2001, Somewhere in England. 2300 hours approx. While trying to un-encrypt Homi Bhabha, I kept myself awake by concocting a story about a bomb blast and I remember clearly thinking to myself that, despite the undisputed genius of my story idea (one which a million wannabe and honest-to-goodness writers have thought of and discarded), the fact that I had lived a very un-terrorised life was something of a drawback when writing something like this. I’m the only person I know who doesn’t have a 9/11 story, for example, since sauntering home from from French class and seeing it on tv doesn’t count. So I put fiction on the backburner, continued stirring the pot of polysyllabic postcolonial theory and, about two years later, when I’d lost the good fight and was actually dropping words like “subaltern” in regular conversation, I came back to India.
2003, August, Flora Fountain in Mumbai. 0115 hours. I was about 5 minutes late for a lunch date with a friend and it was going to take me at least ten more minutes to get there since I was walking it to the Gateway of India. Strangely, I couldn’t get through to my friend’s mobile and even more strangely, the two cabbies I’d asked didn’t want to go to the Gateway. Just when I was going to turn on all my charm and bat my eyelashes at the third cabbie, my mobile rang. It was an ex-boyfriend from foreign shores. He asked me if I was ok. I asked if he was ok because he was sounding like he was having a heart attack. He said he was fine. I cut him off before he could go on and said I was running really late and I needed to get to the Gateway asap. At which point there was a pause (I imagine he groped for some smelling salts) and then he said, quite calmly, that it was a better idea to go home since two bombs had just gone off in Mumbai. The second had been at the Gateway of India about five odd minutes ago, if his “feed” was to be believed. Oh, I squeaked and asked the cab in front of me if he wanted to go in a direction opposite to the Gateway. He did.
2006, July, en route to Mahalaxmi Station in Mumbai, 1645 hours. Work was getting over early. The significant other called and said that he’d sent the car to my office; I said I was practically at the station so no need; he said the driver should reach in about 10 minutes so could I please stop quell my inherent Bengali Marxism and just take the damn car home; I said the train was faster; he told me to think about the driver’s feeling of futility and my carbon footprint if the car travelled across the city for no reason, and also the pleasures of airconditioning. I was home in about an hour, by car. By that time, all the seven bombs had gone off along Mumbai’s local train network. There were at least two trains I could have been on; three if I’d not been lazy and skipped a late afternoon meeting in Colaba.
2008, September, India Gate in New Delhi, 1800 hours. I was playing tour guide for a visiting friend. I’d originally thought of going to Connaught Place for a little stroll but it was hot and I just couldn’t deal with haggling with an autowallah so I told her, let’s go to Khan Market instead. Just as we walked into Khan Market, a flustered woman said to us that her mother had just messaged saying there had been two bomb blasts in Greater Kailash. In front of us, the police were shutting down the market. We bought ourselves two magazines, one packet of cigarettes and some eggs. The moment we reached a television, we learnt that five bombs had gone off and of the couple that had been discovered and defused, one had been at India Gate.
If the cat I’ve got tattooed on my back has anything to do with this, then I’m good for six more. Naseeruddin Shah’s nameless character in A Wednesday possibly doesn’t have any tattoos and certainly not one of a cat, which perhaps is why eluding an explosive death once leaves the man rattled and infuriated enough to do what he does in the film. There may be SPOILERS AHEAD. Unlike Shah’s Stupid Common Man (that’s what he calls himself) who plans the whole operation meticulously, I’m incapable of planning anything particularly when it comes to a blog post.
Unlike most other Bollywood kitsch that has earned people like Shah Rukh Khan notoriety, A Wednesday has
no easy Wikipedia and its IMDb entry didn’t show up when I asked Mr. Google about “A Wednesday”. A few hoardings sprang up before the release and there was one requisite Bombay Times article that transcribed a conversation between Naseeruddin Shah and Anupam Kher, the two “stars” of the film. Nothing lets you in on the fact that A Wednesday is a surprisingly taut and watchable movie. It’s far, far better than something like Vantage Point because it doesn’t try to be clever or glamorous. It doesn’t take recourse to item numbers, sojourns in Switzerland and other meaningless tropes. The small cast looks realistic and performs well. The policemen don’t run like Baywatch models and ultimately, the case is cracked by a preppy college dropout who dismisses the entire police tracking system because it’s outdated. The other major lead comes from a sketch based on a description and drawn in the old-fashioned way, by hand.
A Wednesday has its problems, like the background score that seems to have been borrowed from the Zee Horror Show and the character of a Muslim cop whose instinct for mindless violence makes The Terminator seem like a sensitive guy, but these are minor quibbles. Pandey doesn’t shy from pointing out that the terrorism we’ve seen since 2001 isn’t about lofty ambitions like building a country or uplifting the oppressed. That’s the jargon used as justification. What terrorism is about today is cruelty and fear politics. And grabbing headlines.
Directed and scripted by Neeraj Pandey, A Wednesday is about four hours during which Shah’s character threatens Mumbai with five bombs unless his demands are met. He wants the city’s police to hand over to him four hotshot terrorists and he’s ahead of the police at every step. The police commissioner, played by Anupam Kher, finds himself in a position where he can do nothing more than tow his line but, like a dogged chess opponent, he keeps playing the game. Pandey’s script balances the wordiness of phone conversations with action. Without being jingoistic or didactic, he reminds viewers of negotiations like the ones during the 1999 hijack of the flight IC 814, which ended with India handing over three extremists to the hijackers. One of them, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, is alleged to have gone on and helped Mohammed Atta out when 9/11 was being planned. It’s also peppered with dry humour and has the sort of idealism that Rang de Basanti wanted to have but didn’t because the logic behind that film’s violence just wasn’t credible. A Wednesday makes a good argument for the common man to be enraged and asks the question that I’ve wondered in all my years here – why do people mutely take all the chaos and ineptitude of those in positions of authority without complaint? The stance that Pandey and his film ultimately takes may not go down well with those who have faith in the idea of a system of justice as one of the cornerstones of civilized modern society but Pandey is persuasive and he’s helped by solid performances by Shah and Kher.
I watched A Wednesday in Delhi, two days after the bomb blasts. The city was back to normal but for the yellow tape that cordoned off the blast sites. As in all Indian cinemas, a number of cellphones went off during the film. Since there’s a lot of cellphone ringing in the film as well (Shah keeps calling Kher and other people on cellphones), after a while it became hard to tell which of the ringtones was Dolby Surround Sound but more impressively, people stopped taking the calls (“Helloo, yes, I’m in a movie, I’ll call back… what? .. Yes, it’s quite good. It’s called A Wednesday. Ya, that new one with Naseeruddin Shah and Anupam Kher. It’s not bad. Pretty tense and all…”). Someone rang me three times during the film, which is unusual because no one is that desperate to talk to me, ever. When it rang the fourth time, I went out to take the call and earned myself sniggers as the sweeper passing by heard my attempts at Hindi.
“Hello, you’re ok?”
Me: “Who is this?”
“Why is the phone still working?”
Me: “What? Who is this?”
“It’s Inder Lal. You left your phone at the accident, right?”
Me: “Accident? What accident?”
“The accident day before yesterday. You lost your phone there, right? What are you still doing with it?”
Me: “I don’t understand what you’re saying. Whom do you want?”
“The accident day before yesterday. You lost the phone there, remember?”
Me: “You must be making some mistake. I haven’t been in an accident.”
Click. Call ended.