Director: Aruna Raje
Cast: Usha Jadhav, Girish Kulkarni, Sachin Khedekar, Rajeshwari Sachdev
Aruna Raje’s bilingual-but-mostly-Marathi-language Firebrand is the kind of unfortunate feminist misfire that thinks it is important and progressive the same way Madhur Bhandarkar’s movies think they make for hard-hitting, cutting-edge cinema. The filmmaking is not just unsubtle but guileless, the performances are too designed, and the story is too muddled and desperate to make a statement. Which is a pity, because at its core, the film’s themes are noteworthy: childhood rape trauma, the role of physical intimacy in marriage, the morality of sex and love.
The protagonist is “firebrand” divorce lawyer Sunanda (an on-your-nose Usha Jadhav), who specializes in cases that aid abused wives and hapless women. In case we don’t understand her personality, she is shown arguing over-assertively in a court to make sheepish-looking husbands pay alimony, before bantering with a male colleague who remarks, “So feminist you are, you love killing only male rivals in there, no?” (I paraphrased to make it sound more ridiculous, but I’m pretty sure this was the gist). The background score in her courtroom scenes belongs to a separate movie about pimps and drug lords (blame my imagination on the copious amounts of coffee I digested to get through this film). Then she banters with her loving husband (Girish Kulkarni, managing to look creepy in a non-creepy role) at dinner; he lovingly throws in terms like “workaholic” and “women are beautiful objects” so that she has the chance to lovingly respond with an “objectification of women” jibe. So far, so you-go-girl.
Soon, we see Sunanda’s ideals challenged, when she chooses to represent a manipulative upper-class vamp (Rajeshwari Sachdev) out to ruin her philandering but good-natured husband Andy (Sachin Khedekar). The woman smokes, so she must be the villain. He runs an ad agency full of youngsters: a woke excuse to see condom ads and Beti Bachao slogans. They have an autistic daughter, whose appearance prompts sad-violin music and a dubbed little-girl-voice that seems to be parodying Sachin Tendulkar’s voice. Running parallel to this bold and un-beautiful track is Sunanda’s inability to have sex with her husband and the effect this has on their mature relationship. She is haunted by an incident from her school days – one that is depicted like an exploitative ‘80s semi-porn drama, complete with bizarre dog-panting noises (because the rapist is a “kutta”), often intercut with Girish Kulkarni’s inelegant attempts to satisfy her. The husband’s is an intriguing character, supportive and sedate, but it’s impossible to look beyond the stagey theatricality of their surroundings. A psychiatrist tells her to stab a soft toy (monkey, in case you were wondering) to vent, and to write about the incident and read it out every night in front of the mirror. The resolution to this track might have been thought-provoking if it weren’t so damned pretentious. Let’s just say that it’s a social-massage (and not message) that does the trick.
I wish I had something more constructive to say about Firebrand. But it belongs to a special category of storytelling that overestimates its own depth while disregarding the concept of brevity and emotional aesthetics. Despite an author-backed role, Usha Jadhav ends up advertising the tonal irregularity of a movie that should have stayed on the pages. After all, it doesn’t say much about a film when it might have been far more effective by minusing the film itself and adding a hashtag to the title. On Twitter. Not even Instagram.