Director: Hansal Mehta
Writers: Ritesh Shah, Kashyap Kapoor, Raghav Kakkar
Cast: Aditya Rawal, Zahan Kapoor, Juhi Babbar
Five armed boys attack a restaurant. They belong to the predominant community – the state religion – of this seemingly secular country. They single out foreigners and religious minorities. They kill on the basis of names and surnames. They spare hostages from their own community, especially those who can recite their holy chants correctly. The five militants aren’t interested in negotiations. They simply want to show a nation – and the world – that they are strong enough to retaliate against any threat to the ‘chastity’ of their culture. They want to start a revolution of ethnic cleansing. They also want to show their hardlining adults that kids these days aren’t flimsy. That, if anything, they’re the only ones capable of upholding old values.
Faraaz, Hansal Mehta’s latest, is about this long night of terror. As an action thriller alone, it features solid writing, film-making and tension-building – in a narrative reminiscent of Ram Madhvani’s Neerja – as well as a terrific all-round cast. Mehta has a knack for turning characters into people rather than the other way around. There are no weak links. The craft is immaculate. Yet, not surprisingly, it’s the politics that define the film. On the face of it, Faraaz tells the story of the 2016 Dhaka Attack, where five Islamists wreak havoc at the Holey Artisan Bakery in the heart of Bangladesh’s capital. Given the age we live in, yet another calculated Hindi film about Muslim terrorists might seem like obvious propaganda. But this illusion is part of the design.
The film’s smartness lies in the way it chooses, views and explores this true event. The storytelling uses the specificity of this tragedy as a key to unlock a more universal illness. The assailants might be Muslim, but it’s never lost upon the viewer that they’re also citizens of a Muslim-majority country. The parallels are endless. But perhaps the true essence of Faraaz is that the first paragraph of this review could just as readily apply to India and its current relationship with Hindu extremism. The punchline: A terrorist passionately exclaiming “Islam khatre mein hai!” to justify his actions. While it’s natural to criticize the fact that the film’s primary cast and crew is largely non-Muslim, it’s also worth remembering the larger message: It’s not about the religious identities of those involved as much as the radical – and eerily familiar – ideologies that drive them.
It’s no secret that liberal artists today have been forced to embrace more innovative ways – narrative smokescreens, red herrings, indirect treatment – to bypass the scrutiny of the establishment. In that sense, Faraaz is right up there. By opting for urban Bangladesh as a setting, the film normalizes Islam as a culture, and puts itself in the position to mine the very concept of communal conflict. One country’s “us” is another’s “them”. As a result, the lens is not a lazy Good-Muslim-Bad-Muslim one so much as a layered anti-Islamophobic one. It’s a brave choice that runs the risk of being both exploitative and misread. But context lies in the eyes of the beholder. The police, for instance, are woefully unprepared but also full of bravado. The anti-terrorism military units are stalled by a divisive Prime Minister. The system is broken, and prayer is the refuge of both the victims and the villains. Yet, the film also locates pockets of situational humour – like a search for the restaurant’s blueprint – that democratize the direness of this crisis. It’s a tightrope walk that might’ve gone awry in a lesser director’s hands.
But the voice stays firm. The film’s title conveys its perspective. It is named after Faraaz Hossain, a Bangladeshi Muslim who, despite being given a chance to leave the cafe, chooses to stay back for his friends. Faraaz (a wonderfully cast Zahaan Kapoor) is also revealed to be the voice of sanity, a rare internet-age character who isn’t persecuted for his wokeness. On the contrary, he’s the only one with the courage – and more importantly, the clarity of thought – to question the attackers. Given the upscale environment, the film doesn’t shy away from speaking in the language of social media discourse. It’s a ‘dudebro’ language that’s usually looked down on by serious dramas. But even the five terrorists come from a background of education and privilege, so their frat-boy banter challenges the viewer’s notion of extremism. It evokes the vibe of Twitter trolls who just happen to show up with guns and cold blood. The protagonist among them is Nibras – played superbly by Aditya Rawal (son of Paresh Rawal) – whose ‘debates’ with Faraaz are designed to convey the film’s stance. Their exchanges sound a little too on the nose (“Islam is not violence; you’re the reason the world others us”) and literal, but the atmosphere inside the cafe isn’t exactly conducive to subtlety. I can’t think of a more pressing way to get across the point.
At times, though, Faraaz strives too hard for effect. Like when the police commissioner almost becomes the court jester. Or when Nibras toys with a musician and forces him to sing a song (“No Dylan, Lennon and all that bullshit”). Or when the terrorists pose for a selfie. Or even when an annoying TV reporter interviews one of the frantic parents. But the little touches keep the soul of the film intact. My favourite is the track of Faraaz’s mother (a scene-stealing Juhi Babbar), a wealthy lady who goes from cultural cliche to poignant parent over the course of the night. Again, her character is readymade bait in an era that thrives on ignorant-rich-people stories.
Early on, we see her exhausting all her “Do you know who I am?” cards. A detail as small as her sitting – instead of standing – while she demands answers from a cop conveys her entitlement. We aren’t conditioned to see someone like her soften in the eyes of a journalistic film. But Faraaz is nothing if not socially deft in its gaze. She stays difficult, but without compromising on the religion of motherhood. By the end, she becomes emblematic of the fact that pride – much like prejudice – cuts across borders. Five armed boys attacked a restaurant in a secular country. But Faraaz remains about one long night of knowing nothing.