Peel off the layers and what remains is a propaganda film that has no place for Muslims to just exist. They can only be unthanked martyrs or violent terrorists.

A poster for the film FIRTwitter
Flix Review Saturday, February 12, 2022 - 16:12
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Spoilers ahead

In this movie, the IAF, yes, the Indian Air Force, bombs Ambattur Industrial Estate. You read that right. Keep reading for an argument on why despite what FIR might seem at a passing glance, it applies the same Hindu-nationalist yardstick to measure how bad, or good or Indian enough a Muslim living in this country can be.

FIR starring Vishnu Vishal is marketed as a thriller. It’s essentially a supposedly ‘thrilling’ take on how Indian Muslims, good or bad, are damned either way. In the film, the National Investigative Agency (NIA) headed by Gautham Vasudev Menon is on the hunt for a faceless Islamic State operative in Chennai. This operative, Abubakar Abdullah, releases videos of himself in a mask rambling on about reigning down violence. In the meantime, Vishnu Vishal who plays Irfan, a “good” Muslim and IIT-Madras chemical engineering graduate just wants to find his dream job, but his religion stands in the way. He is ‘a proud Indian Muslim’ until the fateful day he is implicated as Abubakar and arrested.

Vishnu Vishal tries to put on a convincing performance of a man whom the world is unfairly closing in on, swinging between calm resignation, frail optimism and outbursts of fury. Yet, the film’s intentions to truly portray the lives of Indian Muslims in times of heightened Islamophobia appear spurious.

Instead, it sets an ultimatum for them to abide by. For debutant director Manu Anand it would seem Indian Muslims must exist within a strict binary. They are either embedded deeply within the state apparatus, the very same that is used to prey on Muslim communtities in real life or they are violent terrorists; zealots with no regard for human life. To escape oppression, they must become oppressor themselves.

A character embodying this notion is Anisha Qureshi (Razia Wilson). Wilson’s uneven performance as a harsh, no-nonsense hijab-wearing NIA agent does not come off as a gesture of inclusivity. Not once, but twice, she hungrily participates in the extended custodial torture of characters. Her excuse is her hyper-nationalism and that “terrorists [like Abdullah] are giving all Muslims a bad name.” Replicating, and internalising the violence of an anti-Muslim state isn’t exactly a progressive stance. The fate of Muslim characters in the film begs the question to the director, and to others in Tamil cinema in particular. Are there no narratives beyond the one where Muslims have to be either ultra-patriotic martyrs or murderous terrorists?

Read: Either 'good man' or terrorist but hardly the hero: The Muslim characters of Tamil cinema

If there are any doubts regarding the film pushing this Hindu-nationalist agenda, look no further than GVM’s character and the treatment he gets, apart from his grating portrayal of a sharp-suited MIB rip-off. He’s a NIA head named Anish and plays chess regularly with the Prime Minister. He is seated close to power, portrayed here as benign and simply concerned about a looming terror threat, at least until they decide to drop an actual missile on part of Chennai city. Menon gets to live unscathed, monologuing unimpressively in a lift by the end of the movie.

Do Razia Wilson or Reba Monica John (as Irfan’s old college flame, Archana) have meatier roles than those reserved for female leads in most Tamil films? Yes. And Reba Monica John more or less delivers on screen what’s expected of her. Unfortunately, it’s hard to be wholeheartedly welcoming of the change in female characterising. The two women are reflections of the biases implicit in the film. Archana’s climax-sequence big reveal only shows her off as mercilessly brutal as everyone else.

It’s hard to watch a film so stereotype-enabling and try to think about how the music worked, how the cinematography plays out and such. They all work well-enough, fitting quite smoothly into the packaging of the film as a ‘tense thriller’ to the point. In the crescendo of racey music, you are likely to forget you are just being indoctrinated.