Friday, November 07, 2008

MIAAC: Shootout at Lokhandwala

During its brief existence, the Mumbai Anti Terrorist Squad (ATS) cut crime by an estimated seventy percent. Just over a month after it was disbanded, Mumbai (then Bombay) was rocked by the March 12, 1993 bombings. The historical record seems to argue persuasively on behalf of the ATS’s efficacy. However, the ATS was undone by its reputation for extreme measures, particularly for firing off nearly two thousand rounds of ammunition during a very public stand-off at a Lokhandwala apartment complex. (1,755 to be exact.) Apoorva Lakhia dramatized that controversial incident as best he could (given several key players are eternally unavailable for comment) in Shootout at Lokhandwala: Based on True Rumors (trailer .wmv), which screened last night at the Mahindra Indo-American Arts Council Film Festival (MIAAC).

Lokhandwala starts by showing the audience scores of shell cases being swept up off the blood splattered pavement. The audience will indeed watch as nearly every one of those 1,755 rounds is fired at the complex, but first we see the formation of the ATS, as told to the skeptical former-Justice Dhingra by its founder, Assistant Commissioner Aftab Ahmed (A.A.) Khan and his two top lieutenants.

In American pop culture terms, ATS is CTU and A.A. Khan is a somewhat older Jack Bauer. Initially, the ATS enjoys glowing media coverage, taking along an ambition television reporter to cover a successful strike against a terrorist outpost. Live by the media sword, die by the media sword. As played by Sanjay Dutt, Khan is a larger than life figure, tailor made for the media. He can get away with telling the reporter no policemen will die during their mission, because he is there. Rather than an expression of hubris, he makes it true. According to Lakhia during last night’s Q&A, a bit of business showing Khan contemptuously tossing away a bullet-proof vest is actually based on existing television footage of the Lokhandwala encounter. Oh yes, game on.

Lakhia directs action sequences like Michael Bay amped-up on amphetamines, making liberal use of dramatic freeze frames, jump cuts, and even the dreaded shaky cam. There are also three musical numbers, because that’s the way it has to be in Bollywood. For the record, A.A. Khan does not dance. Those duties fall on the Maya-Bhua gang, when not engaged in extortion and murder. The combination of Bollywood music and hard-boiled violent action sequences makes for quite the cinematic experience.

Dutt is fantastic as Khan, capturing both the intensity and peculiar charisma of the driven officer. The only drawback to Lokhandwala is the rather pedestrian Maya-Bhua villains, who are no match for his screen presence. Ultimately, Ex-Justice Dhingra proves to be his best foil, played with zest by the celebrated Indian actor Amitabh Bachchan, who consistently steals the show during his razor sharp cross-examination scenes.

The real Khan appears in Lokhandwala as the police commissioner who green-lights ATS operations. It would be interesting to know what he thought of Dutt, who at the time of filming, was embroiled in a series of legal battles stemming from his associations with the 1993 bombers. Presumably, Khan enjoyed the ending at least. As a high-octane, over-the-top action film, Lokhandwala is thoroughly enjoyable. I frequently laughed out loud (in a good way) at the film’s sheer relentless spectacle. It is highly recommended to those who prefer their action fast and furious, without any touchy-feeliness. It screens again tomorrow at the Tribeca Cinemas, as the MIAAC continues throughout the weekend.