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Exploring the human face of terror

Why is it that terror films grab attention? Saibal Chatterjee analyses.

india Updated: Jan 20, 2006 17:10 IST

The winner of this year’s Golden Globe for the best foreign-language film, Hany Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now, draws its power from as much from its gripping narrative as from the sheer topicality of its theme. It is a superbly crafted thriller that delves into the minds of a pair of young male Palestinian suicide bombers without, unlike the manner of average genre movies, seeking to draw pat conclusions about politically complex issues.

Veteran American film critic Roger Ebert has likened Paradise Now, primarily because of its focus on the ritualistic nature of the preparations that two friends make for a suicide mission, to Indian cinematographer-director Santosh Sivan’s strikingly minimalist 1999 film, The Terrorist, and a more recent film, Joseph Castelo’s The War Within.

The three films have come from different streams of moviemaking and from different parts of the world. Paradise Now is the handiwork of an Israeli-born Palestinian filmmaker backed by the German-sponsored World Cinema Fund. The War Within is a small, independent American film. And The Terrorist, as we all know, was inspired in part by the assassination of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in the early 1990s by a female human bomb.

The diversities inherent in the three films do not take away from the fact that political disenchantment and the resultant acts of terrorist violence are universal realities. Films that manage to capture that truth with courage, sensitivity and integrity necessarily cut across geographical and cultural boundaries, as Paradise Now is poised to do.

A still from Hany Abu-Assad- directed Paradise Now, which won Golden Globe for the best foreign-language film this year. It is a superbly crafted thriller that delves into the minds of a pair of young male Palestinian suicide bombers.

We live in a post-9/11 world where dangers seems to lurk at every corner and films like

Paradise Now

and

The War Within

, as indeed

The Terrorist

(which, incidentally, was made much before the terrorist strikes on New York’s WTC), capture the sense of paranoia and doom that hangs heavy over the world.

Paradise Now works because it is essentially a human drama that presents prospective suicide bombers as flesh and blood characters, as young men wracked by doubts and anxieties, as single-minded crusaders driven by a faith in a higher divine goal.

“What happens next?” a suicide bomber asks after he has received final instructions for a suicide mission. The response is instant but strangely laboured: “You will be met by two angels.” But does anybody really know what lies beyond that one act of violence?

Paradise Now is the story of two childhood friends who belong to a terrorist organisation in Nablus on the West Bank that is about to undertake its first suicide mission in two years. Director Abu-Assad devotes much footage to the little acts that the two young men must perform as they buckle up for the job, but he takes care to do a balancing act by introducing the character of an attractive woman who is opposed to all forms of violence.

The War Within, probably less riveting as a story, is just as human in its approach to the character of a Pakistani who is smuggled into New York to blow up the Grand Central Station. The youth has been educated in the US and France but has now been indoctrinated enough to be willing to lay down his life for the cause. But here too, the terrorist is not a demon and does face a crisis of both confidence and conscience.

Closer home, Bollywood veteran Mahesh Bhatt is known to be scripting a film about the July bombings in London that left over 50 people dead. It will focus on a disgruntled Muslim Asian from Bradford. Of course, being a Bollywood film, Suicide Bomber (yes, that’s the title of the film) will steer clear of the complex questions that surround the making and unmaking of terrorists. But do expect another human portrait that will address the issue of demonisation of all Muslims or the “guilt by association” stance that blots the world’s engagement with Islam and its followers today.

But will Suicide Bomber connect with the rest of the world like Paradise Now? That would take some doing.

First Published: Jan 20, 2006 20:00 IST