Director: Akhil Anilkumar, Jeo Baby, Kunjila Mascillamani, Jithin Issac Thomas, Francies Louis
Cast: Rajisha Vijayan, Rohini, Joju George, Srindha, Jeo Baby
Freedom Fight, the new anthology out now on, is presented by Jeo Baby, the director of The Great Indian Kitchen. Using the kitchen as a battlefield, TGIK showed us a nameless woman's liberation after having to fight generations of patriarchy. In Freedom Fight, we get five equally compelling stories revolving around a handful of individuals. But like The Great Indian Kitchen, these individual stories reflect generations of societal conditioning dealing with injustices like sexism, inequality, neglect and casteism, albeit with varying degrees of severity.
Arranged in an ascending order of intensity, the five shorts become increasingly disturbing as though a knob is being turned from luke-warm to volcanic. In Akhil Anilkumar's lovely Geethu Unchained, the lightest of the five, we dissect the life and times of Malayalam cinema's favourite new cliche — the theppukaari. The film opens with a marriage proposal in an upmarket cafe but Geethu (a pitch-perfect Rajisha Vijayan) is hesitant to reply because she's able to see the order of events that would follow either a 'yes' or a 'no'. There's no correct answer really for someone in her shoes and that's perhaps the point. Having to navigate a minefield laden with personal and professional traps, the film takes us through a series of mini-conversations between Geethu and herself and a set of total strangers.
Geethu's predicament is a result of issues of every kind, starting with her mother's control over something as inane as what she wears. Her brother wants her to get married soon because only then will he be able to get married. Her female colleague wants Geethu to reject the proposal because she has a thing for the guy. Her ex was so controlling that even her Facebook account was usurped from her. Surrounded by people who seem to have a bigger stake in Geethu's life than Geethu herself, you're invested in the life of a person who gets relegated to a supporting role in her own movie. For Geethu, her fight is simply for the freedom to be left alone to make her own mistakes, and this includes being left alone from our judgments too as viewers, as is suggested by the final shot.
The same deftness continues into Kunjila Mascillamani's Unorganised too, the only satire and my personal favourite. The issues faced by the women here are very different from the upwardly mobile IT professionals in Geethu and the contrast works as a catalyst to drive the point Unorganised is making. Set in Kozhikode's busy market streets, it hits you harder when you naively realise there are still working women in such cities that do not have easy access to clean toilets. Told almost entirely through hilarious conversations among female friends/colleagues, the film never paints them as weak, tragic or incapable of overcoming their own issues. It even opens with a shot of women climbing over a gate to strike open a lock placed by men.
The film's full of lovely moments that become even funnier when it gets the added layer of a mockumentary. An e-toilet become a symbol of bureaucracy and how temporary solutions cannot resolve issues in people's mindsets. With lovely performances from Srindha and a set of actors we need to see more of, Unorganised makes its point so effectively that you get why some tough conversations need to be explained gently and openly, because like the men in the film, we too can be just as clueless and the film knows this.
Francies Louis's Ration, the third short, is perhaps the most well-made. Almost silent with a set of perfectly-composed frames, we get solid tracking shots (like the climax in TGIK) that reflect the entire spectrum of women and how inequality can be seen through the life cycle of Kerala society's most staple food item — the fish curry. More than inequality itself, like similar films before, it's more the "illusion of equality" that makes Ration a special film.
The two housewives from two very different households are friends, confidants who can casually sit across a dining table to discuss issues, but there's a thin line that will never allow them to be honest with each other. The short, which also works as a grounded version of Guy de Maupassant's The Necklace (an old NCERT favourite), is minimal is its approach but this makes the quiet devastation a tad more hard hitting. Using the politics of food to underscore much lager issues, this is also the only film in Freedom Fight that ends with a melancholy because solutions are a distant dream.
Jeo Baby's Old Age Home, starring Rohini, Joju George and Laila, deals with a familiar situation in a setting that reminds one of Jayaraj's Karunam. But the characters couldn't be more different in this affluent household where there's an abject poverty when it comes to the littlest of things. Like Ration, food returns as a motif here too but it's more in line with the theme of freedom. Joju George, who plays a pensioner coming to terms with early stage of dementia, just wants to finally live his life instead of being controlled by his wife and NRI children. As for his wife, she too just wants to finally start a business she seems to be very passionate about. In one scene, she admits to just wanting to do something for herself after a lifetime of taking care of others. But it's Dhanu (Rohini), who brings a layer of friendship to this equation. She too has no one and together with the couple, they form a strangely heartwarming trio who decide to live guilt-free, just for themselves.
Finally, we get to the most intense film made up of striking visuals that get tattooed into our skulls. The theme of manual scavenging is what's being addressed but it's a film that's very difficult to discuss without spoilers. Even here like Unorganised, the idea is never to paint a sorry figure of the central character. In fact the most valuable dimension here is how power structures will never allow certain communities to come up, even if they've fought the fight to personal empowerment. Dialogues too represent this change with different generations reacting differently to powers that be. And in minute gestures and performances, we feel the dignity of labour they've claimed for themselves.
Which is why the anger is so raw and explosive. It is no longer about fatalists who accept what's being thrown at them as a result of birth (like a character says). When their rage is "organised", there's a change in power structure to leave us with a shockingly original film with real power. But when all these five distinct films come together, it covers people from across the spectrum from all kinds of terrains of the State. Yet with varying styles in narrative styles, Freedom Fight turns into a quality anthology resembling five fingers coming together to form a fist. These parts don't compete with each other because they don't have to. It's made up of voices that respect the power of people coming together.