Bollywood film outrages Medecins Sans Frontieres by linking it to terrorism

The film has characters who work for 'Medicine International', a fictitious aid agency whose red and white logo and 'no guns' sticker appears strikingly similar to MSF branding

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It is an apparently humdrum thriller based on the Mumbai terror attacks of 2008, though controversial enough in its subject matter to earn a ban in Pakistan before it was  even released.

So it was only when Phantom’s leading British-Indian actress, Katrina Kaif, gave an interview about the new Bollywood film to The Times of India this week that the international aid agency Médecins sans Frontières got wind of the danger it represented. “It’s a disaster,” an MSF worker in India told The Independent on Friday, hours after the aid group began legal action against the film’s producers.

In the action movie, released in India on Friday, Kaif plays what she described as an aid worker who helps a disgraced Indian soldier to assassinate Pakistani militants accused of being behind the Mumbai bombings. In promotional interviews for the film, Kaif told The Times of India that “NGO workers have ties with local fanatical groups”, without mentioning that many aid groups maintain strict neutrality in order safely to do their work. In the film, her character is seen firing a pistol and rifle.

The film has characters who work for “Medicine International”, a fictitious aid agency whose red and white logo and “no guns” sticker appears strikingly similar to MSF branding. MSF says it has a “strict no-guns policy” in all of its clinics and does not employ armed guards. “None of our staff would ever carry a gun. Any portrayal that suggests otherwise is dangerous, misleading and wrong,” MSF said.

The Bollywood actress Katrina Kaif (AFP)

Phantom was banned by a Pakistani court last week in response to a petition from Hafiz Saeed, the man India accuses of masterminding the killing of 166 people over three days in November 2008. It is understood that MSF first became aware of the film’s content on Wednesday, after Kaif gave her interview. It said the film’s depiction of aid workers could have “obvious security implications” for staff and patients alike.

MSF lawyers wrote to the producers on Thursday, asking “them to stop using our name, to issue a disclaimer making it clear that we are not associated with the film and to show us an advance copy of the film”. On Friday, as the film hit cinemas, MSF said legal action was still under way. A spokesperson added: “Such a portrayal of a humanitarian organisation similar to our own is obviously incredibly worrying and, after seeing the film this morning, our legal action is ongoing.”

Kaif, 32, who was unavailable for comment on Friday, routinely finds a place in lists ranking India’s “most googled celebrities”. She has been trying to change the perception that she cannot act, she told Reuters in a recent interview, with more substantial roles in Bollywood films.

Martin Sloot, the director-general of MSF India, said: “The organisation in the film has aspects that are confusingly similar to MSF, while others are entirely incorrect. Such a blurring of the lines between fact and fiction can have real consequences for our ability to work in difficult places where our access depends on people trusting that we are neutral, impartial and independent organisation.”

The film’s director and producers could not be reached for comment on Friday.