Cast: Usha Jadhav, Sachin Khedekar, Girish Kulkarni, Rajeshwari Sachdev
Director: Aruna Raje
Rating: 3.5 Stars (Out Of 5)
Hard-hitting is cliched. It's an adjective used routinely to describe feminist films. But the word, no matter how much intent and force it denotes, does not even begin to describe the remarkably mellow spirit of Firebrand, written and directed by Aruna Raje, back after a long hiatus. Power and persuasion, both exerted in an understated manner, are organically ingrained in this story of a troubled lawyer fighting to wrest control of her life - and her body.
Firebrand derives much of its strength from a measured pivotal performance by National Award-winning actress Usha Jadhav. She does not miss a single beat in articulating the protagonist's inner turmoil. The character she plays is a tough divorce lawyer Sunanda Raut who never fails to ensure justice for her clients - physically abused, ill-treated or abandoned wives. But her enviable professional track record is unable to rid her of the scars of a traumatic sexual assault that she faced as a schoolgirl. The demons of her mind cast a shadow on her marriage.
Firebrand marks Netflix's entry into the Marathi-language space and is the first web production by Priyanka Chopra's Purple Pebbles Pictures. It's a good start by all reckoning. The restraint that the seasoned writer-director brings to bear upon the narrative makes Firebrand a mature, telling examination of the psychological/emotional repercussions of rape and the complexities inherent in the process of healing.
Notwithstanding a few passages that border on the theatrical and a couple of other crucial sequences that aren't instantly convincing, Firebrand, which has a smattering of English and Hindi on the soundtrack, is a deftly modulated, deeply affecting tale that defies expectations, especially in its final twist, which turns everything that you expect from a feminist drama on its head.
The radical denouement - it hinges on the heroine shrugging off her inhibitions after a liberating sexual encounter teaches her the virtues of letting go and moving on - is delivered so matter-of-factly and unapologetically that it not only catches you completely unawares but also helps the film to sign off on a positive, uplifting note.
Bolstered by a slew of terrific performances and even-handed writing, Firebrand begins conventionally enough but then goes on to shun the bromides of the genre to present a refreshingly clear-headed take on an old theme. Here feminism is neither a mere fad nor a pretext for a conventional diatribe against patriarchy and predatory masculinity. It serves as an essential underpinning of one woman's struggle to assert herself in the face of a problem that only she can solve. Her husband does stand by her, but the battle is hers alone.
Firebrand is as much about awareness as it is about affirmation. The film evolves into a pointed study of two emotionally disturbed women - yes, it has another important female character who is temperamentally the exact opposite of the protagonist, high-strung, obdurate, manic depressive - dealing with intractable personal issues.
This second character is essayed by Rajeshwari Sachdev, who provides the perfect foil to Jadhav. She packs controlled volatility into her interpretation of the role of a former model engaged in a bitter divorce and child custody battle with her adman-husband (Sachin Khedekar), who she suspects of being a womaniser.
Firebrand deals with women subjected to grievous wrongs. But interestingly, the principal male figures in the story, the two husbands, are blameless. Both men do their very best not to aggravate matters for their wives. In fact, one of them goes out of his way to let the woman in his life call all the shots, retreating to the background when push comes to shove. The other man of course is forced into a corner by a temperamental woman bent upon making him pay for perceived injustices.
At the outset of Firebrand, we see the workaholic Sunanda making fiery submissions in a judge's chamber in a Mumbai family court with the intention of putting a stream of errant men in their place and securing alimonies and divorces whose terms are indisputably in favour of her harried clients.
But at home, Sunanda struggles to shrug off her identity as a victim - an excruciatingly painful exercise that requires psychiatric intervention - but the script makes it a point to underline that this woman, who is in her own words a "dark-skinned Dalit girl" with a harrowing experience that she cannot get out of her head, is anything but a sympathy seeker. She demands no quarters and hunkers down to the task of finding a way out of the mental trough on her own.
Sexual intimacy triggers nightmares that come in the way of Sunanda's relationship with her architect-husband Madhav Patkar (Girish Kulkarni), who, on his part, gives her all the space and help that she needs to sort herself out. Even as her unsettling memories make her incapable of experiencing fulfilment, she seeks a state in which she can have sex with "no pain, no suffering, no trauma" and, this goes without saying, no guilt. How she surmounts the obstacles in the way forms the crux of the narrative.
Usha Jadhav and Rajeshwari Sachdev are both outstanding. The former conveys to perfection the anguish and confusion of a woman grappling with divergent impulses; the latter is dazzlingly mercurial in a difficult role dipped in negativity. It is a figure that evokes a mix of revulsion and sadness and all that Sachdev needs to move from one to the other are ever-so-subtle tonal shifts.
Firebrand would have lost some of its heft without the impressively sedate turns by Girish Kulkarni and Sachin Khedekar. Working within limited bandwidths, the two consummate actors underplay their parts and bring a sense of unwavering conviction to the table, enhancing the film's gravitas significantly.
Firebrand streams on Netflix from February 22. Don't miss it. It isn't just another feminist film.
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