Through western eyes

A new feature film fails to do justice to Daniel Pearl, writes Ananya Vajpeyi, who met him before hi

After more than four years of conflict in Iraq, Hollywood films are finally reflecting the fact that America really is a nation at war. One of a string of terror-related films coming out over the next few months is Michael Winterbottom's A Mighty Heart, which tells the story of the kidnapping of the American journalist Daniel Pearl in Karachi in January 2002. It follows Pearl's wife, Mariane (who was pregnant at the time), during the terrible month between his disappearance and the news of his death by decapitation. The crime was eventually traced to Omar Saeed Sheikh, who was found guilty and sentenced to death in Pakistan (he has since challenged this sentence), and to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who is under US custody at Guantanamo Bay.

I met Daniel and Mariane Pearl in 2001 in Bangalore and Mumbai. They were a charming couple: energetic at work, enthusiastic about south Asia, well travelled, and visibly in love with one another. I remember thinking that Danny's posting as the Wall Street Journal's bureau chief in Mumbai had turned into an extended honeymoon for the newly-weds. This was how all foreign correspondents should be; clearly they had figured out how to intertwine their personal and professional lives to maximum advantage, and I admired their obvious enjoyment of everything they did together as partners at work and at home.

I was relieved to find that A Mighty Heart does not depict Danny's captivity or the ghastly way in which he was killed, even though the kidnappers themselves released a video of their dreadful act that was subsequently circulated widely using the internet. Winterbottom conveys the unspeakable nature of what happened to Danny without visualising it in any way, and one cannot be sufficiently grateful to him for showing such restraint when graphic and gratuitous scenes of torture have become routine in mainstream cinema.

What I found shocking about this film, however, was its vision of Karachi. The city is depicted as a frightening and incomprehensible palimpsest of urban chaos, poverty and Islamic terrorism, teeming with Muslim men who are scarily numerous, devoutly religious and horrendously violent. Even the sympathetic "Captain" Javed Habib, chief of the Pakistani CID's counter-terrorism unit (played impeccably by Irffan Khan), who is sensitive to Mariane's agonising circumstances, tortures a man almost to death and then, directly afterwards, proceeds to the mosque for morning prayers. It seems we can expect nothing but cruelty in this hellish, baffling place.

Winterbottom is too politically discerning a film-maker to portray Karachi or Pakistan with the outright Islamophobia that makes Bernard-Henri Lévy's book Who Killed Daniel Pearl? (2003) almost unreadable. Winterbottom shows us Mariane Pearl saying publicly only days after her husband's abduction that ordinary Pakistanis suffered as much from acts of terror as did westerners like her. But while Mariane desists from blaming others indiscriminately, Winterbottom shows Karachi to be nightmarish in a way that is subtly connected to its cultural essence. It is identified as an overpopulated, poor, lawless and radicalised megalopolis, located in an underdeveloped Muslim country, an evil place that civilised, trusting and competent Americans and Europeans enter at their own peril and where they probably end up dead.

This couldn't be further from my own experience of the city. In spring 2006 I went to Karachi, partly to attend the World Social Forum and partly in an attempt to come to terms with the scene of Danny's demise: to see for myself how I would react to the city where he died. I was there seven days, during which I slept for about seven hours in total. I could not stop taking it in. During that intense period I tried to make sense of a city that was so similar to those of India, my home country. I understood at least three of Karachi's languages - Urdu, Punjabi and English - all of its food, its clothing, its politeness and rudeness, its transparency and its impenetrability. If I wore the right clothes, no one on the street would guess that I was Indian and not Pakistani. But that's not the point; when I was recognised as Indian and not Pakistani, it earned me a warmer reception, not a hostile one.

Complete strangers took me home, fed me, plied me with stories about their forefathers who had come from India during Partition, questioned me at great length about various aspects of Indian politics, society and (inevitably) Bollywood. People brought me to their houses, to the beach, to the Sufi shrine of Abdullah Shah Ghazi, to the bazaars, to quarters of the city I might never have found on my own, to bookshops, museums, DVD shops, clubs, restaurants and even Hindu temples. I met NGO activists, businessmen, politicians, academics, poets, film-makers, publishers, writers, housewives, teenagers, farmers, shopkeepers, reporters, economists, taxi drivers - people of every age, income group and ethnic background. I thought I had been irrevocably alienated by the murder of my friend Danny Pearl in this place, yet when I got there I felt not only a sense of belonging, but also a sense of kinship.

So, I do not recognise the Karachi that Winterbottom shows us. To me, the traffic was not insane, the slums were not menacing, the alleyways were not dark, the markets were not dirty, and the people were not out to kill each other or to kill me. I did not feel deafened by the periodic calls of the muezzin, nor did the religiosity of the citizens of Karachi strike me as particularly noticeable. In my corner of the world, you are always among others. Others are not your enemies; they are your environment. The big south Asian cities account for a sizeable percentage of the world's population, but only those suffering from western hubris would see them as threatening, disgusting, or plain incomprehensible. It is not a vision that corresponds with the outlook of Pearl himself.

The Danny Pearl I met was a superb journalist and a cosmopolitan man. He was an American Jew married to a French Buddhist (Mariane is actually part Afro-Latina Cuban and part Dutch, with some Chinese ancestry thrown in for good measure). Danny lived in Mumbai, and he loved south Asia. He went to Karachi, his beloved Mumbai's sister city, to follow a story, like any reporter worth his salt. I am certain that he did not perceive Karachi, Pakistan or Muslims with the racism that scars the work of Lévy, and even so fine a film as A Mighty Heart.

"A Mighty Heart" is released on 24 September (certificate 15)"

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2007 issue of the New Statesman, How the Americans misled Blair over Iraq