After the Uri and Balakot missions against Pakistan-based terrorists, the relationship between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval has become part of popular folklore. And films have started to reflect that too.
In a scene from the Tamil movie FIR, short for Faizal Ibrahim Raiz, the Indian prime minister tells NSA Ajay Dewan, “If you tell me, you don’t have another game plan here, then I must have misread the intelligence of the smartest man I’ve known.” Dewan denies the existence of a plan B.
The context is the bombing of a chemical factory in Visakhapatnam where ISIS terrorists are about to release the deadly Styrene gas to kill thousands in a vicious attack. It is a reimagining of the Vizag gas leak in 2020.
But all of that is secondary because probably for the first time, you have the closest lookalike to PM Modi in a movie, clothes to voice to mannerisms. In 2019, we even had a full-fledged film on PM Modi starring Vivek Oberoi. The film may not have done well at the box office, but it ensured the PM became the subject of more shows and films. The NSA, played by Gautham Vasudevan Menon, might be fitter than his real counterpart, but his actions are believable. FIR, directed by Manu Anand, is also one of the best fictional yet realistic representations of ISIS in India, matched only by Amazon Prime Video’s Manoj Bajpai-starrer Family Man.
The Indian Q and M
What stands out in a spate of recent movies like Uri (2019) and FIR, and OTT shows like Shoorveer (2022) is the importance given to the figure of the PM and NSA – they are no longer cardboard cutouts mouthing lines.
Govind Bharadwaj, played by Paresh Rawal, the NSA in Uri said these now-famous lines: “Yeh naya Hindustan hai. Yeh ghar mein ghusega bhi, marega bhi (This is new India. We will strike at the heart of the enemy).” These words have been the motto of both the 2016 Surgical Strike and fictional tellings and re-tellings of India’s defence stance in the Modi era.
In Disney+ Hotstar’s Shoorveer, the NSA is played by Makarand Deshpande, who is the master puppeteer of the elite task force Hawks. The Hawks, supposed to be India’s first responders to terrorist attacks, is an amalgamation of the three defence forces. The prime minister, an active part of the entire project, also pushes for local production of fighter jets in the show.
There is also a distinct shift in the making of enemy and spymaster figures. Suckers, as most of us are, for international spy thrillers, R&AW and other intelligence agencies have also become a popular element in Indian movies and shows. FIR looks at the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) and its functioning. Manu Anand, director and scriptwriter of FIR, says, “We wanted to show what people in NIA really look like. They are not all gun-toting men with abs.”
The closest comparison is probably M and Q of the British Bond movies, who are not part of the actual action, but facilitate it. They are as much part of the narrative as Bond, who goes and takes down the country’s enemies. The authority figures don’t just ask generic security questions and say yes to everything. They ask for plans and strategies as leaders would.
The PM listens but also makes his own decisions in these movies and shows– the decisions are not arbitrary, but a collaborative effort by everyone involved in the nation’s security.
Getting national security right
FIR is an example of getting things right in a national security-based thriller. It is sleek and has its heart in the right place. Irrfan Khan aka Faizal Ibrahim Rais, the protagonist, is described by Dewan as “a proud Indian Muslim who lived solely for his country.”
Rarely does a masala film about patriotism not end up being jingoist. FIR‘s story is based on a newspaper report that Anand read in The Indian Express in 2015. “It was about a Muslim boy who was arrested when he was 15 on the suspicion of being a terrorist and 20 years later, it was found that he is innocent. But by that time, an entire family was destroyed.”
Vishnu Vishal plays the role of Irrfan Khan, wrongfully arrested on charges of being an ISIS terrorist. Vishal says, “I took up the project because it has a message and it’s an entertainer and also has a heart. We faced a lot of backlash too. My father was worried about death threats that were issued.”
Manu and Vishal teamed up for a project that has seen multiple rejections by actors who didn’t want to make such a strong political statement.
ISIS and radicalism
The representation of ISIS is interesting in FIR as it looks at a Hindu man being radicalised to become a part of the terrorist outfit. Anand says this bit of the film is not entirely fictional and is based on multiple news reports from Kerala.
“There are many stories of local families disappearing overnight and landing in Syria to become part of ISIS,” he says. The film does not caricature the enemy – they are shown as extremely intelligent people who have also been radicalised.
What shines through in the story is an acute awareness of the nation’s political issues in terms of the increasing alienation of Indian Muslims and the threat of ISIS, which does not find much representation in Bollywood.
“Content is finally getting space in India. We are no longer Bollywood or Tollywood or Mollywood. We can finally call it Indian cinema,” Vishal says.
Whether or not Vishal’s statement is true, FIR unlocks the potential of a good ‘deshbhakti‘ film that is less loud, more intelligent. Dewan might say there is no masterstroke in his strategy, but the film itself is one.
Views are personal.
This article is part of a series called Beyond the Reel. You can read all the articles here.