling her the password to his computer and showing her the cash-stuffed safe in his office. He doesn’t use a bank for this money because, he told her, “I have important clients from the Middle East countries, like Nigeria”. Given his knowledge of geography, you can see why the terrorist groups wouldn’t mind how indiscreet he is and would want to collaborate with him. Their secret identity would definitely be safe with a guy who thinks Nigeria is in the Middle East.
After the investigator’s murder, The Leaning Tower of Adultery showed up at Nirupama and Wiz’s house with a couple of terrorists. Nirupama did not realise at this moment that perhaps The Leaning Tower of Adultery was not the man of her dreams. It’s when the terrorist slapped her and her lover did nothing to stop the terrorist that she started seeing him in a new light. The terrorists trussed up Nirupama and Wiz and took them to a warehouse and started beating them up, aiming particularly for Wiz’s crotch. Wiz said he was Muslim but this didn’t soften the blows. A message came from their headquarters — an apartment in New York City has been transformed into a terrorist cell — to kill The Leaning Tower of Adultery and send a photo of Wiz. (Who needs a photo of the woman? Women can’t be jihadis after all.) The terrorists did this and thus, a photo of Wiz reached the headquarters just as the terrorist leader Omar, played by Rahul Bose, was supervising the final edit of a terrorist video.
There’s so much detail to point out in this scene that I don’t know where to start. Let’s begin with the minor point. The video had Omar’s sidekick (who’s name I’ve forgotten, so he’ll just have to be Sidekick) talking about a nuclear explosion and its chemical composition. Why on earth is he providing people with the chemical composition? This is a “we did it” video, not a surprise chemistry test. Sidekick recorded it in English, French, Chinese, Italian, Hindi and a host of other languages. Because translation isn’t something governments, media and intelligence agencies do these days. But the star of this scene and the film in general is Rahul Bose as Omar, who has no voice, a permanent grimace, one real eye and one fake eye that he pops in and out like that unfortunate ghost pirate from The Pirates of the Caribbean did. I suspect Bose’s character was meant to be modelled on Mullah Omar, but Bose’s Omar is simply a rejected Disney villain.
That’s a picture of Mullah Omar, who has every right to be offended at how he’s been depicted in Vishwaroop. No one who sees this film will ever take him seriously again. The filmy Omar, on the right, is from the bit of the film that’s in Afghanistan, set in the dusty past when Omar hadn’t lost his voice and when he and Wiz were friends. Yes, Wiz who is not Vishwanath but Wisam Kashmiri was once Omar’s buddy. This is why the moment Omar saw Wiz’s face in the present, even with the strange mound of hair and imbecilic expression, he told Sidekick that they had to go to the warehouse immediately.
Immediately was, however, enough time for Wiz to reveal his inner ninja, kill all the terrorists and get the hell out of the warehouse. Back in their apartment, Wiz and Nirupama are joined by Shekhar Kapur, a random White man who looks like he should be in Goa looking for hash, and one of Wiz’s dance students who is actually a spy. Of course the superstar in this midst is Wiz, who has a haircut and is thus transformed into the man of Nirupama’s dreams and the chap on the movie poster.
You see what I mean about Omar’s Disney-ness? And I’m not even getting into the fact that there are probably 4-year-old Pashtuns taller than Bose.
Wiz, Dancing-Student-Cum-Spy, Nirupama, Shekhar Kapur and Goa Hippie now get down to the business of dismantling Omar’s plot for New York City. This requires, among other things, a car to bust through a wall like a stripper out of a cake, cash to be thrown in the air while yelling “I’m both hero and villain!”, getting arrested by the FBI and chatting with the Prime Minister of India. Nothing like chatting with the prime minister on speakerphone and being congratulated for having done not much more than get arrested by the FBI. That this could have caused an international incident isn’t a problem. Then again, let’s be fair. Wiz also got a haircut and a better wardrobe. He deserved that pat on the back.
Much later, there’s a completely unnecessary sequence in which we see a man preparing for his suicide bombing mission. This means shaving all his body hair. Why we had to see that, I don’t know but my favourite bit is when this man carefully positions himself in front of an open window and behind a packing crate to shave his pubic area. That way we can’t see his private parts but the chaps in the next building can. Excellent.
The only person from good guys’ team who doesn’t make it to the climax is Goa Hippie, who gets killed (strangled) in broad daylight in a park. It’s America. Shit happens. Statistics show crime rates are appalling so of course, it’s totally credible that one man would kill another in the middle of a public space without anyone else noticing either the murder or the corpse lolling about on the green.
Interspersed into this small matter of averting a massive terrorist attack that may include a nuclear threat were flashbacks that told the story of how Omar and Wiz went from BFFs to mortal enemies. Wiz was brought into the al-Quaeda fold because he’d made a name for himself as a Kashmiri militant. Omar brought him to train his Taliban boys. For those interested, the terrorist training camps in Afghanistan are mostly made up of gunny sacks behind which men carrying placards with George Bush’s face scuttle while chaps with guns fire at these placards. (Make a smiley face with bullet holes for a gold star.) While training, everyone wears black, presumably to harness their inner ninja.
Omar has some incredible moments during these flashbacks. For instance, he tells a foreign doctor who has come to treat his wife, “Cover your feet, cover your face and get out of my house, woman.” Scawy. He tells Wiz that he plans to attack New York using pigeons. Pigeons with radioactive material tied to their feet would be released in New York. This would make the Geiger counters go nuts and thus ensure no one would notice that Omar has a big-ass nuclear bomb the size of a water cooler sitting around waiting to explode. When Wiz is impressed with this plan, Omar expresses his joy by beaming and suddenly doing a kick like a can-can dancer.
There are two important things we learn from the climax of the flashbacks. One is that Wiz is an Indian spy undercover, not a militant. Who’d have thunk. The second is that before anyone else, it was India’s Research Analysis Wing, courtesy the wonder that is Wiz, who had located Osama bin Laden. Take that, Peter Bergen. Haasan will see your mud hut, and raise you a cave in Tora Bora. Complete with lighting that gives bin Laden an angelic halo. And Katherine Bigelow, go weep. They were showing trailers of Zero Dark Thirty in the interval. Even if it had been a spectacular film (which it isn’t, by a long shot), when you have Haasan showing you bin Laden, why bother with a film that tiptoes around the edges of his beard?
Perhaps the only thing more superb than bin Laden’s cameo appearance and the tacky pun to clue the audience in (“Wahi jinkay bin hum kuchh nahin hain” or something like that) is the scene that followed. Americans start bombing the area. While the caves are being flattened by American gunfire, bin Laden doesn’t leave the cave. He just casually walks up and down, with light streaming down on him, as though he’s taking in some fresh air in the Mediterranean. No need to escape. His lieutenant Omar is out there, doing his thing. He’s fine. He’ll amble along a little longer so that a random chap called Wiz can ogle at him indiscreetly. No problem.
But of course, nothing was fine. Bin Laden escaped but everything else was in ruin. After getting blitzed by Americans and losing his family, Omar realised there was a spy in their midst. They killed the wrong man for being traitor but after another American attack — this was the one that left him in the mangled state in which we see him in New York City — Omar realised Wiz was the bad guy.
Cut back to the present. After having found some pigeons who dove head first into snow and had radioactive stuff tied to their feet, it’s time to find the bomb. Personally, I think the pigeons committed suicide when they realised what this movie was shaping up to be. Anyway, it takes no time to locate Omar’s terrorist and soon enough, the FBI and Wiz find the freshly-shaved suicide bomber, kill him and find themselves standing in front of a nuclear bomb. As if that wasn’t bad enough, it appears the bomb can be set off by a phone call. Of course, there’s no bomb squad. They’re all examining dead pigeons. All the FBI has is a man named Bob in a van and, as he informs us, he doesn’t even have a PhD. It’s a wonder America survives, isn’t it?
But never fear, nuclear oncologist Nirupama and a microwave are near. In Three Idiots, a vacuum cleaner was used to deliver a baby. I thought that was the most inventive use of household electrical equipment I’d ever see, but Vishwaroop topped that when Nirupama yanked the microwave off the kitchen counter and plonked it on the bomb. This, she declared, was a Farraday shield and would make sure no cellphone connection could be established with the bomb’s detonator. Of course she’s right. Which is why when Omar, who has got out of New York in his private jet, tries calling the number to detonate the bomb, he can’t get through. At which point, we see the best reaction ever to not being able to make a phone call.
Omar does what any grown mature man would do at this moment. He turns to Sidekick for assistance/explanation.
Best. Reaction. Ever. I really hope someone starts a meme with these shots.
If Sidekick was Steve Jobs, he may have said that the problem isn’t in the phone or the network, but in the way Omar is holding the phone. However, Steve Jobs wasn’t sidekick, so he tries dialling the number again. You never know with cellphone networks. I was half expecting Sidekick to say, “We should have gone with Sprint. Everyone says T-Mobile sucks.”
Whatever their network, the point is that the call doesn’t go through. In the end, everyone’s happy. Omar has his Sidekick and a private plane. Nirupama and India have Wiz. New York has a few less pigeons. It is, as they say, hunky dory.
Insert applause and standing ovation here.