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Sunday, 8 May 2011

To Cut A Long Story Short

Inside Mumbai Terror Attack produced by Miditech Pvt Ltd  premiered worldwide on the National Geographic Channel Network on the first anniversary of the attack on 26th November 2009. Here are some tales that got made during the making of the documentary but rarely got told. 

I remember getting a call from my parents well past midnight on 27th November, 2008. ‘Take a look at the news, Mumbai is being attacked, again!’ The horror had just begun.

Leopold Café where I’d hung out as a fresher in the city was under attack. Victoria Terminus, the train station where I used to get off every morning at 10:15 to take the over-bridge to the Times Of India office had been devastated. Taj and Oberoi were burning. Mumbai looked straight out of a conflict zone on television. For the next two and half days, I didn’t leave the news. Like everyone else in India. And perhaps, the rest of the world!

Three months later, I was staring at one of my most challenging assignments – a documentary on the Mumbai Terror Attacks. Where do I begin? 60 hours of live television. Followed by atleast a years’ investigation and analysis. I had 50 minutes. There was work to do!

For many reasons! This was a dream project - my first film commissioned by the National Geographic Network. Exacting editorial, taut story-telling, a sensitive approach, stiff timelines and most importantly – an unbiased narration of events! Expected of any journalist, but prejudices creep in when you are trying to document something as close to you and as complex as 26/11. Here I was, an Indian, and someone who has lived in and loved Mumbai. Can I pull it off? Thankfully, I had 17 years of Miditech's docu-experience backing me!

It began with miles and miles of newsprint, and conversations with several survivors, victims, cops, analysts and journalists. So many stories, so many people, so many places, so many theories! At this point, 2 people became very critical to this film – the Associate Director Ramya Ramamurthy with a brilliant knack of finding people and cracking access, and a Mumbai crime journalist who is easily an Encyclopedia on 26/11. What do you keep? Who do you leave out? That’s when Niret Alva, the creative guide on this project told us, ‘There are 50 ways of narrating the same story. You need to pick yours. And stick with it’. A simple, but brilliant insight!

Soon we found ours – a complete story of the event, told through characters who were inside the action - the fisherman who saw the terrorists come ashore, an American couple who witnessed the shooting in 2 venues, a banker who came face to face with the attackers as he was taken hostage, a mother whose daughter was shot next to her, the police officer who first fired at them, security officials that engaged the terrorists, experts in defence analysis.

But what would be the tone of our film? It’s a fine line that divides an eye-witness account from that of a voyeur. The difference between empathy from schmaltz. We took a conscious decision to not dwell on people’s pain. We’d rather they ponder on the ‘What Ifs’ of their split-second decisions. Because often, that was the difference between life and death!

Our base was soon ready. We had found our stories, and our people. It was now time to connect the dots. But how do you re-create the attack all over again? We had hit a roadblock with the Taj, who didn’t want painful memories dredged up again for a film. We also had to contend with Mumbai’s monsoons – how do you match Mumbai in November with the wet Mumbai of July? That’s when I met AshishShukla, a young, passionate & aspiring feature film-maker in Mumbai. He had answers. So did someone I had worked with in the past – Hemant Bhalla, the DOP of the film.

The Storytellers - with Hemant & Ashish
Together, we worked out the style of shoot. We knew we wanted the viewer to be transported into the heart of the action. How do we do that? We were working with a docu budget, not a feature film. So, we couldn't go around building lavish sets. Our only hope was to get permissions to film at the real locations of the attack. It’s true. If you want something really bad, the forces conspire to make it happen. We didn’t get the Taj, but we got the rest - all the other scenes were filmed at real locations, from Leopold Cafe to Cama Hospital & BT Road to Chowpatty.

Next, how do we match the scale of the terror attack? The only way to do it was to seamlessly integrate reconstructions with the archival footage. The treatment had to be edgy, hand-held & candid. As in-obtrusive as possible! Capture the action, the way you see it, as if you were in there. But this shooting style was risky – it could either look very amateurish and untidy, or very real and gritty!

I remember the night we were filming the Kasab capture scene – the cops who were involved in the original encounter on 26/11 were on duty that night at Chowpatty. We were trying to shoot a ‘nakabandi’ in action with our fake cop-actors. Suddenly, a few of the real policemen on-duty came up to us and volunteered to direct the action to ensure authenticity. The scene turned out to be so realistic, that a local news channels rushed to film us for some ‘breaking news’.

Fake Cops who capture the fake Kasab at the real location
Realistic reconstructions meant hard work for our fiction team in Mumbai who painstakingly matched every aspect of production with the original – from costumes to props and casting. It was all about details – for instance, the terrorists trousers had to be just above the ankle, the Police Control Room in the film is identical to the real Mumbai Police Control Room including the software applications on their desktops, Leopold Café’s trademark Beer Towers were specially made for our shoot.

For me, ‘Kasab’ was a good accidental find. We spotted him while on a reconnaissance of the Leopold Café, where he works as waiter. Incidentally, he was at the Café on the night of the shootout and had seen the terrorists in action. He agreed to play Kasab. We also had a very interesting supernatural experience while visiting Nariman House in the middle of the night, but that’s for another blog.

I discovered that Mumbai’s stunt masters are a breed apart. They speak a different language – where every line is invariably a combination of sound effects. ‘dishkao, dishkao… auryehgolilagi… dhoom, dham, yehgira… phachak, woh glass toota… you get the picture’! I was amused by the costing - you are charged by the number of bullets you shoot. Or the bullet wounds you need. Or the number of glass vases you crack. Or the windshields you break! They liked scale. They liked style. They always wanted their stunt boys to 'die' in Bollywood style. It was quite a task to get them to tone down for some modest, realistic action.

We wrapped up a very tiring reconstruction schedule in less than a week. Our film was now in the hands of Sanjeev Nag, an experienced documentary editor. This is also when my co-director Chandramouli Basu joined the team. We began interviewing the big fish. Stories and conspiracy theories tumbled out. Intelligence and administrative lapses were revealed. Some on-record. But most were off-record and off- limits. Sub-judice videos, transcripts and interrogation reports came to us. We discovered how this attack was planned - how thousands of prospective young men were screened in Pakistan and almost like a reality show, through stages of elimination, the final 10 were chosen to execute the plan.

We spent many days & long nights crafting our material. With developments in the story regularly, our final segment of investigations and analysis looked different everyday. But the interview with the Indian Home Minister turned out to be a coup – he was honest, forthcoming and candid, we couldn’t ask for anything more!

Story strands were drawn out, clipped, inter-played and braided, untangled, snipped, re-attached… fashioned and re-fashioned till they looked good to us and to NGC in Washington. It was a laborious effort, but the end was satisfying. Though, sadly we had to leave out almost 40 minutes of content. We always knew we were going to have a problem of plenty.

So, to cut a long story short, Inside: Mumbai Terror Attack produced by Miditech Pvt Ltd premiered worldwide on the National Geographic Channel Network on the first anniversary of the attack on 26th November, 2009. Did it make the cut? You tell me.


(Inside Mumbai Terror Attack won ‘Best Director’ & ‘Best Editor’ at the Indian Telly Awards 2010).


Miditech Pvt Ltd - Documentaries - Inside Mumbai Terror Attack
National Geographic Channel - Inside Mumbai Terror Attack 
Gomolo - Inside Mumbai Terror Attack