"Mind blowing!" Shot in Bombay, a documentary by Liz Mermin on the making of the 2007 action crime film Shootout at Lokhandwala, provides an illuminating peak behind the scenes of the Indian film industry, but becomes even more fascinating when it weaves together disparate strands about the controversial events that inspired Shootout and a years-long legal case against one of India's biggest stars.
Approached to make a doc about Indian movies, Mermin encountered resistance from local filmmakers, who felt Western media outlets have not been fair in their treatment of the industry. Finally, the makers of Shootout at Lokhandwala agreed, and Mermin arrived on location in January 2007 just in time to observe a production in crisis. Director Apoorva Lakhia was under tremendous pressure to complete the film, despite his lead actor's temperamental nature. Sanjay Dutt's frequent absences from the set might be understandable, since he was simultaneously dealing with the culmination of a 13-year-long criminal trial that might send him to prison for years.
Of course, Dutt was also hours late to the set when he wasn't due in court. All indications are, though, that once he arrived, he did a good job with his role, based on a real-life police chief named A. A. Khan who led the Mumbai Anti-Terrorist Squad in 1991. The police were evidently given free rein to deal with accused suspects, including summary execution. The film's title is taken from a prolonged and bloody stand-off between a handful of gangsters and 500 (!) police officers, which caused a public outcry about whether the police overreacted to the situation, and prompted questioning of long-standing procedures.
Mermin maneuvers through the landscape with aplomb, deftly introducing a cast of characters that includes the real-life Khan, high-spirited director Lakhia, admittedly greedy producer Sanjay Gupta, the aforementioned Sanjay Dutt, younger star and chief preening gangster Vivek Oberoi and assorted production crew members. The doc is assembled in such a way that it's easy to get to know each person as they are introduced and interviewed, which allows us to get to know the key players individually and adds to the enjoyment of the behind the scenes footage -- we can pick out our favorites and see how they deal with the stresses on set.
In the post-screening Q&A, Mermin said she would be the first to admit the film could be trimmed down. She accumulated 120 hours of footage during more than two months of filming; the problem isn't that individual scenes aren't interesting, it's that we've seen the same point made multiple times, which makes certain sequences feel redundant. For example, we see Sanjay Dutt hold up production multiple times, with a variety of reactions expressed by the crew, from indulgent smiles to thinly-veiled exasperation, but since we never hear from him directly, it feels a bit like piling on.
The running time would be more easily enjoyed from the comfort of one's living room, rather than the stiff-backed chairs in the temporary screening room at the Austin Convention Center. But I don't want to overstate the problem: Mermin has made an otherwise well-paced, informative documentary that captures the daily boredom and anxiety of moviemaking and brackets that with informative interviews that tackle the influence of organized crime and cultural class differences (and resultant legal justice) in Indian society.
Mermin was smart enough to engage an entirely local crew, which helped her deal with linguistic challenges. As a foreigner, she says she was also able to get away with asking seemingly innocent questions that locals would never dare ask -- such as asking about a feared terrorist known throughout that part of the world, a man who reportedly was involved with the events in Lokhandwala in 1991.
She also gives background information on the weapon(s) possession charges brought against Sanjay Dutt. In a twist of irony, he was accused of illegally receiving one or more rifles from a gang led by the terrorist cited above. Popular opinion seems to be divided: has he been singled out for prosecution because of his fame, or is he being treated more lightly than someone with the ability to hire high-priced legal assistance?
The doc does not lean too heavily on these subjects, but their inclusion broadens the picture considerably. Shot in Bombay (love that title, by the way) has already been shown in the UK on television, * which is probably its natural home, but keep an eye out in case it pops up a festival near you
CORRECTION: The film is currently playing theatrically in the UK and will air on BBC at the end of the year. Thanks to Ms. Mermin for the correction. My apologies to her as well for the varied, incorrect spellings of her name -- I believe they have all been corrected.