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OP-ED: Escape from Dhaka

  • Published at 12:33 am October 26th, 2020
Extraction Sadar Ghat scene

Could a genuinely gritty and intelligent Hollywood thriller be set and shot in Dhaka?

When Rishi Kapoor passed away a day after Irrfan Khan earlier this year, hardly anyone raised D-Day -- the 2013 turkey featuring both of them. Uncharacteristically, Kapoor played the villain. Named Goldman, the character is not inspired by any Bond criminal mastermind, but the very real life persona of Dawood Ibrahim -- one of the top fugitives in the world with a $25 million bounty, and the subject as well as financier of many a Bollywood flick.

In this particular movie, Khan is a deep cover RAW agent who is sent to Pakistan to spy on the mob boss as a barber. No, not a fancy, posh, big name hair stylist serving the rich and powerful, but your neighbourhood barber.

Sounds ridiculous? Not as ridiculous as the army officer turned mercenary who is sent by RAW to nab Goldman. Played by Arjun Rampal, the first thing this Indian hero does in the Land of the Pure is, wait for it, visit a lady of the night! 

Perhaps he fancied the lure of the exotic other, or maybe he always wanted to visit Heera Mandi and had to make do with some Karachi girl -- but surely, this was supremely irresponsible. I mean, one would think someone with the surname Singh might have a certain anatomical feature that would be quite distinctive compared to the typical patron of most houses of ill repute in the Islamic Republic.

Even in this supremely ridiculous movie, Khan shines through as he depicts his character being torn by the multiple identities that are the life of a spy. Nowhere is this more poignant than the scene where the captive gangster taunts and verbally manipulates his captors. And in that scene, Kapoor shows why he was one of the most underrated Bollywood actors of his time.

Bollywood thrillers set in Pakistan usually suffer from a confusion regarding how to portray the other -- are the Pakistanis victims to be liberated, like the civilians in Nazi-occupied Europe in, say, The Guns of Navarone; or are they all enemies and obstacles in need of obliteration, like, the Somalis in Black Hawk Down, or the aliens in Starship Troopers, or Bangladeshis in Extraction?

Apparently the most watched Netflix movie, Extraction, is set in Dhaka, but not actually shot here. The depiction of the city raised a lot of heckles from its netizens. But the dusty hue, bumper to bumper traffic on the bridge, colourful three-wheelers -- had he been allowed to watch it, my 10-year-old wouldn’t have known that it’s not Dhaka. More discernible eyes, of course, would spot the incongruity -- can you find one here?

It is quite interesting actually. The producers went to the length of getting torn posters to turn Ahmadabad into Dhaka, and the characters try to curse in khas Bangla -- suggesting effort. But all that is spoilt by the fact that no Bangladeshi acted in the movie.

Media veteran Tariq Anam Khan was involved with the production initially, when the movie was actually named Dhaka. But then the production shifted abroad and the name changed. 

I wonder whether the story of a gangster ordering the police chief to do his bidding seemed a bit too close to home for the powers-that-be in a country where…fill in whatever controversy you think would make the point.

No, a story like that is incongruent with the “bhaabmurti” (image just doesn’t portray the gravity of the feeling) of our officialdom. Surely, they would prefer a movie where the city’s police selflessly defends the people from the vicious and dastardly acts of the villains. That’s basically the story of Dhaka Attack, which, contrary to all expectations, is a pretty tight thriller. 

Okay, okay, don’t get me wrong, it’s hardly Hitchcock! The hero is a typical “laltu” Bengali, and the heroine is inexecrable. The second hero is much better, but even he comes with a loving and heavily pregnant wife. I guess Bangladeshis don’t do noir and anti-hero.

Pity. It’s a tight thriller in the sense that you would want to see it through to the end. But a bitter, cynical hero and a few hard boiled scenes might have made it a grittier flick. Then again, perhaps that wouldn’t be consistent with our officially sanctioned self-perception.

Shaan Shahid plays a cynical, hard boiled, Bogartesque hero in Pakistan’s officially sanctioned story of good guys with guns stopping mad men with bombs. Action sequences in Waar are comparable with Hollywood. Pakistanis in the movie -- army guys, politicians, even jihadis -- speak English with American accents.

In this Pakistan, there doesn’t appear to be any poor people, or shanty towns, or congested roads. They do, however, have severe power shortages, to fix which, a politician is uniting the country to build a dam. This charismatic politician -- think of Imran Khan, but bald -- talks of a new Pakistan, built on Islamic justice and free from corruption, but also has had illicit liaison with a femme fatale who turns out to be a RAW agent. Yes, in Pakistan all evil is due to India, and it’s RAW not ISI that trained various suicide bombing jihadi outfits in the badlands around the Durand Line. 

For all the glitz, the movie is a bore because you know how it would play out. So, could there be a genuinely gritty, intelligent Hollywood thriller set and shot in Dhaka?

Let’s be a bit more specific. We want a mainstream action thriller. We want something where Chris Hemsworth can walk around in a sweaty tee-shirt and sunglasses in Mirpur Road, before seriously kicking the living excrement out of bad guys. That is, we don’t want some highfalutin development porn.

At the same time, we want something intelligent -- twists, mysteries, shades of grey, and moral dilemma. Oh, white saviours are not intelligent -- so, no, we don’t need a deshi Blood Diamond

Of course, this movie will have to clear the sensibilities of our powers-that-be -- so we can’t have any commentary about local politics or governance or anything.

Well, how about this for an idea?

Our hero -- a typical laid back Aussie, perhaps in the country to coach cricket -- is drawn into a mystery when his Gulshan neighbour, a Middle Eastern diplomat, is killed. The mystery, intrigue, double crossing, the loveable goon in distress -- this is 2020, the damsel here could do the rescuing: Perhaps Jaya Ahsan could get a Hollywood break! -- all set against the backdrop of Saudi-Iranian-Turkish proxy wars that are raging across the Muslim world.

Anyone out there to make the escape from Dhaka?

Jyoti Rahman reads and watches stuff and writes about them in www.jrahman.wordpress.com

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