SFIFF 2005: Black Friday

Black Friday (2004, dir. Anurag Kashyap) is a ten ton haymaker punch into Bollywood's bloated midriff. When the film starts, you'll see the usual censor board certificate and then the legend "Jhamu Sugandh Presents." All resemblances with your usual run of the mill masala flick end thereafter. Comparisons with docudramas such as JFK and The Battle of Algiers are much more apt. Yet the film also has Indian roots, blending the worlds of the underworld dramas Satya and Company.

Based on a book by S. Hussain Zaidi, Black Friday is a reenactment of the investigation into the Mumbai bomb blasts of 1993. Inspector Rakesh Maria (Kay Kay Menon) is assigned the unenviable task of tracking down the perpetrators. And to make matters worse, this is the holy month of Ramadan - a false move by the police can exacerbate the tense situation in Mumbai, already reeling from riots in 1992.

Many, many factors contribute to Black Friday being a landmark Indian film. These include:

  • It's based on a non-fiction book. Not a frequent occurrence in the Mumbai film world.
  • The narrative flow: Kashyap opts for an episodic approach, jumping back and forth in time to focus on specific threads that converge at the explosion and then unravel again, as the perpetrators scatter across India (and outside). This technique has been tried in Bollywood before (see Yuva) but here it feels less a gimmick and more a legitimate storytelling device.
  • Mixture of TV footage and live action. The montage of stills that end the film.
  • The authenticity: this movie feels real. From the gritty interrogation scenes to the locations all over the country, this is the India the ITDC will not be displaying on their posters. The BBC film crews, on the other hand, will be busy making notes on what slums to visit the next time they get down from their planes in Mumbai. One minor quibble: the Dubai scenes don't feel like they could've been from the early '90s, largely because of the car models featured are from a later date.
  • The investigation: the crime thriller, as a genre, is moribund in Bollywood. There are many reasons for this, notably the stylistic straitjacket that most Bollywood products have to be trussed up in. There have been exceptions (like Tarquieb) but for the most part, it is an uphill battle to introduce logic in a business ruled by emotion. Here, the film poses a tantalizing question in the beginning: how do you find the culprits in a country of billions? Where do you even start? The film provides many insights as to how it is done and a lot of it is not pretty.
  • The performances, largely by a cast of unknowns, are outstanding - the remarkable part of this is the understated nature of the acting. For example, we see one of the perpetrators, tired of being continually on the run from the police, on the verge of giving himself up voluntarily. To illustrate his desire for normalcy, for marriage, the camera simply focuses on him staring at a couple of attractive girls in a Calcutta tram. Too often, the temptation in a project like this would be to resort to soul stirring speeches, scenery chewing grandstanding, and much melodrama. There are a couple of confrontational scenes but their effectiveness is underlined by the fact that there are so few of them.
  • The even handedness: Black Friday does not take sides. It goes out of its way to make the point that this cycle of violence has been continuing for centuries. And for the good of the country, it is best to find ways to break the cycle, not find blame. To drive home the point, the film opens and closes with a quote from Mahatma Gandhi: "an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind."
  • The chase scene: there is a chase on foot that must rank as one of the best I've seen. William Friedkin (The French Connection, To Live and Die In LA) would be proud.

The one nit with Black Friday is that it drags on a little too long in the end, thus diluting its impact. But that's not to take away from its overall effect and message: violence of this type, by creating more poor and dispossessed, simply begets more of the same. Spellbinding yet resolutely uncommercial, this is the best release from India we've seen this year.

In a recent development, the film has been embroiled in legal court wrangles:

In January this year, Mushtaq Moosa Tarani and 36 other accused in the Bombay bombings case had moved court on the grounds that the film would create a bias against them at a time when the court verdict is awaited.

Last week, the Bombay High Court imposed a stay on the film's release till the designated Terrorist and Disruptive Act (TADA) court in the blast case delivered its judgement. The producers now intend to move the Supreme Court against the decision.

Let's hope these issues are resolved soon - the filmgoing public deserve no less.

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- May 3, 2005 10:12 PM // Bollywood , Film , Review , Select