Hansal Mehta's 'Faraaz' Brings Nuance and Wit to its Display of Terror

The movie shows us that courage can be quiet and reflective.

Faraaz opens to five young men in a flat in Dhaka. There’s nothing remarkable about them: they pump weights, crack jokes, fight over pieces of chicken. You can find them on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook – in libraries, playgrounds and cafés.

They land up at an upscale Dhaka café, Holey Artisan Bakery, on the night of  July 1, 2016. The security guard checks their bags; they slit his throat. They barge inside and pump bullets, primarily targeting foreigners. One of the survivors, hiding under a table with his two female friends, is a young man, Faraaz (Zahan Kapoor). Someone who, at least from his upbringing, isn’t different from them: educated, suave, elite. Now they’re under the same roof – one embodies courage, the others thunder cowardice.

In stories based on real-life incidents – Faraaz is adapted from the book Holey Artisan: A Journalistic Investigation – many directors get carried away by voluminous research, telling the audiences the ‘significance’ of their findings. (As a journalist interested in longform narrative nonfiction, I empathise.) Yet it’s also true that the real might of such stories are often determined by not what the makers include but what they exclude. Let me tell you what the director of Faraaz, Hansal Mehta, leaves out: the chief perpetrator Nibras (Aditya Rawal) attended Monash University in Malaysia, supported the Liverpool football club and had an uncle who was a deputy secretary in the Bangladeshi government. Two assailants went to elite private schools following Western education. Another gunman’s father was a politician in the ruling Awami League party. Not your average brainwashed specimens.

It wouldn’t have been tough to weave a scene or two showing – or hinting at – their backstories. It’s not as if Faraaz is long. At 113 minutes, it could have accommodated plenty more. But by withholding some information – and depicting the murderers as regular and vile – the film achieves several important feats: a) it allows us to read the story on our own terms, b) it depicts the true face of modern terror – that it may not be something far away from, but around, us and c) it approximates the sheer horror and confusion felt by the victims that night. Because what do you ask when you see ordinary youngsters, talking in Hinglish, holding guns in a café: Who are they? Where have they come from? What do they want?

Even when the stakes intensify – as the dead bodies pile up, as the gun-toting men show their blind religious devotion, as the survivors crouch in fear – the movie continues to dart ahead with arrow-like focus. Besides horrific scenes, we get moments of humour and empathy — from the terrorists. When one of them rudely orders a middle-aged doctor, Nibras cuts him down to size: “He’s your senior. Have some respect, man.” In another scene, he tells a fellow gunman: “Zip chadha, zip.” Later, Nibras notices a man separated from his daughter and tells him to sit beside her.

These scenes aren’t written to design ‘empathy’. Not for a second – during or after the screening – did I feel anything but deep revulsion for them. But even in such a tense movie, the writing (by Ritesh Shah, Kashyap Kapoor and Raghav Kakkar) produces humorous moments – without insulting the victims or straining for a ‘calibrated cool’ effect. This is just confident and assured filmmaking. The kind of drama that both shows and allows you to imagine – the kind of prose where two consecutive sentences have oceanic space between them.

The other fascinating part revolves around its leading man. I hadn’t seen the trailer – and avoided most promotional material – so I didn’t know what Faraaz was about, but I did have an inkling that it featured a young hero-like figure. If you’ve seen enough Bollywood films, you know how heroes look like. But Kapoor’s Faraaz doesn’t fit the type. You can, in fact, define him by what he’s not. Not tall, not dialogues-chewing, not scene-ruling. Yet playing an eponymous hero, he continued to remain in the background. I waited. Thirty, 40, 50 minutes. The interval. Ten more minutes, 20 more minutes – he was largely missing, except for a few thorny interactions with Nibras.

It struck me later that Hindi mainstream cinema has corrupted my understanding of not just on-screen heroes but also off-screen courage. Courage isn’t a CV-bullet point in Faraaz. Or a defining trait. Or a distinguishing defect. Or an inspirational story. Courage instead, as shown here, is much more quiet and reflective. Courage makes Faraaz (metaphorically) come home, uniting his apparent and latent selves. Courage makes him act in a blip of a second, surprising us and maybe himself. Courage makes him not don a different avatar but just be true to himself – not fighting fire with fire but gushing water on fire.

Like most impressive dramas, Faraaz treats every component of the story with as much care. If its two main parts are centred on the terrorists and the victims, then the third portion is about Dhaka Metropolitan Police’s response. There too, the film tells a story within a story. A story we’re all familiar with: of ‘desi incompetence’. The cops lack bulletproof jackets and helmets; they can’t procure the café’s blueprint; the lack of coordination among them stretches this insanity till the early hours of the morning. Again, almost no overt commentary but sharp storytelling – topped off by credible humour. When a subordinate tells his senior that “madam has called”, he dismisses him by saying, “Tell her, I’ll be late for dinner.” Little does he know that the “real madam” – the Bangladeshi prime minister, Sheikh Hasina – is on the line.

This also could have been a much different piece if not for Rawal’s piercing performance. He changes tone so swiftly – from urban casual lingo to religious declarations, from unexpected empathy to brute terror – that it produces a bewitching effect. Rawal is so captivating that he lends political heft to the movie. One of the most chilling scenes doesn’t pivot on violence but a conversation: Nibras talking to a young girl. Just read the following and see if it reminds you of something. Nibras tells her that “Islam khatre me hai”, that many eons ago it ruled the world, and then it was all robbed from them.

By telling the story of a fundamentalism, Faraaz talks about the fundamentalism. It is, in a unique way, a true tribute to the spirit of youth: innocent, hopeful, courageous; vulnerable, brainwashed, murderous. The same sky hosts a sea of humanity each night: many see the twinkling stars; some see the enveloping dark.