Previous terrorist attacks on Mumbai had always targeted primarily the urban poor. But now the well-to-do of South Mumbai felt suddenly defenseless and betrayed by the failure of the police and security services.
Can you explain how you gathered and assembled all this footage?
When I began researching this film I had never been to India and had no connections there. It also seemed to me that there was very little audio or visual material available to document the attack on Mumbai, as so little had come to light in the news coverage. We were very worried we wouldn't have the images we needed to tell the story. This was partly why I decided to capture Mumbai on 35mm film, mainly using a 6-frame-per-second shutter speed, which blurs any movement, and often shooting from high vantage points looking down on life in the streets. I wanted the city itself to be a dark, brooding presence - a city haunted by memories of violence. But as research progressed I became aware of the existence - or the possible existence - of audio recordings of cell phone calls between the gunmen and their masters; of CCTV from the luxury hotels and the railway station; and of the "holy grail" of footage - the tape of the surviving terrorist Kasab's first interrogation, recorded by a Mumbai policeman just a couple of hours after he had butchered dozens of civilians and policemen in cold blood. I was told that whilst the audio recordings and hotel CCTV would be impossible to get hold of, I shouldn't even bother to dream of getting hold of the Kasab tape. Sure enough, obtaining all this material proved to be tricky and extremely time-consuming. Three months later, after much patient relationship-building and investigation, I was able to obtain everything on my wish-list and more, partly by using intermediaries with whom I had developed a strong relationship of trust. Like me, many of the people I dealt with in the course of securing the astonishingly explicit footage and audio which I use in the film believed this was a story which needed to be told as accurately and faithfully as possible, no matter how embarrassing for the Indian security services. I'm sad to say that the film still hasn't been acquired by an Indian broadcaster, and so the audience for whom my film is most directly relevant - the Indian public at large - still has not been exposed to it.
This event has been referred to as "India's 9/11" - how does the reaction of India's people compare to how Americans responded to the attacks on New York and the Pentagon?
The chief resemblance between Mumbai - or 26/11 as it is known - and 9/11 is the unbelievably daring, high-concept design and imaginative planning of the attack. It confronted the security services and the public with the "unthinkable" and, like 9/11, led to a failure of imagination on the part of the security forces tasked with defending the city. A key feature of both attacks was that they produced heart-stopping, symbolic images of the destructive power of the terrorists: In Mumbai's case, the flames pouring out of the Taj hotel, the symbol par excellence of India's prosperity. But the similarities end there, and it struck me immediately how quickly the city had moved on. Six weeks on, there were relatively few physical signs of the attack left to be seen - some boarded-up rooms at the Taj, a few bullet holes at the railway station, the burnt-out Chabad House. In fact the mass of humanity which surges through the main railway station every day had already begun to flow back within hours of the attack, with passengers sleeping on stone floors just a few yards away from streaks and pools of half-dried blood. Life goes on in Mumbai, because not to travel means not to work, and the loss of a day's wages is a big deal for an average family in the slums. So I got a strong sense that the human tide simply wiped away any traces of the attack, and most of the city returned to normal within days. For a few weeks there were the odd march or vigil or protest by middle-class Mumbaikers - the kinds of people who might frequent the restaurants and cafes of the Taj or the other luxury hotel that was attacked, the Oberoi. Previous terrorist attacks on Mumbai had always targeted primarily the urban poor - mainly commuters. But now two five-star hotels had been attacked, and the well-to-do of South Mumbai felt suddenly defenseless and betrayed by the failure of the police and security services. But the protests, earnest though they were, came to nothing and fizzled out pretty quickly with no political follow-through.
The perspective of the film is unique - that you see this all unfold from the terrorists' perspective. What did you learn about these men through your research - anything that surprised you or didn't fit into the final cut?
In documentary storytelling you're always torn between the seduction of great material and sub-plots and the need to keep the over-arching narrative focused and dynamic. But overall I don't think I left out anything that would fundamentally alter the picture I set out to draw of the terrorists and their masters. The thing which surprised me the most was how soft-spoken the gunmen were, with a complete absence of any "affect" or emotional response to what they were doing, even when killing or being killed. They rarely betrayed any excitement, or even any passion for their cause. Their manner was calm and matter-of-fact throughout, even at the point of death. A couple of witnesses remarked how watching the gunmen at work they were reminded of a first- person shooter video game "like Doom 2." And the handlers were equally calm and casual, but with a very fatherly or school-masterly tone, by turns warmly affectionate and sternly rebuking, patiently encouraging and quietly exasperated. It put me in mind of child-abuse scenarios where the victim is groomed and seduced so thoroughly that he views his abuser as a loving friend.
The film feels very graphic, though much of the worst material is explained rather than shown. Did you have to watch these murders first-hand throughout the filmmaking process, and how difficult was that?
Judging what to show and what to leave out is always a tough call, because on the one hand the graphic, shocking material helps people to understand the true meaning of what they are watching and allows them to experience a strong reaction to the horror that accompanies armed violence; and on the other hand, my duty to protect any friends and relatives of the victim who may, by chance, happen to be watching and recognize their loved one. Where it is impossible to resolve that tension, we will track down the close relatives of the victim, warn them that we may use the material and seek their counsel. Often they approve the use of the material showing the fate of their loved one because they feel it will serve an important purpose, provided it is used sensitively and with integrity, and never for effect. This situation arose in 'Terror in Mumbai' with the daughter of one of the hostages who was murdered in cold blood by the terrorists at the Chabad House. The audio recordings which came into my possession documented the discussions between the gunmen and their masters concerning the fate of the hostages, and the outcome was a short burst of gunfire. That moment, and the silences which preceded and followed it, still haunt me and will do so for the rest of my life. I find it almost unbearable to listen to, yet I strongly believe that placing it in the film - albeit in abridged form for the sake of decency - served a valuable purpose in confronting my audience with a truth they won't forget: Our extreme vulnerability in the face of an undiscriminating and pitiless enemy, embodied in the calm, almost placid tones of a young man blindly following the orders from his faceless master over a cell phone line.
The Indian authorities were pretty unprepared for an attack like this - were they skittish at all of speaking on camera? Do you think a U.S. or European city would have dealt with it more effectively?
The truth is that as an institution the Mumbai police force - and indeed all the Indian security bodies involved - were simply paralyzed by the sheer momentum and dynamism of 10 determined young men armed with simple infantry weapons.
The Mumbai police were actually pretty good about appearing on camera - we interviewed some senior figures, though they took a great deal of persuading. We weren't able to interview any of the special-forces commandos, but then there is a blanket ban on press interviews with special forces, like in the UK. But yes, there was a strong - though some would say not strong enough - sense of embarrassment at the failures of the police and security forces that day. I was filming before the independent review of the police response came out, and there was a strong sense that, publicly at least, the police had reinvented history and framed their response to the attack as a heroic struggle against a better-armed enemy. There was a great deal of criticism of the chief of police in the city, and he was eventually promoted sideways to head of police housing or some such. The truth is that as an institution the Mumbai police force - and indeed all the Indian security bodies involved - were simply paralyzed by the sheer momentum and dynamism of 10 determined young men armed with simple infantry weapons and spurred on by distant handlers over their cell phones. There were, it has to be said, many heroic actions by individual cops and commandos (most of whom paid with their lives), and the official focus has unsurprisingly been primarily on them. But would London or New York have got the terrorists before they got a chance to kill so many? I doubt it, because most of the killing happened in the first 20-30 minutes, and the effect of surprise on the public in the line of fire was total and paralyzing. But there's no doubt in my mind that in any US or European city, the ordeal would not have been allowed to drag on for 60 hours, particularly once the terrorists no longer held any hostages.
The group that planned the attacks, Lashkar-e-Toiba, isn't really known to Americans - can you explain a bit about their background and their agenda?
Lashkar-e-Toiba "the army of the righteous/pure" were set up (with help from the Pakistani secret intel service) as a proxy weapon for use in Kashmir, a province which Pakistan has tried to wrest from the control of its next-door-neighbor India ever since partition in 1947. "LeT" was banned after 9/11 but still maintains its vast recruiting network of 2,000 offices in towns and villages throughout Pakistan, as well as its ties with the spy services - who in all probability are paying compensation to the families of the terrorists killed in the Mubai attacks, standard practice when a young man is martyred in the jihad against India. Operational funding comes from charitable fund-raising amongst the general population but also in the form of contributions by Gulf-based Pakistani businessmen and wealthy Saudi individuals. LeT's goal is to establish Muslim dominion across all of South Asia, and it appears that it has international aspirations too, judging by its choice of luxury hotels and a Jewish center as targets for attack in Mumbai. So this is a powerful militant organization with roots deep in Pakistani society, now well on its way to being a player on a global stage. As the handler says at the end of my film: "This is just the trailer. The main movie is yet to come."
When you make a film like this, how do you balance the need to explain a historic event against furthering the terrorists' goal of spreading a message of fear?
I believe that if you research and tell a story as it deserves to be told, the context and the narrative are inseparable. The audience needs to experience fear, never for its own sake but because that is a normal response to witnessing up-close and in scrupulous detail the threat posed by these people and their methods. Enough context is given to make accurate sense of the story, and to understand its development. But all too often a rush to over-contextualize everything simply drowns the story, and it becomes a reassuring pudding bathed in generalities, and no longer a journey into the experience of others - and that is at the heart of documentary-making. If people want a long discussion on the history of Indo-Pakistani relations with plenty of expert opinion, they can go read a book and look at some maps. Maybe after watching my film, some of my viewers will feel the need to be even better informed, and that's not necessarily a bad thing!
2010 BAFTA Award-Winner