He used to beat up reform-minded students, Masoud Dehnamaki comes across as deceptively mellow. Once a militia leader, he has put away his cudgel and directed one of Iran's biggest-ever cinema hits.
After two successful documentaries, about prostitution and football violence, Mr Dehnamaki's first feature film, now filling cinemas in the capital, Tehran, is an irreverent comedy called Ekhrajiha (“The Outcasts”). By portraying a gang of Tehran thieves and junkies as war heroes, it took the authorities by surprise.
At the start of the film, the hero, Majid, is imprisoned for attacking a man who makes salacious comments to a virtuous young woman. Despite the authorities' unwillingness to accept Majid and his unsavoury friends as volunteers in the war against Iraq (all of whom were meant to be devout), they reach the front line to be redeemed by sacrifice. When Ekhrajiha failed to win any of the prizes at the recent Fajr International Film Festival in Tehran, Mr Dehnamaki hinted that the authorities wanted to suppress it for being subversive.
But his dismissive attitude to the revolution's sacred cows has won him wide admiration, among both liberal intellectuals and Muslim fundamentalists. His first documentary, about prostitution, was equally provocative, breaking an official taboo by suggesting that the Islamic republic's veneer of virtue hid a society marred by corruption and poverty.
Mr Dehnamaki was traumatised by the war. Until a few years ago his office looked like a trench, with sandbags and ammunition boxes. After his return from the front, he joined Ansar-e Hizbullah (“Followers of the Party of God”), a violent vigilante group that reveres Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader. Later, as editor of the group's magazine, he advocated political violence.
The group stands for a small core of extremists. Many fought in the war and were dismayed by what they deemed a betrayal of revolutionary ideals during the economic reforms of the 1990s. Now unattached to any political group, he still rages against poverty and corruption.
Such feelings infuse Ekhrajiha, which is nonetheless an odd mix of slapstick humour and mawkish sentimentality. Mr Dehnamaki may have changed his political methods and may mock the Islamist establishment, but Iran's liberals are wary of him, knowing they are still his biggest natural enemies.