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Cover Story

War in soft focus

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The suffering of women and children is the focus of southern films on terror


For southern film directors, terrorism is mostly a dramatic frame for tender love stories and family sagas. But it also works as an excuse to include thumping action sequences.

If it is down south, it is always motherhood and womanly love, set to violins and flutes, that triumph over guns and grenades. Landmark films on terror have not bothered much with male protagonists, the terrorist or the hero. Their focus has always been the woman and the child.

In Mani Ratnam's Roja, arguably the first film to focus on terrorism, an ingênue from a small village takes on the army, the police and even the Kashmiri terrorists who hold her husband captive. Bombay was the story of a Hindu-Muslim couple caught in communal crossfire. The Eelam fighter in Ratnam's later work, Kannathil Muttamittal, is also a mother who is forced to abandon her baby at a refugee camp in Rameswaram and return to the jungles. The film traces the child's search for her mother and the final reunion, where the stone-faced terrorist ultimately breaks down. Ratnam made two more films on the subject of terror: Uyire (Dil Se) and Bombay - films centred around the woman/family.

Santosh Sivan's Theeviravathi (The Terrorist) is a rather lyrical - and, of course, fictional - take on the life of Dhanu, the woman suicide bomber who assassinated Rajiv Gandhi. (The Sivarasan end of the conspiracy was turned into a movie called Kuppi that sank at the box office. ) In The Terrorist, Ayesha Dharker memorably played Malli, an orphan raised by guerrilla fighters and whose lover dies fighting for Eelam. Malli is training to be a suicide bomber herself but loses her nerve in the crucial minutes - she is pregnant and now understands the worth of a human life. Sivan followed this up with the recent Tahaan, a film on a child growing up in strife-torn Kashmir.

"I am not really interested in dramatising the violence, " says Sivan. "It is how this brutality affects those who are on its periphery - the women, the children - that's my focus.

Some of this soft-focussing could be criticised for taking away from the real issue. Ratnam's films have drawn flak for looking at violence through diffused light, framing it with pretty songs and beautiful locales. C Lakshmanan, cinema scholar at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, believes Ratnam's take on terrorist violence is as unreal as that of commercial filmmakers, only more sophisticated. "What is so believable about a woman (Roja), who speaks only Tamil, singlehandedly taking on terrorists in Kashmir? But the same nationalistic jingoism when put in a very subtle format becomes intellectually appealing to the middle class, " Lakshmanan comments.

Not all southern filmmakers, though, are making evolved films on the subject. For some it is just an excuse to include terrific fight sequences. No one knows this better than Major Ravi, a decorated former army officer and a much in-demand terrorism 'consultant' in Tamil and Malayalam films. He got so good at authenticating action sequences in films like Dil Se and The Terrorist that he branched off on his own to direct potboilers such as Keerthichakra and Aran in Malayalam.

Ravi explains: "I use my experience in counter-terror operations in Punjab and Kashmir to advise film makers in action scenes. For anyone who understands guns and explosives, the action scenes in our films on terrorism are laughable. What kind of smoke or sound does a real blast produce, how does combat happen, how would a human bomb look or walk - filmmakers who are particular about details come to me. "

The former officer, in fact, is currently busy with his biggest directorial venture so far - a Mohanlal-Amitabh Bachchan starrer, Kandahar. It is his interpretation of the hijack story, which, he says, will take a fresh look at how Muslim youth are being "misguided".

Ironically, it is exactly this viewpoint that director Amal Neerad plans to refute in Anwar, the Prithviraj-starrer in Malayalam that will be ready for release by Septemberend. He is fed up, he says, of films that are pro-establishment, where the villain is a Muslim and where the last scene shows a recentlydecorated commando in close conversation with the Prime Minister. The dig is obviously at the thundering pro-army Major Ravi films where ageing matinee idols like Mohanlal and Mammooty wear smart commando uniforms, speak long, scorching monologues and, not to forget, single-handedly trump the terrorists.

"I grew up near the city quarters (in Kochi) referred to as 'mini-Pakistan'. Kerala is now considered a terrorism hub. Both the Coimbatore and Bangalore blast suspects were traced to Kerala. Why should I go to Kashmir to show terrorism or analyse the concept of Jihad ? It is right here in my backyard and as a Muslim I have an insight into it, " says Neerad, adding he will deliver an authentic and compassionate look at what exactly is happening to the youth of his community.

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