The most exciting film I’ve seen in the last year is one that you, dear reader, have probably had no chance to see yet: Anurag Kashyap’s fictional reconstruction of the 1993 bomb blasts, Black Friday. The film was due to go on general release in January but was stayed by the Supreme Court and the High Court after some of the bomb blast accused, whose trial is still awaiting judgement, petitioned the court against its release. They argued that the release of the film, based on a book by S. Hussain Zaidi and promoted, following the title of Zaidi's book, as ‘The True Story of the Bombay Bomb Blasts’, would prejudice the trial.
I will not comment here about the arguments for and against this decision, although I do agree that it was unwise for the film to have promoted itself as a 'true story' when there was no absolute need to, and when so much of the film so obviously delves in the realm of what we think of as 'the fictional'. What I'd like to comment on here is on the merits of the film as cinema, and as a vision of the city in which it is set, Mumbai, and of the image of man it proffers.
Briefly, Black Friday depicts the bomb blasts of 1993 as they were planned and executed, and the massive investigation that was launched in their aftermath, shifting continuously between a whole host of finely-etched characters of whom the main ones are Kay Kay Menon, playing a police inspector called Rakesh Maria, and Pawan Malhotra, whom I first saw in my childhood in the TV serial Nukkad, as Tiger Memon, the brain behind the blasts.
The great merit of the film is Kashyap's insight into character and his sympathy and understanding of human beings, who act from a variety of motives and, far from being simply bad or wicked, are sometimes simply confused or gullible or deluded by an impossible dream or unable to withstand the pressure of peers (this trait of Kashyap's work was seen memorably in the film Satya, which he co-wrote). Although the film deals with several very touchy issues, including Hindu-Muslim conflict and criminals against a system itself susceptible to corruption, each character of the many who appear before us is authentically a living, feeling human being rather than a mouthpiece who represents some community or some point of view. The police inspector, who is responsible for getting results, is seen at several stages to be suffering anguish at acts of torture, and the criminals on the run themselves go through self-doubt, guilt, and indecision.
In one of the film's most beautiful and impressive stretches, Kashyap follows one conspirator, Baadshah Khan, as he treks around the country trying to keep the police off his scent. Baadshah Khan is exasperated by his journeys, wishes only to go to his hometown and lie low, gets into a quarrel with his co-conspirators when he meets them, and at one stage runs out of money and sinks into deep despair. Finally he gives himself up to the police. Even though we know he is a criminal, we feel a deep sympathy with Badshah Khan's predicament, we feel his weariness in our bones. Although most of the film is shot on location in Mumbai - and Kashyap's intimate knowledge of the city and his feeling for place make for some of the most striking shot compositions I've seen - in the ten or fifteen minutes devoted to following Baadshah Khan on his travels he takes us on a virtual tour of India, and I remember watching this stretch in the darkened hall and thinking I would like it to go on forever. Baadshah Khan is played in the film by an outstanding actor, Aditya Srivastava, who also appeared in Satya, this time on the other side of the law as Inspector Khandilkar.
The acting is in fact uniformly high-class: Pawan Malhotra delivers the performance of a lifetime as Yakub Memon, and Vijay Maurya marvellously communicates menace and remoteness in his brief appearance as Dawood Ibrahim. As for the music, the band Indian Ocean have produced an incandescent soundtrack every bit as good as anything else in the film. Regardless of its current status, caught up in the real-life matter than stimulated its making, Black Friday has the immense revelatory power of great art and deserves to be seen as widely as possible.
Here are some related links. Kay Kay Menon dicusses the film and the role of Inspector Rakesh Maria here. Anurag Kashyap discusses the making of the film here, and the jinx surrounding him - his first film, Paanch, was held up by the censor board - here. And the Indian Express reporter Mohammed Wajihuddin makes, in my opinion, a baffling claim when he argues that the film is unworthy because it rehashes Bollywood stereotypes in its portrayal of Muslims.