By Sonia Chopra, Bollywood Hungama News Network
He's never made a sober film. Filmmaker Jag Mundhra of Monsoon, Bawander and Provoked fame courts controversy with the adept hand of a pro. Shoot On Sight, that opens this Friday, delves on the London Underground bombings and comes with the tagline - 'Is it a crime to be Muslim'. In a chat with this writer, Mundhra opens up about the inspiration of the film, his personal brush with racism, and the film's ban in Pakistan.
What is the central issue that Shoot On Sight addresses?
The film revolves around the London Underground bombing and the aftermath. It's about how such an event can reverberate in the lives of people who have nothing to do with it. The story revolves around a man who is caught between the Islamophobia of the police, Islamophobia of the West, and a few radicals who have given the entire community a bad name. In effect, the terrorist attack doesn't just kill people; it kills the harmony that thrives in a multi-cultural, secular society.
What inspired you to use this controversial tag line?
The essence of the film is captured in this tag line. If you go to an airport with a Muslim name, especially in western countries, they'll scan you with their eyes. A white guy asks a character in the film - 'I know all Muslims are not terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims'. But the fact is that compared to the huge Muslim population, terrorists form a small fraction. My film raises a voice on behalf of those peace-loving Muslims who lead a normal life and are yet looked at suspiciously.
Why has the film been banned by Pakistan?
It's funny. The film has been well-appreciated in film festivals in Dubai, Stuttgart, and London. The politicians and religious leaders only want to see, what they want to see. They didn't notice that the main protagonist, the most positive character in the film, is a Pakistani Muslim. They only saw that the imam (priest) who is shown encouraging jehad is a Pakistani. Who can be threatened by this? Only those people who do these kinds of things in Masjids and mislead children. They feel that this portrayal will harm their image.
Are you disappointed that the film will be missed by an important section of the audience?
Actually by banning the film, they have only increased curiosity. In any case, most films are accessible to the public through pirated DVDs. I remember I was in Karachi when Gadar released. The film was banned, but everyone had a DVD of Gadar in their homes. So people will definitely see the picture. Only thing is my producer won't make the profit. But I think banning films is wrong, as realistic films are bound to offend someone or the other.
What is your opinion on the anti-west sentiments that supposedly trigger such terrorist attacks?
Some of their complaints may be accurate. Especially, when they talk of the treatment of Muslims in Palestine and Iraq. But the method of getting across their point makes their arguments entirely meaningless.
Is the film's story told through the life of the central character?
Yes, Tariq Ali played by Naseeruddin Shah, is a professional based in London and married to a white woman. He's liberal enough to never force her to change her religion; but is worried like any other father, about his daughter's late-night partying and his son's obsession with football. His concerns have nothing to do with his faith. Suddenly the London Underground bombing happen; it is discovered that Muslim boys raised in London were responsible. This incident affects his life to such an extent that he has to ask his wife - 'what do you see when you see me?' Then there's Gulshan Grover's character who represents the working-class Muslim, running a halal meat shop. When jehad-preaching imams are shown on television, angry people start stoning his shop. We've told the story in a style of a political thriller.
You've also balanced your film with sympathy towards the cop who killed an innocent man on suspicion?
This cop in the film explains his situation saying - "I had only ten seconds. I saw a man with wires coming out of his bag, wearing a skull cap. If he was a suicide bomber and I did nothing, people would blame me. I was just following the orders of Shoot On Sight." My film tries to bring forth the state of such foot soldiers who are damned if they do, damned if they don't. If a white man does something wrong in India, we will immediately be wary of all goras. It's human nature. We can't just call them racist without understanding their point of view- that's wrong.
Have you had any personal experience post the attacks?
I have experienced this change myself. I was in London soon after the bombing and I could not stop a taxi because of my beard and brown skin. It was never a problem stopping a cab before the attacks. The London bombings marked a momentous day because it turned an entire community suspicious of another.
Isn't it a bit unique to omit Om Puri and Gulshan Grover from the film's posters?
In India, we have this tradition of putting all the actors' faces on the film's poster. But in the West, the poster tries to represent the theme of the film. Take The Devil Wears Prada, for example - there was no actor on the poster, just an artwork showing a stiletto and the devil's horns.
The film has an eclectic foreign cast as well
Yes, I am privileged to have had a dream cast. Apart from Naseer, Om Puri, and Gulshan Grover, there is British actress Greta Scacchi who was seen in Ismail Merchant's Heat and Dust, with Harrison Ford in Presumed Innocence and in Flightplan. She plays Tariq's wife. Brian Cox plays Tariq's boss - the Commissioner of Police-he's a very established actor who was see in Bourne Supremacy, Matchpoint and X Men 2. Then there is Mikal Zulfikar from Lahore who plays a young boy who comes to London to study.
Why the decision to dub Shoot On Sight in Hindi?
Even though the story and setting is in English, we wanted to dub because the film's topic is relevant to everyone. Our country has a huge audience that would refer to see it in Hindi. I wanted them to see the film and initiate discussion on the subject.
Naseeruddin Shah refused to dub the film in Hindi?
That is true. Naseer was signed to do an English film; he is of the opinion that the film should remain in the language it was made in. He didn't dub Monsoon Wedding and Parzania either. He feels by dubbing it, you are trying to put a square peg in a round hole, which I understand. But Naseer does Hindi adaptations of Shakespeare's plays. So if he can do that, why not a film? Only he can answer this. It's a difference of opinion, and I have to live with it.