This is #CriticalMargin, where Ishita Sengupta gets contemplative over new Hindi films and shows. Today: Hansal Mehta's Faraaz.
Last Updated: 06.46 AM, Feb 03, 2023
HANSAL MEHTA's Faraaz is based on the horrific 2016 terrorist attack in Dhaka, Bangladesh. But the brutally insightful film could have been set in India and nothing would have changed. The connotations wouldn’t have altered nor would the reading be modified. This is not just because the outing is a dramatic retelling of a terrorist attack conducted in the name of religion, which India is also vulnerable to. But because Faraaz outfolds with an astute understanding of what comprises terrorism in the first place, which today's India can't plead ignorance of.
On the evening of July 1, 2016, a group of five young men launched an attack on Holey Artisan, a bakery situated in the upscale neighbourhood of Dhaka, taking patrons and staff hostage. By the end of a 12-hour-siege, the casualties amounted to 22 people — mostly foreigners, and some locals. The assault was perpetrated on religious grounds and is considered one of the worst Islamist attacks in the history of Bangladesh. Mehta’s film focuses on this tragedy, using journalist Nuruzzaman Labu’s 2017 book Holey Artisan: A Journalistic Investigation as the source. But the adaptation is hardly straight-forward. Instead, the writers (Ritesh Shah, Kashyap Kapoor and Raghav Kakkar are credited) take the statistics of the massacre and transform it into a deeply humane film.
This subversion is worth noting because on paper, it is a fairly uncomplicated reiteration of a populist narrative. One would lose count of the number of times Hindi films of late have used this as the origin story of chest-thumping nationalism. In Bangladesh, the binary gets complicated. It is a country where Islam is the state religion and Bengali, the national language. Citizens identity themselves primarily as Bengali-speaking, drawing their recognition from culture. In such a scenario, Faraaz — named after a Muslim boy who lost his life in the Islamist attack, reportedly for refusing to abandon his friends — encounters the risk of falling into another abused trap: pitting one Muslim against the other and valourising the hero as ‘good’ and rebuking the fallen as ‘bad’. Mehta expresses no interest in rehashing tired tropes. Instead, he reserves his indictment for an ideology that, he argues, is not restricted to one religion.
The film opens in a cramped flat. A young man goes about waking others. It is time, he says. The rest, men of mostly his age, are busy either reading magazines or sleeping. Nothing much is spelt out but there is no sense of threat. They have iftar and break their fasts. It is the holy month of Ramadan. Then, they take their bags and leave. When we see them again, they are opening fire at the diners at Holey Artisan, asking who is a Muslim and who is not. The transition is not jerky. They do not become blood-thirsty depraved criminals, unhinged in disposition. They still ‘look’ like they used to, apparently evoking no dread. Except they have guns in their hands.
This visual emphasis, a striking departure from popular perception, forms the genesis of Mehta’s recent work; it underlines the film’s preoccupation with uncovering the language of terrorism and not its face. Because radicalism at its core, is a sound. Religion is the excuse.
Faraaz unravels, informed with this distinction. Its intent is literalised in the two people the film chooses to place at the fore, facing each other: Nibras Islam (a terrific Aditya Rawal) and Faraaz (a sincere Zahan Kapoor). Nibras is the de facto leader of the pack. He is unusually calm and inexplicably perceptive. When one of the terrorists asks a senior doctor to pull down his pants to confirm his religion, Nibras reprimands him with genuine irritation. When the police initiate an attack, the assailants make some hostages stand at windows as human shields. After a while, Nibras tells them to rest and instructs those sitting to stand. “You have rested enough.”
Faraaz and Nibras know each other. They used to play football together. Later, cowering with his friends, Faraaz shares that Nibras is highly educated. In any other setting, these two men would have been friends. They are of a similar age. Their lingo is similarly replete with a heavy smattering of “dude” and “bro”. What sets them apart, Mehta argues through his film, is not their contrarian subscription to the same religion but their divergent belief in what comprises faith in the first place and its purpose. In a brilliant scene, Nibras, smug with conviction, looks down on the rest to justify his deed. He speaks about the way Muslims across the globe have been subjugated and that they are in threat. The wording is telling because when put in the Indian context, the name of the religion changes but the demands of it remain the same.
Even then, Mehta’s film is not an indictment of religion. It is a clear-eyed presentation of what it can be made to become by some. And when it does, Faraaz stresses, it can no longer be regarded as religion. The merit of the outing resides in its cognition of the nuance. In an affecting scene, all the Muslims, hostages and terrorists included, pray together before breaking their fast. At that moment, none of them seem different. In the collective act of praying, they all look alike.
This inference forms the cornerstone of Faraaz, which identifies terrorism not as a group of people belonging to one community, but as a heinous act that can be conducted by anybody (it is telling that both protagonists are essayed by Hindu actors). The identity of faith becomes incidental because no religion proposes violence. In a touching, if heavy-handed scene, this comes together with succinct clarity when Faraaz and Nibras confront each other. The former tells the latter what the Quran, the holy book of Islam, really talks about. Nibras counters him saying the latter would not know given his privilege. It is a common rebuttal. Entitlement is often perceived as a tool of ignorance. Mehta dismantles this by revamping it as an instrument of insight. That Faraaz stays back, refusing to leave without his friends, becomes his final act of reclaiming his religion from the hands of bigots. That the gesture makes equal sense in a wider context, transforms his defiance into bravery.
Faraaz culminates as a hard-hitting, brutally effective outing towered with phenomenal performances. Both the actors are compelling in their assured turns. Juhi Babbar as Faraaz’s mother is heartbreakingly good, her face changing colour with every hour her son stays locked in.
Any film, good, bad, ugly, reveals the politics of its maker. When we watch the creation of someone, we are privy to their belief systems. We might not know what they believe in but we would know how they believe in something. More specifically, watching the creation of a maker, acquaints us with the language of their ideology. In the hyper-opinionated age of social media, however, it is not difficult to discern Mehta’s leanings. The filmmaker routinely challenges religious bigotry on Twitter, upholding his liberal standpoint. But a film is not a digital box and Faraaz is not a Twitter thread. Instead, it is a startling articulation of empathy, uncovering the filmmaker’s inclination to initiate a dialogue and not hurl statements.