Bollywood’s ‘Faraaz’ raises questions about trauma exploitation in art

Screenshot from the Official Trailer of the Bollywood movie "Faraaz" published on YouTube. Fair use.

Screenshot from the Official Trailer of the Bollywood movie “Faraaz” published on YouTube. Fair use.

The upcoming Indian thriller “Faraaz,” directed by Bollywood Filmmaker Hansal Mehta, is set to release on February 3, 2023. However, the movie trailer has already sparked controversy in Bangladesh before its release as it is based on a terrorist attack that took place in Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka, Bangladesh in July 2016. When the night-long siege ended after a military operation, Bangladeshis were shocked to learn that 20 hostages had died in the incident — including 17 foreigners, three locals, two police officers, five terrorists and two bakery staff.

The movie centres around the story of 20-year-old Faraaz Ayaaz Hossain, a Bangladeshi hostage who was among those killed in the attack. The story is inspired by the book “Holey Artisan: A journalistic investigation”, published in 2017 by Bangladeshi journalist Nuruzzaman Labu. However, the movie has caused controversy as the mothers of two victims claim that the victims’ families were not consulted before the movie was made and have raised questions about the accuracy of the plot, as it depicts one victim (Faraaz) as a hero.

Image via Wikipedia by Zubair Bin Iqbal. CC BY-SA 4.0.

The Bangladesh Army conducted an operation called ‘Operation Thunderbolt’ to rescue the hostages, however, a number of hostages were already killed by the terrorists before the operation could be executed. Image of Bangladesh Army in a Victory Day Parade in 2011 via Wikipedia by Zubair Bin Iqbal. CC BY-SA 4.0.

Who is Faraaz?

Faraaz Ayaaz Hossain was a student at Emory University in Georgia, USA, who was visiting his home country Bangladesh during summer vacation. On July 1, 2016, Faraaz went to the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka with his two foreign friends, Abinta Kabir, a Bangladeshi-American citizen and fellow Emory University student, and Indian national Tarishi Jain, who was also studying in the US.

After the hostages were killed, some news articles depicted Faraaz as a hero of the Dhaka siege, claiming that terrorists at one point allowed him to leave as he was a Bangladeshi citizen and a Muslim, but he refused to leave his friends.

The poster of the movie “Faraaz”. Image via Wikipedia. Fair use.

Faraaz was the grandson of Latifur Rahman, chairman of Transcom Limited, one of the big industrial conglomerates in Bangladesh. Some commentators believe that the power and influence of this conglomerate (which also owns newspapers and TV channels) contributed to the glorification of Faraaz.

Although the movie revolves around Faraaz's heroism and his willingness to sacrifice himself for his friends, this claim has also been dismissed by many, including Bangladeshi crime reporter Nuruzzaman Labu, who covered the Holey Artisan incident live as a news reporter and later wrote the investigative book titled “Holey Artisan: A journalistic investigation” from which the production company also took information for the movie. He wrote on Facebook about the movie:

যদিও আমার বইয়ে আমি ফারাজরে আলাদা কইরা হিরোইজমের যে মিথ প্রচার করা হইছে তা নাকচ কইরা দিছিলাম। কারণ এর কোনও প্রত্যক্ষদর্শী আমি পাই নাই। কে বলেছিল যে ফারাজকে জঙ্গিরা ছাইড়া দিতে চাইছিল, কিন্তু তার দুই বান্ধবীরে ছাইড়া আসতে চায় নাই? এর কোনও উত্তর নাই। এইটা বানানো গল্প।

In my book, I debunked the myth of Faraaz's heroism that was spread by certain media outlets. I found no evidence or witnesses to support this claim. Who said that the militants wanted to release Faraaz but he stayed to help his two friends? There is no answer. This is a fabricated story.

Ruba Ahmed, the mother of one of the victims, Abinta Kabir, also expressed scepticism about the claims of Faraaz's heroism. On January 19, 2023, she stated during a press conference in Dhaka:

যে ঘটনাটিকে বলা হয়েছে যে আমার মেয়ের জন্য একজন মানুষ (ফারাজ) তার জীবন দিয়েছেন, সেই হিরো … নো, দ্যাটস রং। ইটস অ্যা রং স্টেটমেন্ট। এটা হতে পারে না। আমি তা বিশ্বাস করি না। কারণ তার কোনো প্রমাণ নেই। ওখান থেকে কেউ বেঁচে আসেনি। যারা বেঁচে ফিরেছে, তারা এ বিষয়ে কিচ্ছু জানে না, বলতে পারে না। এ বিষয়ে কোন এভিডেন্সও নাই যে এখানে কেউ হিরো হয়েছে।

The narrative being presented is that one person (Faraaz) sacrificed his life for my daughter, and he is the only hero… No, that's wrong. It's a false statement and I do not believe it. There is no evidence to support this claim. No hostages survived, and those who have returned have no knowledge of this claim and cannot verify it. There is no other proof that he or anyone else acted heroically during that tragic event.

Former Ambassador MG Shahidul Haque tweeted:

The legal battle

The mothers of Abinta Kabir and Tarishi Jain, two friends of Faraaz, made an appeal to the Delhi High Court last year to prevent the release of the movie. In their lawsuit, they argued that the movie misrepresented the facts and violated the privacy of their daughters. They claimed that their “right to be left alone” outweighed the filmmakers’ right to commercially exploit the incident. However, the filmmaker argued that the information on the incident was already in the public domain and that a disclaimer states that “Faraaz” is a fictional work inspired by a true incident.

On October 15, 2022, the Delhi High Court declined to grant an interim stay to prevent the release of “Faraaz.”

Later, the mother appealed the decision, and on January 17, 2023, the Delhi High Court ordered Filmmaker Hansal Mehta and the two mothers to meet and attempt to resolve the issue.

The ongoing legal dispute has sparked an unprecedented legal debate in India about whether the depiction of a terrorist attack infringes on the victims’ right to privacy and if that right extends to the victim's family members in their absence. The next court hearing is scheduled for February 1, 2023, two days before the planned release of the movie.

Writer and researcher Hasan Morshed suggested that if the truth can be distorted, it undermines the rights of others involved in the incident, in a post on Facebook:

যে প্রশ্ন তুলেছেন অবিন্তা'র মা, সে প্রশ্ন কি অবান্তর? ফারাজ'কে নায়ক বানিয়ে সিনেমা নির্মাণ করেছেন। দেখাচ্ছেন- ফারাজ অন্যদের বাঁচাতে নিজের জীবন দিয়েছে। হলি আর্টিজান কোন কল্পিত ঘটনা না। এটা ঘটে যাওয়া ঘটনা। ফারাজ অন্য নিহতদের মতোই একজন ভিক্টিম। একজন ভিক্টিমকে নিয়ে সিনেমা হতেই পারে। কিন্তু যখন দেখানো হচ্ছে সে অন্যদের বাঁচাতে নিজের প্রাণ দিয়েছে তখন ঐ ’অন্য’দের পোট্রে সত্য থাকেনা। অবন্তির মায়ের প্রশ্ন এজন্যই ভ্যালিড।

Is the question raised by Abinta's mother incoherent? You made this movie portraying Faraaz as a hero — that he gave his life to save others. The Holey Artisan incident is not a fictional one. It truly happened. Faraaz is a victim like the others. There can be a movie highlighting only one victim. But when it is portrayed as such that he gave his life to save others, then the portrayal of those ‘others’ do not remain true. That is why Abinta's mother's question is valid.

Artist freedom and the censor board

The issue of artist freedom and censorship is also at play in the controversy surrounding the portrayal of the Holey Artisan incident. A Bangladeshi film, “Shonibarer Bikel,” was also inspired by the events of July 1, 2016, but it faced a four-year delay in its release. The movie was produced by Abdul Aziz, Mostafa Sarwar Farooqi and Shyam Sundar Dey and first premiered in 2019 at the 41st Moscow international film festival. In the same year, A 15-member censor board ruled the film unfit for screening in Bangladesh, citing issues with the portrayal of security forces’ roles in the Holey Artisan incident and the omission of police casualties. On January 21, 2023, the appeal committee of the Board agreed to release the film with some conditions.

Journalist and fiction writer Binoy Dutta argued that artists should have the freedom to express themselves and create content based on real-life events.

This is not the first time a film has been blocked by the censor board in Bangladesh. Before this, Humayun Ahmed's “Aguner Parashmani“, (1994); Reza Ghatak's “Haribol“, (2019); the first film in the Chakma language “Mor Thengari” (My Bicycle), 2015; and Ananya Mamun's ‘Makeup’ were either briefly or fully blocked by the censor board.

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