“Unfreedom” is a disappointing look at Indian lesbians

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I was intrigued to review Unfreedom. Queer women confronting homophobia! Interrogation of violent jihadism! SIGN ME UP. But I must admit, the trailer gave me pause—would this movie form a coherent whole?—and I now know that instinct was right. To crib a phrase from a friend: this movie is not good. It is, in fact, bad.

Unfreedom is bad on a number of levels. It tries so hard to be arty that it is shot incoherently. It presents two unconnected stories in such a way that we are meant to find resonances between them, only to somehow a) create a Crazy Lesbian trope character and b) equate her to a terrorist. It clearly wants to be exposing the horrors of male violence—for religious or patriarchal reasons—but ends up participating in them. It wants to paint pacifists as heroes (I think) but winds up suggesting that they are fools. Continuity errors abound. Whole characters and subplots are manifestly unnecessary. Its only virtues, really, are that each shot at least looks kind of or occasionally very good (though sometimes this is taken too far—it’s shot in the glowing tones of a music video, which is frequently inappropriate), and that a few of the actors are doing their damnedest to elevate their material.

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I want to be very clear before I go on: this is a movie that features violence, sexual violence, the word “slut” in amazingly stupid deployment, fetishization of queer women’s sexuality, and the clear belief that the more times you fit the word “fuck” into a scene, the edgier everything will be. You have been warned.

The two storylines are these: Husain’s, about jihadism, mostly taking place in New York; and Leela’s, in New Delhi, about being a queer woman under the crushing weight of patriarchy and male violence. I will spare you the film’s convoluted timeline and simply inform you that Husain’s father was a Muslim scholar and a pacifist who sought to protect non-Muslims in Pakistan, and was brutally murdered for it (while Husain was traumatized and his mother raped). His father refused to use violence against his attackers, and the best sense I can make out of Husain’s story—since everything between point A and point B is elided—is that he can’t forgive his father for this failure to protect, and so turns to the very same violence of the murderers in a kind of traumatized, vengeful reenactment. Leela, meanwhile, finally declares herself gay and runs away from her father to avoid arranged marriage and be with the woman she loves.

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These storylines take an excruciatingly long time to really get started, and in the interim feature many exploitative shots (lots of naked women, a comparatively reasonable shot of Husain in the shower, Leela shoving a gun in her mouth in a weirdly porny contemplation of suicide, etc.). It takes so long simply to learn each character’s name after they’re introduced that I noted them down with deep relief.

Once the stories do get underway, though, it becomes clear that the director wants to tell us a great many things, very directly, and will not let clarity or consistency stand in his way. We are treated to shot after shot in which the actors confront the camera directly; you can almost feel director Raj Amit Kumar wanting to grab you by the shoulders. True to form, however, these shots are rarely the ones in which his mission statements are uttered; when those do come, they are usually muddled.

Leela locates her ex, Sakhi, giving perhaps the most painfully paint-by-numbers “come out, come out, wherever you are” speech I have ever seen. (The words “stay out of our bedrooms” are uttered.) It feels like a straight person’s notion of inspiration. I am still not sure whether Sakhi’s being an American, speaking to what looks like a mix of hipster Indians and white expats, is meant to be commentary; if so, the implications are extensive, but they also undermine a great deal of the rest of the film’s message. But it’s hard to know, despite Kumar’s obvious desire to communicate, what to make of a lot of what occurs in Unfreedom: at one point in their following encounter, Leela calls Sakhi a slut, then asks her to marry her. Sakhi rejects her for her current boyfriend, in a (perhaps unintentional) perfect embodiment of the bi betrayal stereotype, only to later return to Leela for no clear reason.

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Husain, meanwhile, gets a lecture from another member of his cell—Najib, who apparently no longer believes in the jihadi cause but continues to work to support its efforts—about how the real struggle has nothing to do with God. It is between good and evil, the powerless and the powerful, and against Wall Street. (This last sounds like the beginning of an actual critique of American neo-imperialism at first, but is never really followed through on; it’s just empty posturing on the movie’s part.) “How the fuck did Allah get dragged into this?” Najib asks, ignoring that Islam is perhaps primarily concerned with justice, with good and evil, enjoining the right and forbidding the wrong. This is one of the many monologues that seems to embody what the movie wants to say to us, but it represents a profound misunderstanding of how Islam works as a worldview: of course God matters to the struggle Najib describes, not despite but because it is “a war between people.” The problem is not actually God, in Islam or most any other religion; it is what some believers choose to do in the name of God. Weirdly, the film seems to understand this in other moments.

The storylines’ incoherence is only compounded by the way they are forced together. After Sakhi rejects Leela in favor of her current boyfriend, Leela approaches the car where the two are having sex, armed with a gun. This approach is intercut with Husain’s approach to his target’s house, suggesting that Leela’s insistence on possessing Sakhi is equivalent to Husain’s insistence on defining Islam (through eliminating the scholar he’s targeting, Fareed) and, by transference, controlling or even punishing his dead father. While the intent was surely to show that both characters are backed into corners by the violence they have experienced and their lack of options, the effect is to suggest that Leela is some kind of lesbian terrorist. Worse, after Leela ACTUALLY SHOOTS Sakhi’s boyfriend, Sakhi sees him to the hospital and returns to Leela for a romantic reunion. (I suppose the Lesbian Terrorists have won, then.)

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If you think this all sounds absolutely bonkers, trust me: I have only scratched the surface. The speech Fareed gives at his rally before Husain gets to him—clearly intended as another mission statement—is just as incoherent as anything I have already described. What unfolds in Husain’s attack on Fareed, and its mirroring with what happened to Husain’s family when he was a child, ultimately suggests that these “true Muslims,” these pacifist, learned men, are not noble but rather weaklings who refuse to defend their families; they would rather die and let their sons take on the burden of violence than make a difficult choice to perhaps betray their abstracted ideals. Similarly, Leela and Sakhi’s reunion is bizarre, emotionally and dramatically. The closest it comes to valid storytelling is a legitimately beautiful and slightly surreal sequence on a beach where they dig up various implements and build themselves a diaphanous home “without walls”; it’s also the only instance where the camera’s overactivity works well, as double exposures beautifully communicate the passage of time and all that the two women do to make their home in this isolated place.

But this scene is punctuated by horribly pretentious dialogue from Sakhi about the art she intends to make of their union, and by deeply exploitative filming of what should have been their symbolic wedding night. When Sakhi turns on the camera, Leela asks, “Are we making porn?” Though Sakhi responds, “I am the subject of my art,” it becomes evident that, yes, they are making porn. They are even filming it a lot like a hetero sex scene, unless we are looking at both sets of their (very excellent) breasts at once. Most of the compositions of their bodies look as though the director spent hours putting them into the most aesthetically pleasing positions that he still thought were the hottest.

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At the end of the day, it isn’t worth the suffering and time you have to put in to arrive at the conclusion that homophobia is terrible and violence is destructive, so keep marching on for freedom. When I say “suffering and time” I don’t just mean the movie’s hour and 43 minutes or the terrible things depicted. I mean the way watching it seems to take an eternity. I refer also to its confusing timeline, its overactive shooting style (which means you never know quite where people are geographically or in relation to each other, or how time is passing), its wooden dialogue and contradictory ideological statements. I mean its gestures at important questions like neoimperialism, the motivators for violent jihadism, and patriarchal possessiveness without ever taking them seriously enough to say anything about them. I mean the gore and violence against women and the continuity errors within that violence. I mean the fact that some of these actors are not, I’m afraid, very good, and while a couple of them might be (Preeti Gupta as Leela and Bhanu Uday as Husain, primarily), they have little to work with.

All of this would be bad enough, but in my opinion the ending is truly unforgivable. Unfreedom wants to have its cake and eat it too: It wants to give us stories that end in utter despair—nothing improves for anyone, no cycles are escaped, and we get to watch it all happen in depressing detail—and then give us a monologue about the need to keep fighting for the freedom that does not yet exist. This is not a film that rouses the viewer to action, though I fear its makers think it is. It roused me only to exasperation.

 

Unfreedom is now playing in select theaters nationwide. Visit the film’s Facebook page to find out where it’s playing near you.

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