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Bollywood Film on Holey Artisan Attack Triggers Controversy in Bangladesh

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Bollywood Film on Holey Artisan Attack Triggers Controversy in Bangladesh

Social media has been abuzz with Bangladeshis opposing the making of “Faraaz,” mostly averring that it is Bangladesh’s story to tell.

Bollywood Film on Holey Artisan Attack Triggers Controversy in Bangladesh
Credit: Twitter/Hansal Mehta

On February 3, Indian filmmaker Hansal Mehta released his latest work, “Faraaz.” The full-length feature film follows a shy 20-year-old by the same name, who stood up to homegrown Islamic State terrorists while taken hostage during the 2016 attack at Dhaka’s Holey Artisan Bakery.

“Faraaz” has triggered heated discussion in Bangladesh. Since the film’s trailer was released in January, social media has been abuzz with Bangladeshis opposing the making of the film, mostly averring that it’s Bangladesh’s story to tell.

After the trailer’s release, Ruba Ahmed, mother of Abinta Kabir, one of 29 people killed in the Holey Artisan attack, called a press conference where she outlined her grievances with the movie’s production. Ahmed reminded reporters that nobody “knew what happened behind those doors” and nor can “anyone tell what happened.” Most information about what happened is still guarded by the security establishment as classified intelligence.

She further alleged that no research team contacted any of the victim’s families to conduct character studies, whereas it is common practice for filmmakers to carry out meticulous research and seek consent from individuals or families depicted in such projects if the portrayal could be seen as sensitive or controversial. Many Hollywood directors who made movies based on 9/11 – especially in the first five years following the tragic incident – noted that they would not have commenced work if the families objected to how the story was focusing on 9/11’s truthful and “enduring” legacy.

“We sent Mehta a letter. The director responded by saying that he respects the decision and won’t proceed with it. Suddenly, in August [2022], the poster for ‘Faraaz’ was out, which greatly hurt us,” Ahemd told reporters.

Along with the parents of another victim of the attack, Tarishi Jain, Ahmed filed a case with the Delhi High Court and was able to reportedly restrict the production for six months. However, further restrictions couldn’t be imposed since the film worked with “publicly available information.”

Then on February 2, the Delhi High Court allowed the film to be released, but ordered filmmakers to include a disclaimer saying that the film is a “pure work of fiction.” The film went ahead without the disclaimer, with Mehta’s lawyers citing logistical difficulties to roll back ticket sales just a day before commercial release.

In an interview with The New Indian Express, director Mehta said, “Language and geography cannot be a barrier in my telling of a story. It’s a global story. It’s not a local story. Those who say, ‘How can you tell our story?’ My counter is, the same way there are stories of 26/11 (Mumbai terror attacks) and the Holocaust.”

The film, however, is a mix of accurate and inaccurate depictions of what happened on the night of the attack. For instance, the film dramatizes the security establishment’s unwillingness to carry out operations at night to a certain, yet controversial, accuracy. However, publicly available information suggests that the terrorists had placed gas cylinders all around the building to ensure a “no firing zone,” factually confirming government orders that demanded all hostages remain safe at all costs.

The film ends by insinuating that one of the Muslim Bangladeshi hostages – Tahmid Hasib Khan – is a “captured terrorist,” being tortured by the police. This controversial scene lends more doubt to the veracity of the research conducted for the film. In the immediate aftermath, pictures showed Tahmid, then a student at the University of Toronto, talking to a terrorist – reportedly Nibras – who was leading the terrorist operation. Tahmid was present in the picture because he was supposedly used as a decoy to figure out the position of snipers in neighboring buildings. Tahmid was initially detained but fought a court battle that proved him innocent.

The crux of the movie is a five-minute-long heated exchange between the protagonist – Faraaz – and the antagonist, Nibras. The two were previously friends and played football together. Faraaz, who was initially freed by Nibras but chose to not leave his friends – Abinta Kabir and Tarishi Jain – behind, insists that Islam is a religion of peace and not violence. More importantly, Faraaz argues that Bangladeshi identity is defined by culture rather than religion. Nibras vehemently disagrees and insists that every Muslim should be like him, sacrificing their lives to save Islam.

The exchange, heavy with Hindi and English dialogue, feeds into the existing good-versus-bad Muslims trope, despite Mehta’s intention, as stated in an interview, to depict “a battle between good people and bad people.”

From that point on, through plot and dialogues, the film progresses to show Faraaz as the defender of the goodness in Islam. It conflates the context that led to the attack, and its aftermath, into a discussion predominantly relevant to Muslim minorities in India.

According to Fariha Naomi Sadid (name changed on request), media portrayals of Muslims play a significant role in how the average population in India interacts with minorities. During screenings of the movie “Kashmir Files,” for example, people were seen screaming for revenge on Muslims for what “they have done.”

“It’s unlikely that an average person in India, even in big metropolitan cities like Delhi or Mumbai, interacts with Muslims on an everyday basis. Most of their understanding is based on what the media and, to a large part, Bollywood tells them,” Sadid added. 

Accurate portrayals without significant dilution or dramatization are therefore important. Bollywood’s far-reaching influence can inevitably risk Bangladesh, and future Bangladeshis, facing cultural amnesia, where the general population down the line will not be able to connect the thread between one of the most haunting nights in Dhaka’s recent history and why, in the aftermath, their parents instructed them not to “discuss politics” on social media.

Leading up to the attack in 2016, and crucially long afterward, Bangladeshis of all faiths were more invested in perceiving the true state of their security, their relationships with religious and ethnic institutions, and what it meant to be safe within their own homes. The incident also brought about seismic shifts in Bangladesh’s core security policies and priorities, inevitably shaping the country’s current political landscape.

For instance, before the attack, Bangladesh denied or refuted claims of transnational terrorist groups active or operating within its borders, shifting the blame of blogger assassinations to “internal” political elements. Following the attack, the government encouraged massive training and arming of the Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime (CTTC) unit, providing an executive order that granted it autonomy from the main police establishment and allowed the CTTC to operate without seeking permission from local authorities.

The results, albeit doused in controversy, were soon visible. According to the 2017 U.S. State Department’s Country Report on Terrorism, Bangladesh’s crackdown on religious extremism following the attack resulted in the arrest of more than 150 individuals and the killing of at least 79 suspected radicals in multiple countrywide operations.

Soon enough, the Bangladesh government recognized the need to surveil cyberspace as the dominant means to curb radicalization, terrorist propaganda, hate speech, and sectarianism, and adopted controversial laws.

It prompted experts to describe the new cyberspace laws as a “preferred weapon” to silence critics and hinder freedom of expression. Various human rights activists and organizations vehemently criticized its use as a threat to freedom of speech, especially after the author and social activist Mushtaq Ahmed became a casualty following his death in police custody in February 2021.

Cinema has long been considered a tool to further soft power. Modern-day cinema not only helps to create, but exports, cultural identity to the world.

The first pop culture production depicting the Holey Artisan attack needed to do justice to the fact that the entire country experienced a watershed moment in how it deals with fear and grief privately, but simultaneously gears itself to defend against the next possible attack publicly. In that lies Bangladesh’s soft power for the world to see, the unique identity that defined the public, the private, and the politics of Dhaka. 

It will be uncharitable to assume the film captured the “correct essence” of who the protagonist really was, who engaged in the gruesome acts, how the entire country grieved in the months after, and how the event came to be the turning point in Bangladesh’s political landscape.

Has “Faraaz” completely deprived Bangladesh of the chance to tell its own story, uniting everyone still in grief, disagreement, and pain? Only time will tell, but the outlook does not look good.