Director: Ken Ghosh
Written by: William Borthwick and Simon Fantauzzo
Cinematography: Tejal Shetye
Edited by: Mukesh Thakur
Starring: Akshaye Khanna, Manjari Fadnnis, Akshay Oberoi, Samir Soni and Parvin Dabas
Streaming on: Zee5
Nintendo-era title aside, State of Siege: Temple Attack is a cultural ideology dressed as an action film. It may not be related to its official predecessor, State of Siege: 26/11, but the ZEE5 franchise seems to be a spiritual sibling of Uri: The Surgical Strike. (For some reason, Adnan Sami’s voice crooning “Aye Uri Uri Uri” is stuck in my head). The Akshaye Khanna starrer is yet another addition to the spate of mainstream Islamophobic narratives that use the Indian Armed Forces as artistic scapegoats to privatize the rage of new-age nationalism. The fact that the film exists is not a problem. These stories are based on real events – in this case, the 2002 Akshardham Temple attack – and make for high-octane, Peter-Berg-esque thrillers. The right (or left) filmmakers can transcend the plurality of politics to focus on the visceral singularity of the moment. The timing is dubious, too, but I have no beef with that. It’s the old normal: Pro-India implies anti-Pakistan. I have no beef with the tailormade symbolism of the premise either – terrorists storming a Hindu temple based in Gandhinagar on the back of the 2002 Gujarat riots. Not even today’s stately storytellers can dream of a more convenient statement.
But the disingenuity lies in the way these stories are told. It’s not just the subtlety of a Ravi Shastri press conference. The craft loses its sheen the second a Muslim character is presented as an Urdu-spouting, bearded, kohl-eyed and food-metaphor-using caricature. (One of the terrorists chuckles like a crazed hyena while screaming “halal kar denge” – now imagine the consequences of a counterpart Pakistani movie where a Hindutva goon yells “dhokla kar denge” before running riot). There is such a clear otherness and lack of curiosity about the attackers – for instance, one of them gets amused by a microphone in an auditorium and growls into it for fun. The craft loses its steam when Sameer Soni’s Chief Minister Choksi – in a nod to 2002 CM Narendra Modi – is introduced during a speech rehearsal where he not-so-spontaneously replaces “deviyon aur sajjano” with “Sathiyon”. (His “mera Gujarat jal raha hai” moment comes when he hears of the attack and sadly muses: “mandir mein logon ka kya hoga?”).
The drama loses its dignity when a hostage is made to sing Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram at gunpoint, before the background score extends into a rousing version of the devotional song. Or when an Indian soldier shoots down a prisoner, appropriates his religion (“jahannum mein pahucha diya”) and, naturally, chants “Bharat Mata ki Jai!” even as more bullets rain down on him. Then there’s the Good-Muslim stereotype, a token device added to balance out the all-terrorists-are-Muslims gaze: A family man offering samosas to the cold-eyed militants on a train to Gujarat, a temple worker shedding his ‘mask’ to reason with the attackers about their deranged interpretation of Allah, mosques and humans. Then there’s the magnanimous Hindu priest who, in the end, stands over terrorist corpses to deliver a monologue (to nobody) about the futility of violence in the land of Gandhi. So far, so State-board Social Studies textbook. In short, it’s all written with the attitude of a hustling student who aims to ace the theory exam and skip the practicals to reach pass percentage.
Let’s try something new and inadvisable. Even if I were to overlook the prejudiced prism of vision, completely strip the film of context and view it in stark isolation (“judge the film for what it is” is a myth perpetuated by bad writers), State of Siege: Temple Attack still lacks the technical finesse of an Uri. For one, the protagonist is awfully derivative. Akshaye Khanna dials back to his Border days to play Major Singh, a haunted NSG commando who seeks redemption after losing his partner in a Kashmir-border shootout. He isn’t very good at his job, because he keeps disobeying his boss (Parvin Dabas) to become a one-man mission. Khanna playing a grizzled army veteran still looks like Khanna playing the patronizing urban detective who suspects every person in the frame (including the makers).
Then there’s the motive of the terrorist mission, a swap straight out of the Air Force One handbook – the release of a Bin-Laden-clone captive runs in parallel with the events of the siege. The dramatized characters of the plot are hostage-101 cutouts – a white tourist, a young guide, a traitor, an old couple, a sobbing mother, a wounded girl, an expectant-father-cum-doomed-commando. Even the tension is fetishized. At one point, an attacker is magically shot dead in the auditorium and Khanna’s heroic figure cuts through the big screen with a smoking gun. If there is a cringier metaphor linking Hindi cinema and Hindu supremacy, I’m yet to see it.