Thursday, April 19, 2018

"Your f*** is the problem" - on Unfreedom, a film about victims, bigots and sandcastles

[Did this short review of the film Unfreedom – censored and unreleased in India in 2015, now available on Netflix – for India Today]

On a pristine beach, a large door stands by itself, one of a few elements and markers constituting a spare outdoor “house” – a space where two young women are free to make love, to build sandcastles like children, to get married around a sacred fire with only a large trident as witness; no prying or judging eyes.

It’s a surreal, dialogue-less scene, and if there had been more visual poetry like it in Raj Amit Kumar’s Unfreedom, this could have been a brilliant film. As it stands it has good intentions and earnest performances, but is stymied by excessive symbolism and on-the-nose dialogue that underlines each thought and action. Even that scene on the beach ultimately doesn’t trust the images to make the point – instead it ends with one of the women telling the camera: “This is our home. A home without walls. Just earth. Water. Fire. Love. It’s actually none of your business to pass judgement and rules and regulations.”

Unfreedom cross-cuts between two unrelated stories, in New York and New Delhi. In the first, a young terrorist named Hussain (Bhanu Uday) kidnaps and tortures a liberal Muslim scholar (Victor Banerjee); in the second, the distressed Leela (Preeti Gupta) tries to break free from her controlling father (Adil Hussain) and rebuild a life with her former lover (Bhavani Lee).

These narratives examine different forms of intolerance, and the many ways in which people can be caught in a continuum of innocence, complicity and guilt. Oppression and conditioning paint them into corners, leading them into degrees of extremist behaviour: a boy who watched his family massacred goes on to perpetuate a cycle of violence himself; a woman is so haunted by social expectations that while trying to assert her sexual autonomy, she also insists on marrying her lover (even if the latter is reluctant to enter a full-fledged commitment). When society curtails freedoms – to love in the way one needs to; to follow (or not follow) a particular faith – the results can be explosive in unpredictable ways, with a victim in one context becoming a criminal in another.

These are worthy themes in themselves, but in exploring them the film often meanders, preaches and makes forced parallels between the stories: in the closing sequence, split screens are used to connect dots – right down to showing characters similarly framed or performing similar actions – but this is reductive and misleading. Some of the characters feel like caricatures too (take the glowering, xenophobic morality-keeper telling Sakhi when she uses the F-word, “That is the problem. Your fuck is the problem”) but this is a point more open to argument; real-world bigotry and fanaticism demonstrates that the line between “realistic” and “stereotyped” is always blurred.

In any case, conversations about the film’s merits or demerits are likely to take a back-seat to the controversy surrounding it. In 2015, Unfreedom went unreleased because the censor board, worried by its explicit treatment of homosexuality, felt it would “ignite unnatural passions”. There is something genuinely unsettling about this; it makes the censor-board chiefs seem like (slightly more benign) versions of the homophobic patriarchs who savagely assault the two lovers in one scene.

As for the supposedly incendiary content: there is some discussion of religious fundamentalism, some provocative exchanges (including the “blasphemous” line “What the fuck does Allah have to do with this?”) but nothing we haven’t seen in other, subtler films. And there are nude scenes, a couple of which are clichéd and heavy-handed (woman exposed and defenceless, sobbing on her bathroom floor; bohemian artist sauntering naked through her studio apartment), while also giving the impression that Unfreedom is too glossy and prettified to do full justice to the horrors of its subject matter.

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