Clooney takes a walk in Tehran..

You wonder how a movie like Syriana is openly exhibited and discussed in the US and then you know what the concept of freedom of expression really means. At least relatively.

Contrast that to our own Rang De Basanti which was not cleared by the Censor Board whose job it is to, but a full meeting of the Defence Minister of India and the chiefs of staff. Both films have one common strain. They tackle sensitive defence issues.

The chiefs of the forces claimed they had only passed on their views because they were asked to. Wonder why ? Why did they even sit in for a screening if they really meant that. So, if nothing else, rest assured that the most significant defence threat to India at this point is Aamir Khan.

Syriana makes you think. Much has been written about it and reviewed. There are folks in America who have written on it. And then some back home. Some of us here are wondering about the somewhat direct portrayal of Pakistani youth as suicide bombers. Very effectively shown, the transition from embittered, jobless youth to suicide bomber, but Pakistani nevertheless. And not an Arab state.

A few points are worth noting. First, Stephen Gaghan, the director of the film travelled in the Middle East for two months attending oil conferences and even meeting religious leaders in an attempt to understand the space. Second, the director (who also made Traffic) says he feels strongly about this issue. And that is perhaps what makes the film what it is.

Putting out a Supari

I quote him directly from his National Public Radio interview responding to a question on whether he had potrayed Americans as villains..note such a question could not have been asked in India because the film would have been stuck at the Censor Board or South Block and the director would be running from politician to judge..”If I had gone out and found out that we have a bunch of selfless people, that the small voice is as big as the big voice..I would have dramatized that. Unfortunately that’s not what I saw.”

What Gaghan saw is See No Evil, a book written by a former Central Intelligence Agency officer Robert Baer. Listening to Baer on NPR is more gripping. Could America or American agencies actually put out a supari on an Arab emir ? Like in the movie. Well, yes, says Baer.

“It happened to be in 1997. I showed up in Beirut, there was a contract out on a Gulf prince..he was hiding in Syria. He tried a coup in 1995. There was money being offered to whack this guy.”

What about the scene where George Clooney, the CIA agent, is tortured in Beirut ? Specifically, his nails are worked upon, with a nail cutter you don’t use at home, at least for cutting nails. “Sure, it happens. Bill Buckley, the station chief for CIA in Lebanon was tortured to death.”

Truth is Fiction

And then Baer says, in Yemen 2002, CIA officials fired a Hellfire missile into a car that killed a US citizen. Baer is not lamenting the lack of morals. His point is that targeted information has a habit of going wrong. And that happens.

And did he get disowned like Clooney does in Syriana ? Yes, he says. “I was disowned by the CIA in 1995, on attempted charges of killing Saddam Hussain. You do get cut loose.”

Baer has been interviewed for an earlier book as well. Where he points out how the CIA has to vet his manuscript. And they cut out stuff which `belongs’ to them. And if what gets through is so riveting you shudder to think what gets held back.

Can We Stomach Free Expression ?

The point is obviously a question on our own ability to stomach free speech. More appropriately, the degree to which. Why do film makers only have to show Indian armed forces as good guys ? Sure, there are good guys. But there are problems. For instance with the Air Force's ageing MIG 21 aircraft. What are we trying to hide when these aircraft crash in full public view, into public or private property every alternate month ? Why not admit it and get on. And stop buying Russian aircraft.

Syriana is making some Americans question once again the whole business of Iraq. Could the $200 billion earmarked for rebuilding of Iraq have been spent on finding the next big alternative to fossil fuel ? What say ? I don’t know, but you must read this interesting view point.

Syriana also tells you the world is pretty complex. Some say as complex as the plot of the film which is somewhat difficult to follow. The director insists its deliberate. The name itself is almost mythical and no character in the film ever mentions it.

Has A Film Made You Think ?

Most importantly, it tells you that first, movies have a role to play in a system if made well. In moulding public opinion. I can't think of one, serious Indian film in two decades which has done that. From what I can guage, our Rang De Basanti is. Maybe there is no market for films that make people think !

One is not referring to the chief minister killed in his chambers with wooden sten gun variety. Which convinces you that there is no hope, both in the system and in Bollywood. Rather than make you think ! Equally, for them to be made in that form, you need an atmosphere of real freedom of expression. We might well be capable of making that film. We are not capable of showing it.

Click here to download the screenplay


Anonymous said…
According to the old farts who run India, Indians are too dumb and are easy to incite. They need to censor what we watch.
Anonymous said…
if Syriana left you thinking, pls dont miss CRASH - it takes a very mature democracy and a great deal of freedom of speech for a film maker to tackle an issue as sensitive as racial discrimination and its ugliness especially post 9/11, it takes an even mature audience to look at it as harsh reality but yet let the truth be told..... its a movie truly deserving of an oscar... the performances, the issues dealt with etc..... simply stunning... its a must watch and trust me, it is thought provoking enough for you to write your next piece post that movie....
Anonymous said…
I agree..Syriana treads on areas never tread before. It has some amazing references too...they have been left undiluted. "Beirut in 1984..." they keep saying. In 1984, the CIA had bombed a good part of Beirut and it was the first direct CIA intervention in the middle east. The country had been ravaged by the Americans. It takes on the Saudi royals, the hollow monarchy, the economic hollowness of the Arab states (Every arab fears it in some way)'s Bedouin origins ("the Bedouins always have right of way."), CIA intervention, Oil sleeze...facinating how one movie captured so much.
Ameet said…
The US has NO censor board. All movies are released and exhibited solely based on market factors. Even their content rating system is purely voluntary and self-assigned (by the MPAA).

Now it's another matter that there are market cartels that influence what does and does not get shown, but that exists in India too. On the down side, moviegoers in the US are limited in what they get to see at the local multiplex. On the upside, there's nothing to stop a local indepenent cinema from showing anything they want - and this trend is increasing in most US metros.
Bombay Addict said…
Agree with you Govind and an impressive blog as always.

I also think that Indian producers probably need to back controversial projects a bit more often. One example is George Clooney and his belief in backing projects that make people discuss issues.

I've put my thoughts on this issue on
It's easy to be or look self-reflecting when one is in a position of strength (read USA). Very different for us in India because we prefer fantasy to reality. Movies for us are nothing more than a means to escape day to day reality.

That said, we don't have the stomach to take facts as they come, we Indians. We just try too hard to please unless we are in a position of absolute strength (read politicians or the ones with money) and in the attempt to please, we think suppressing facts or denying them by pretending they don't exist has become a way of life. A few will shout about freedom of expression, but when a few goons land at the doorstep shouting slogans, they all fall in line.

Looking for the DVD of Syriana but haven't found it yet.
Anonymous said…
Freedom of expression is the right to show Terrorist as they are , Pakistani Muslims or Indian Muslims. Now do the Indian movie directors have the courage to show Indian Muslims acting against the nation, like they did in Benaras or Mumbain ? Freedom of expression in India is a one way street and meant for Muslims. Don't under-estimate the freedom you have in India because you don't know about US and neither about Pakistan. Try to defend what you have, when you have it, else it will be too late. BTW if you ahve the courage to critize IAF or Defense Ministry, do have the courage to Critise Muslims in your back yard ?
Anonymous said…
"Final Solution" a documentary where no sides where taken how is it that no one has seen the footage anywhere in India.
Kowshic said…
Not to nitpick, the director of Traffic is Steven Soderbergh and not Stephen Gaghan.
You are absolutely right..and by all means, please nitpick ! Stephen Gaghan did not direct Traffic, he wrote the Screenplay...

Bombay Addict, saw your posts, liked the photographs and the stuff you've written. We seem to share a lot in common, not least a love for Bombay..i wish i could say fighting instead of watching the decline and fall my city..i only wish..GE.
Sriram said…
"Final Solution" a documentary where no sides where taken how is it that no one has seen the footage anywhere in India.

I have seen the film. Was screened in my college by the film maker ;)
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