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TELEVISION REVIEW

A 'you-are-there' feel to 'Mumbai' doc

November 19, 2009|ROBERT LLOYD | TELEVISION CRITIC

On Nov. 26, 2008, 10 gunmen traveled to Mumbai, India, from Karachi, Pakistan, in a hijacked fishing boat with guns, grenades and bombs and orders to kill people for as long as they could, and then die. The approaching first anniversary of that event, known in India (in what I suppose will forevermore be the way these things are expressed) as 26/11, is anticipated tonight by the HBO documentary "Terror in Mumbai." Written and directed by Dan Reed (whose resume includes documentary films, episodes of "Lewis" and "Agatha Christie: Poirot" and the Gillian Anderson feature "Closure"), it is very well made, but it is also the sort of thing that is difficult to recommend. You just want it to be over, basically, and most of what it has to teach will already be obvious to viewers of common sense and goodwill.

Still, it does make the mindlessness of the event -- intricately planned by the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba, or Army of the Righteous, yet mindless and random, nonetheless -- disturbingly real. As in his earlier "Terror in Moscow," a film on the 2002 takeover of a Moscow theater by Chechen terrorists, which used video shot by the terrorists themselves, Reed's strategy here is to present events not exactly from the attackers' point of view, but to put you as close as possible at their shoulders as they move through the city and their various targets -- Mumbai's main train station, the Taj Mahal Palace and Oberoi Trident hotels, a Jewish community center, a popular nightclub.

Its main and most sensational features are tapes of the intercepted cellphone conversations between the gunmen and their "controllers" back in Pakistan, security-camera footage and videotape of a remarkably forthcoming Ajmal Amir Kasab, taken not long after his capture at a roadblock, a little more than an hour after he and a partner started shooting into the crowd at the train station. Kasab, the sole surviving gunman, seems like a person not quite able to awake from a bad dream. Without any apparent politics of his own, he recounts being "sold" -- the film's word -- to Lashkar-e-Taiba by his father to improve the family fortunes. ("I said, 'Fine, whatever.' ")

The film that shows on HBO tonight is a slightly expanded version of one that ran earlier this year on Britain's Channel 4, with narration re-recorded by Mumbai-born journalist Fareed Zakaria -- familiar to viewers of CNN and readers of Newsweek -- who also appears on camera in a new introduction and epilogue. Zakaria sounds notes of warning, underlining the terrorists' instructions to tell any officials who contacted them that "This was just the trailer. Just wait till you see the rest of the film." ("Shall I write that down?," one of the terrorists asks.)

But Zakaria also suggests that, along with readying ourselves for more of the same, alternatives must be found to keep young men with no prospects out of the sway of old men in love with ideology and power. It reminded me of the kind of prologues once appended to films about juvenile delinquency, and also that we have seen footage like this before, in the aftermath of Columbine.

"They were like children, firing toy guns," one survivor says of the terrorists, whom the film describes as "clean-cut Pakistani boys in their early 20s." As the attack goes on, their controllers begin to sound impatient, as with children who won't take out the trash. The gunmen, meanwhile, wander the hotel, wondering at the world they are about to leave: "There are computers here with 30-inch screens. . . . It's amazing. The windows are huge."

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robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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'Terror in Mumbai'

Where: HBO

When: 8 p.m. today

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)

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