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Terror masala

Bollywood’s colorful, multi-genre musicals serve up their most interesting character yet: the singing, dancing terrorist.
By SEETHA NARAYAN  |  December 2, 2008

BURNING DESIRE: In the 1998 film Dil Se, lovebirds Meghna and Amar sing, dance, and fall in love — never mind that terrorist are trying to destroy the world.

Editor's Note: This story was planned and written several weeks before its publication date of November 28. It was a coincidence that it arrived on the newsstands and online the day of the Mumbai terrorist attacks. The author is a native of Mumbai and knows it well. Though coverage of the Mumbai attacks here in the States has been grave, certainly as seen through the prism of our own experience of 9/11, Mumbaiites and Indians have seen such violence before in train bombings, riots, and Hindu-Muslim strife dating back to India's independence. Bollywood's take on terrorism is testimony to the acknowledged role it has played in India's history and culture. Finding stories, even music and dance, in the terrorist theme is one way we deal with its presence in Indian life.






After living in fear of terrorism for more than half a decade, it’s something of a relief to sit in the dark at the Somerville Theatre and . . . laugh at it. In the 2006 action/comedy Kabul Express, two improbably hunky Indian journalists ham and yuk their way through Afghanistan in search of Taliban to interview. By movie’s end, the duo, with an American and an Afghani in tow, rattle around the barren landscape in a jeep, cracking wise about their narrow escapes. Then they brake with a start. “Look!” says one in a stage whisper, pointing with overacted horror into the wasteland. “Osama bin Laden!”

It is absurd to think of bin Laden lolling amid the rocks of Afghanistan, waiting to be stumbled upon by rookie journalists. Ditto the idea that terrorism could be a handy backdrop for the classic road-trip/bad-vacation/buddy-movie plotline. But the only surprise to those familiar with Bollywood (as Mumbai’s thriving film industry is affectionately named), and its recent offerings of terrorist-themed films, is that the movie doesn’t likewise contain a romantic element and several musical numbers, with jihadists and journalists bursting into song and gyrating their hips in moments of high emotion, as do many of the films in this new terror subgenre.

Is that trend unreal? Sure. Careless, immature, and rash, in this post 9/11 age? Not necessarily. Bollywood films, given license to be exuberant and over-the-top, offer a bracing contrast to the painfully sincere and humorless (with the possible exception of Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo) treatment of terrorism in Hollywood films. And those willing to be swept along by Bollywood’s three-hour extravaganzas with patchy subtitles might even find them edifying.

Technicolor terror

A Sample of terrorism-themed Bollywood films
Aamir (2008)
Black and White (2008)
Contract (2008)
Hijack (2008)
Mission: Istanbul (2008)
Mumbai Meri Jaan (Mumbai My Life) (2008)
A Wednesday (2008)
Dhokha (Deception) (2007)
Khuda Kay Liye (For the Sake of God) (2007)
Fanaa (Annihilation) (2006)
Kabul Express (2006)
Rang De Basanti (Color it Saffron) (2006)
Fiza (2000)
Mission Kashmir (2000)
Sarfarosh (Martyr) (1999)
Dil Se (From the Heart) (1998)
Border (1997)
Bombay (1995)
Roja (1992)

The pre-9/11 Bollywood hit movie, Dil Se (From the Heart, 1998), contains the following charged exchange between male and female protagonist.

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