“Where are we going? Backward or forward?”
Unfreedom, the first feature film directed by Raj Amit Kumar, is highly ambitious in its format and exploration of an overabundance of political and social issues set in India and in the United States. The film is a bifurcated narrative, which switches back and forth between the US and India; one following the path of a young man Husain (Bhanu Uday) who is tasked with carrying out a terrorist mission in the US and the other which traverses the path of an inconsolable Indian bride-to-be, Leela (Pretti Gupta) who runs away from her wedding festivities to be with her lover Sakhi (Bhavani Lee), a provocative American female artist. The two stories probe issues ranging from non-violence vs. righteous action, the abuse and indoctrination of children into terrorist cells, the perceived intrusion of Western ideas about women’s and LGBT rights in India, as well as the savage use of gang rape as a punishment for woman who break the law in India. Unfreedom is a forcefully bold film which compels the audience to become enraged by the actions portrayed, yet with the profusion of issues explored, the stories become muddled and lose some of the blunt force they could have possessed if presented as separate films.
The range of characters and situations in Unfreedom are slickly presented with split screens, flashbacks, and a good amount of vividly upsetting imagery. The beginning of the film has Leela, the reluctant bride, standing naked with a gun in her mouth. We know nothing of Leela at this point in the film; the gun in the mouth is really all that one needs to know. This woman is not stable and would rather die than marry the groom who was chosen for her. When she makes the decision to cut off her long hair (a symbolic gesture which Indian women often perform after their husband dies), Leela runs off to find her female lover and her chaotic journey towards claiming her truth. We are also introduced to Husain at the beginning of the film as he prepares himself to carry out an act of terrorism. Husain is shown naked in the shower, contemplating his frightful mission; that which he cannot back out of due to his tortured history.
The switch between stories is a somewhat peculiar directorial decision, as it sets the audience up for confusion and lessens the horror of the conclusions of the two stories. Each story could be a strong film on it’s own; sandwiching them into the same film to try to equate the experiences of the two protagonists does not pan out. In the end, Leela and Husain are met with a choice that will cement the rest of their lives, one which they cannot affect and is absolutely horrific. Despite the miserably tragic finales of their stories, I found little to link them. The overarching theme may be that neither character had their own power and therefore were unable to change the society surrounding and suffocating them. Though this could be a satisfactory answer, the rest of the film felt jumbled and at times unnecessary.
There were many characters present in the film who are not moored to the narrative in a meaningful or genuine way. For example, a compassionate friend of Leela’s has a small storyline about pregnancy which is moving, yet does not fit into the grand scheme of the film. The same could be said of a police officer who trails Husein and his associates while they set their terrorist plot in motion. The cop follows Husein and tries to prevent a calamity, but his overall characterization is weak. Little information is given about the officer’s mission or his feelings about the events, which leaves a hole in that plotline.The most problematic character in the film is Sakhi, Leela’s lover, because she feels more like a sexual freedom crusader who uses her relationship with Leela as a symbolic act to defy traditional Indian ideas about LGBT people, than the true soul mate of Leela. She may love Leela yet her white American privilege blinds her to how her actions of revolutionary sexuality will affect Leela negatively for the rest of her life.
The standout performance in this film is that of Victor Banerjee, who portrays a Nobel Prize nominated professor who teaches non-violent resistance and speaks against fundamentalist Islamic radicals. He is a true believer in nonviolence and will not be swayed by acts of terrorism to act out in rage. Banerjee’s performance is deft and soulful; when his character’s most ardent beliefs are tested, he is unswayed. The look of defeat in the professor’s face in the end is devastating; his beliefs can only work in theory, which is his greatest failing.
Unfreedom has been unsurprisingly banned by the Central Board of Film Certification in India due to nudity and a tastefully-filmed lesbian love making scene. The filmmakers are petitioning the Indian government to allow the film to be shown; reality mirroring the rejection of LGBT people present in the film. Though Unfreedom has narrative flaws and is at times overly gory, the ideas presented need urgent attention and conversation. Perhaps on the director’s second feature he will pare down his impassioned vision, instead focusing on the inspection of one massive social ill, instead of many.