Director: Hansal Mehta
Writers: Ritesh Shah, Kashyap Kapoor, Raghav Kakkar
Cast: Aditya Rawal, Zahan Kapoor, Juhi Babbar
Hansal Mehta’s Shahid (2013) and Omerta (2017) are strange films. With Muslim protagonists, based on lives of real people — one of whom decided to turn away from terrorism and run headlong into socio-legal work, and one who decided to dig his heels into that very terrorism — both these films are extremely, intentionally dry. They do not have the emotional core to rope you into the story because they play out listlessly, without rousing crests or debilitating caves. Death in these movies comes swiftly and without noise. People are pushed into life-altering decisions with the same softness as breath. Mehta renounces stakes in a plotline full of them.
And yet, there is something compelling about the choice of film. That he would choose to make Omerta, a film on a Muslim terrorist, and decide to treat his character like neither a protagonist nor an antagonist — no gruesome background score, no underlining of the violence as gleeful, no highlighted moments of moral penury. There is an antiseptic distance. These films operate beyond the baseline desire to have the audience cheer or jeer. To be clear, Mehta isn’t interested in humanizing the terrorist, either. Because humanizing them would require trying to explain why they behave the way they do. Mehta does not care for the reasons — psychological or otherwise. He is merely disinterested in dehumanizing them.
With Faraaz, he tests his will a little because you have two people fighting ideologically, with bodies strewn between them. Based on the 2016 terrorist attack in Dhaka, in a posh cafe, that killed 29 people, the film plots itself along the grooves of the good Muslim, bad Muslim sketch.
The titular Faraz, Bangladesh ka Shehzada, born into money, is a shy but seething man played with doe-eyed intensity by debutante and Bombay Cinema’s Shehzada Zahan Kapoor. He wears his conscience on his really long sleeves. He is having dinner with his two friends when the gunmen descend, killing only foreigners and Hindus, leaving alive any Bangladeshi Muslim.
As the movie rumbles to this attack, Mehta frames long takes of Faraaz walking, getting kissed by his mother, a woman of remarkable power and poise, played by Juhi Babbar, and there is something ominous in the way Faraaz’s kindness is expressed, especially the shot of him walking into the light. His Islam isn’t apparent. This might be because of his class. This might be because of his country, Bangladesh — a Muslim-majority nation. Mehta doesn’t give us answers, not even clues. Faraaz is, however, forced to brandish his pacifist Islam in front of the terrorists, the bad Muslims, a band of five headed by Nibras, played by Aditya Rawal, son of Paresh Rawal, who moves so easily, so softly between cunning and kind. In interviews, Mehta mentioned that is not how he sees these two characters — as protagonists and antagonists. But the moment you graft the really tiring good Muslim VS bad Muslim framework onto two characters, one becomes a protagonist and the other, the antagonist. It is delusional to expect it to be otherwise. You can’t make a neutral film about terrorism when so much of it hinges on explaining why violence is bad.
And this is where the film loses its reserve, its dignity. There is a whole stretch where Faraaz and Nibras have an argument, and it is so treaded, so wrought, so familiar, so repeated, so blunt and tiresome. There is something grotesquely self-congratulatory about these little righteous, liberal film ideals which take a serious political issue, treat it with that cavalier dance of dialogue, promising a broader conversation, which never really comes. The film should be that conversation. Faraaz isn’t that film. I don’t even think it wants to be that film. It merely wants to milk a moment of heroism and retreat into its quietness. There is something frustrating here, in this scene, this desire to sell Islam, this desire to repackage it, reappropriate it as a paragon of peace.
But we must look beyond the edges of this exchange in Faraaz, for it is a film that, though derived from this one moment, has a welter of life, which it uses to shade a mythical moment, a cinematic moment, into something more rounded, more brimming.
The film begins with the terrorists getting ready, but there is nothing foreboding or even malevolent about this staging. Think of how The Attacks Of 26/11 begins. Here, one of them is struggling to get up, one of them can’t stop pumping, and one of them looks at himself in the mirror, convinced of his beauty. This is all captured in one rattling take by cinematographer Pratham Mehta. They eat like they have more days to live for. They talk like children. They want to be treated like adults. They demand attention like children with power. The power is the gun. This is what Mehta does best. He shuffles you into a world that does not seem threatening, does not demand heroism, though it is very much threatening and it very much demands its hero. Mehta isn’t interested in teasing your adrenaline. He isn’t interested in pulping your heart. Per Mehta’s minimal standards, the background score doesn’t blare. Only the gunshots do.
His film makes most emotional sense in the gestures, in the silences, in the small acts between big acts. But the moment characters speak, either it is the oddly sonorous dialogues or the bathetic accents, the chinks in his narrative armoury are bare-faced. The scenes where Nibras explains his fierce belief in the Islamic State are written with such dull simplicity. The way the terrorists banter has this forced youth in it. We are told Nibras and Faraaz used to play football together. But their worlds diverged. Why? A more curious writer-filmmaker would try, or at least imply, a reason, instead of repeatedly regurgitating this snap of history every few scenes. How did he trip and fall into a bloodletting ideology? Nibras becomes this hazy outline, a collection of gestures — disdain at perfume having alcohol in it, tenderness towards kids, sudden bursts of kindness to “baksh” or spare lives, sudden grunts of gunfire. Maybe Mehta does not want us to think of Nibras as a character, but a foggy, shifting study in violence. And that makes every appearance of Nibras both unpredictable and unstudied. Soon, a monotony descends over these shifting sands, because you do not know what the film is going after, what it wants to be, what it wants to say.
The police and the various teams — SWAT, Border Patrol — jostle for information. What do these terrorists want? Even we want to know. If all they wanted to do was produce a bloodbath and leave, they could have left. They are not wanting ransom or the release of political prisoners. These young boys with guns enter, pour bullets, and stay the night, terrorizing those whom they have allowed to be alive. This is a story so singularly insistent on the present it forgets that even its characters have a past from which their beliefs emerged, and, some, even a future. But the thing about the intensely present tense film is that it requires an intensely present tense cinematic language, not one of hand-stretching languour, which is Mehta’s go-to grasp.
There is a very provocative, yet tender moment towards the end where all of them — terrorists and terrorized — pray together; just the men, of course. Suddenly, the good Muslim, bad Muslim tug of war feels futile. That Bad Muslims are Muslims too; their badness does not make them less Muslim, in the same way one’s goodness does not make one more Muslim. This is what I mean when I say the beauty of Mehta’s films lurks in the silences, when he refuses his characters the edgeless, straightened certainty of dialogue.
Faraaz is, undoubtedly, a film of conscience. It is a little rickety in the ways only a Hansal Mehta film can be because it expects so much from a viewer. It sees cinema as a tango, one half of which we have to dance. We have to simmer. To shock our instincts out of us — the instinct to know more, to know why.
Cinematically, its dryness, its distracted wobbling between being dramatic and being subtle, being humorous and being ironic, rings a false note. But there is something else that is unsettling. The mother of one of the characters — a Muslim girl who is dressed in shorts and is regularly called a bitch and a slut by the terrorists — vehemently opposed this film. I can see why. The film’s existence, now, provokes a moral question. There might be honesty in telling a story without sensationalizing its roots, but there also might be dishonesty in trying to reverse engineer a story out of an intention.