Peel back the layers and what remains is a propaganda film that has no place for Muslims to exist. They can only be ungrateful martyrs or violent terrorists.
In this film, the IAF, yes, the Indian Air Force, bombs Ambattur Industrial Estate. You read correctly. Keep reading for an argument on why despite what FIR may seem at a glance, it applies the same Hindu nationalist yardstick to measure how bad, good, or pretty Indian a Muslim living in this country can be.
FIR starring Vishnu Vishal is marketed as a thriller. It’s basically a supposedly “thrilling” view of how Indian Muslims, good or bad, are damned anyway. In the film, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) headed by Gautham Vasudev Menon is on the hunt for an unnamed Islamic State operative in Chennai. This agent, Abubakar Abdullah, publishes videos of himself masked carrying a speech on the suppression of violence. In the meantime, Vishnu Vishal who plays Irfan, a “good” Muslim and a graduate in chemical engineering from IIT-Madras just wants to find the job of his dreams, but his religion opposes it. He is “a proud Indian Muslim” until the fateful day he is implicated as Abubakar and arrested.
Vishnu Vishal tries to portray a man on whom the world unfairly closes in, oscillating between calm resignation, fragile optimism and fits of fury. Still, the film’s intentions to truly portray the lives of Indian Muslims during a time of heightened Islamophobia seem misguided.
Instead, he gives them an ultimatum to keep. For rookie director Manu Anand, it would seem that Indian Muslims must exist in a strict binary. Either they are deeply embedded in the state apparatus, the very one that is used to attack Muslim communities in real life, or they are violent terrorists; fanatics with no regard for human life. To escape oppression, they must themselves become oppressors.
A character embodying this notion is Anisha Qureshi (Razia Wilson). Wilson’s spotty performance as a tough, no-nonsense hijab-wearing NIA agent doesn’t come across as a gesture of inclusivity. Not once, but twice, she eagerly participates in the prolonged torture of the characters. His excuse is his hyper-nationalism and that “terrorists [like Abdullah] give a bad name to all Muslims. Reproducing and internalizing the violence of an anti-Muslim state is not exactly a progressive position. The fate of the film’s Muslim characters raises questions for the director, and for others in Tamil cinema in particular. Are there no other narratives than that where Muslims must be either ultra-patriotic martyrs or murderous terrorists?
Read: Either ‘good man’ or terrorist, but far from being the hero: Muslim characters in Tamil cinema
If there are any doubts about the film pushing this Hindu nationalist agenda, look no further than the GVM character and the treatment he receives, other than his squeaky portrayal of a perfectly suited MIB rip-off. He’s a head of the NIA named Anish and he regularly plays chess with the prime minister. He sits close to power, portrayed here as benign and merely preoccupied with an impending terrorist threat, at least until they decide to drop a real missile on part of the city of Chennai. Menon manages to live through an unscathed, unimpressive monologue in an elevator at the end of the film.
Does Razia Wilson or Reba Monica John (as Irfan’s former college flame, Archana) have fleshier roles than those reserved for female leads in most Tamil films? Yes. And Reba Monica John more or less delivers on screen what is expected of her. Unfortunately, it’s hard to wholeheartedly embrace the shift in female characterization. The two women reflect the biases implicit in the film. The big reveal of Archana’s climax sequence only shows her as ruthlessly brutal as everyone else.
It’s hard to watch a movie that’s so stereotyped and try to think about how the music worked, how the cinematography plays out, etc. They all work quite well, fitting quite nicely into the film’s packaging as a “taut thriller” to the point. In the crescendo of racy music, you’ll probably forget you’re just being brainwashed.