Terror of Air India Flight 182 comes to small screen

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A Canadian film director says he hopes that Canadians will experience sorrow and rage after seeing his upcoming docudrama on the bombing of Air India Flight 182. On Sunday (June 22) at 9 p.m., CBC will broadcast Sturla Gunnarsson’s Air India 182 commercial-free. This coincides with the 23rd anniversary of the departure of the doomed plane from Montreal.

All 329 people on board died when a bomb exploded off the coast of Ireland. A second bomb was placed on a flight bound for Japan. It detonated in Narita Airport, killing two baggage handlers. Monday (June 23) will be a national day of remembrance in Canada for the victims of the bombing.

The Toronto-based Gunnarsson, who grew up in Vancouver, told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview that he hopes his film—which has actors playing Sikh-extremist conspirators Talwinder Singh Parmar, Inderjit Singh Reyat, and Hardial Singh Johal—will cause Canadians to “do some really hard thinking” about homegrown terrorism. “I think that a lot of the issues that were at play back then continue to be at play,” he said. “I think we have a willingness to tolerate odious ideologies if they come dressed up in an exotic form in this country.”

Air India 182 includes news footage juxtaposed with newer interviews with more than a dozen relatives of victims, who tell poignant stories about final minutes spent with their loved ones before they boarded the plane. The first relative, Mandip Singh Grewal, recounts how as a boy, he saw Johal, a janitor who worked for the Vancouver school district, at the airport on the day his father boarded the plane. Grewal, who is on the verge of tears, explains how he found it puzzling that Johal would have been at the airport on that day.

Parkash Bedi, who lost his wife and two children on the plane, tells a moving tale about seeing Sikhs lined up at the British Airways counter in Toronto as his family members boarded the Air India jet. Bedi said he felt uneasy at the time, and wanted to get his family off the Air India flight. He was not permitted to pass security, and was told that Sikhs were boycotting Air India.

Lata Pada describes her two daughters as talented dancers. It was the first time she didn’t travel with them and her husband.

“I found the people were incredibly forthcoming,” Gunnarsson said. “The stories were all heartbreaking and really dignified. Everybody is so dignified.”

Gunnarsson said he wanted to convey the humanity of the terrorists as well, portaying convicted bomber Reyat as a father and a mechanic with a sense of humour who somehow ended up in a murderous plot. Retired RCMP officer Doug Henderson, who investigated the case, said that Reyat “seemed to me like a nice family man”.

The film also gives extensive airtime to Jack Hooper, the former deputy director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, which failed to warn authorities that a cell of radical Sikhs planned to blow up two airplanes. Gunnarsson said that he learned a great deal about intelligence  agents' work  while making the film, and that he now has a sympathetic view of the magnitude of their challenge. “It was like the defining moment of their lives, yet they carry this tremendous guilt around with them because of it,” he said.

Gunnarsson said that this wasn’t a case of Sikhs attacking Hindus, because there were Sikh passengers. In this respect, his docudrama differs from The Sorrow and the Terror: The Haunting Legacy of the Air India Tragedy (Penguin, 1987) by Clark Blaise and Bharati Mukherjee, which highlighted a schism that developed between Canadian Sikhs and Hindus as a result of the Air India tragedy. Like Air India 182, the book by Blaise and Mukherjee focused on the bombing’s impact on the families of passengers. However, the authors emphasized that the vast majority of the victims were Hindus from southern Ontario, whereas the perpetrators were extremist Sikhs from British Columbia.

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