The fact that writer-director-producer Raj Amit Kumar believes that his English-Hindi debut film Unfreedom is an enlightened piece of social commentary is exactly what makes it so vile and offensive.
Kumar tosses together narratives without bothering to connect them. Action shifts between unrelated stories about a newly-out lesbian in New Delhi and a jihadist in New York City, though both stories have weird subplots attached to them — a woman who has a miscarriage or abortion (it’s unclear which) and a corrupt cop in cahoots with the terrorists — that aren’t resolved.
The stories are primarily excuses for pornography: sexual in the case of the lesbian, Leela (Preeti Gupta), and torture in the case of the jihadist, Husain (Bhanu Uday).
Leela flees her arranged marriage to a man in order to reunite with her female lover, Sakhi (Bhavani Lee). They haven’t seen each other in a year, and Sakhi is now dating a man. Leela murders the man in front of Sakhi in order to get her attention, and it inexplicably works. Immediately after Sakhi escorts her mortally wounded boyfriend to hospital, she returns to Leela and confesses her love for her. Not the foundation for a stable relationship.
Meanwhile, in New York, Husain is on a mission to kill a Muslim scholar for being too liberal. First, he kidnaps and tortures the scholar and one of his students: a white guy who Husain nails to a modified cross and presumably kills, so far as we ever know.
Back in India, Sakhi and Leela spend their time in an island fantasy, until they’re caught and thrown in jail. Mind you, they get busted for being lesbians, not for their connection with the boyfriend’s murder, which nobody cares about. Catching gays is apparently more important than catching killers.
With all the concern in Bollywood over the way item numbers objectify women, Unfreedom shows what real objectification looks like. Kumar treats women’s bodies like things, especially the bodies of white women. Husain’s moment of clarity — or whatever the hell happens — comes only after he has literally butchered a white woman to death.
Kumar’s sexism is most obvious in the way he portrays Leela and Sakhi. Both of them are naked throughout much of the film, but Sakhi — a white American — is depicted more salaciously. She’s an artist, a lousy one, who paints in the nude for no reason. A naked self-portrait features her standing facing forward, with her legs apart and her hands at her sides.
Husain is also shown nude on a couple of occasions, but his nudity is depicted entirely differently. He is only shown from behind while in the shower, the camera pulled back much farther than in the close shots of the women’s bodies. Husain’s genitals are not shown, and even his buttocks are obscured by the shower’s steam. His nakedness is camouflaged, while the women’s nudity is overt.
Kumar wants to make it clear that we in the audience know that Sakhi is a slut. Other characters repeatedly call her “slut” and “whore.” Her portrayal reinforces the Indian myth of the oversexed white Western female, now an instrument of corruption for both men and women.
Unfreedom conflates sex and violence throughout. When Leela and Sakhi engage in a tawdry, explicit sex scene, it’s not provocative. It’s meant to shock in the same way that Husain’s gruesome torture of the professor is meant to shock. And just in case it wasn’t clear that this is supposed to be an “edgy” film, both women are violently gang-raped.
In addition to botching his film’s message, Kumar also deserves blame for terrible handling of his actors, many of whom — like Adil Hussain — are quite talented. Lee’s performance as Sakhi is particularly awful.
If Unfreedom is Kumar’s idea of challenging, progressive cinema, he needs to do some real soul-searching.