This turkey is bad for your heart

Aditya Mani Jha | Updated on: Apr 27, 2018
Layers be damned: Not one character in the film is anything beyond the broadest-stroke version

Layers be damned: Not one character in the film is anything beyond the broadest-stroke version

Shooting range: Preeti Gupta, in the role of the daughter of an authoritarian police inspector played by Adil Hussain

Shooting range: Preeti Gupta, in the role of the daughter of an authoritarian police inspector played by Adil Hussain

Unfreedom is a very 21st-century brand of pop culture, one which marries negligible artistic merit with an endless drive to provoke

There are turkeys galore everywhere you look in Bollywood. Blink and you’ll miss another Tiger Shroff film flashing by in a swoosh of overpriced sneakers. But a certain kind of turkey is particularly bad for your heart: the kind inexplicably stuffed with fine actors. Raj Amit Kumar’s 2015 film Unfreedom — banned by the Indian government that year — is a case in point. The film clumsily holds, or rather precariously dangles, two narrative strands throughout its 100-minute run, never allowing the two to meet, even superficially. Both stories feature veteran actors who, despite their earnest efforts, let the mask slip sometimes, looking like they would rather be literally anywhere else.

At the American end of things, we have Victor Banerjee playing Fareed Rahmani, a pacifist New York professor who’s about to get his life upended by Hussain (TV actor Bhanu Uday, woefully inadequate), a young, brainwashed fundamentalist. Meanwhile in Delhi, Adil Hussain plays authoritarian police inspector Devraj Singh, whose daughter Leela (Preeti Gupta) runs away from home on the eve of her wedding. Leela seeks out her bisexual ex-lover, Sakhi Taylor (Bhavani Lee) for... something. They, like us, are never told what exactly it is — closure, making out, rekindling the flame, apportioning blame, delivering slut-shaming lectures, having live-taped sexual encounters. Because a little bit of all of these things happen in a bizarre chain of events, before it turns out that the answer is (drum roll) marriage. The point, apparently, is to make a viral YouTube video about sexual freedom and India’s draconian Section 377, to echo Hussain’s videotaped “confession” of Professor Rahmani’s sins against Islam and humanity.

Before we get down to the sordid business of understanding the nature of Unfreedom ’s turkey-ness, it is important to set the record straight: the ban on the film was, unironically, 100 per cent stupid and wrong and cruel. Indeed, by declaring that the film could “ignite unnatural passions”, the order unwittingly (and unjustly) bracketed it alongside another, vastly superior work that was criticised using very similar language — Ismat Chughtai’s short story ‘Lihaaf’.

The film is a prime example of the desire to provoke, overwhelming all other aspects of the craft, and ultimately sabotaging the material. While insult is a valid form of critique, Manichean stereotypes in art ought to be considered borderline mala fide. And that is the central tragedy of director Kumar’s vision: not one character is anything beyond the broadest-stroke version. So eager is he to stamp this triumphantly simplistic brand of history that plot, character development and subtlety are thrown out the window. He’s also way too eager to shoot his leading ladies in the nude, but that’s another matter entirely.

Consider: Rahmani, the pacifist professor, hems and haws and recites genteel lines of poetry. Hussain, as inspector Devraj, puts on a grim face, whips up a generic aloo parantha accent, and delivers solemn homilies about family honour. Leela, the lesbian scorned, ends up shooting her ex-lover Sakhi’s current boyfriend Anand (Shayan Munshi, rather cruelly, in the midst of another indoor firearms tragedy), minutes after meeting him. She then proposes to Sakhi even as Anand has presumably... stopped writhing in pain? Again, we don’t quite know until much later, when the incident is referred to as “mudder” by one of Devraj’s cop buddies. Did I mention that Sakhi, at this point, says ‘yes’ and the two elope on a boat across the Yamuna?

Meanwhile, the other story is, The History of Hussain’s Brainwashing. The camera suddenly turns myopic, blurry visions filled with livid demagogues whizz by. Corporal punishment visuals saturate your field of vision, almost, until, with a shudder, we are brought back to current-day Hussain’s sweat-covered face. Rinse and repeat, over and over again.

Kumar wants us to be overwhelmed by the parallels in the two stories while, in reality, what we are left with is how similarly short-changed both his sets of characters are. The film begins with Sakhi painting in the nude, every curve lovingly illuminated by Kumar. The sequence is drawn out way beyond any narrative purpose — unless the length itself was the point.

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Shooting range: Preeti Gupta, in the role of the daughter of an authoritarian police inspector played by Adil Hussain

 

The fact that Sakhi is not so much a character as a poorly assembled set of clichés provides further ballast to this theory. Sakhi is endlessly promiscuous — until Leela proposes live-streamed marriage. Sakhi abhors violence — until Leela goes Annie Oakley on Anand. Sakhi is a bisexual artist who paints in the nude and so, naturally, Leela’s sister Chandra (Seema Rahmani), perhaps the only sympathetic character in the film, declares that “she is not to be trusted”.

Both Gupta and Lee are stifled by a screenplay primed only for relentless catharsis, with interludes of gratuitous nudity. The wisest thing to do with such a film is to steer well clear of it. Instead, the Censor Board provided it with the perfect soapbox, by banning it.

In 2012, 25-year-old cartoonist Aseem Trivedi drew a pair of crude, entwined unisex silhouettes sucking at each other’s nether regions. The silhouettes were labelled ‘Politics’ and ‘Corruption’, respectively. Most people with a modicum of taste would have yawned and swiped left. The Indian state slapped Trivedi with sedition charges, invoking a British-era law that had previously been used to try Annie Besant and Mahatma Gandhi. Clearly, the stability of the Indian nation state hinged upon the cartoonist’s incarceration.

I view Unfreedom in the same league as Trivedi’s cartoons. They are exponents of a very 21st-century brand of pop culture, one which marries negligible artistic merit with an endless drive to provoke. At best, it should have been a YouTube short. Or one of those boomerang thingies on Instagram, where people oscillate endlessly between two pre-decided points in time — I have the feeling Kumar would feel right at home there.

(Views expressed are personal)

Aditya Mani Jha works at Penguin Random House

Published on April 27, 2018
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