Unfreedom (Dark Frames, NR)

Unfreedom 75Most Americans won’t find much shocking in this film.





Unfreedom 500

We’re used to thinking of the American film industry as the world’s leader, but in fact more films are produced annually in India. Granted, many of those films never reach American shores, but more and more are making their way into mainstream American film culture, with screenings in art houses and multiplexes. Unfreedom, co-written and directed by Raj Amit Kumar, aspires to that kind of success, and while it is not entirely a successful film, it’s certainly interesting enough to be worth seeing. Of particular interest is the way Kumar straddles two worlds, using a largely Indian cast in a film whose action takes place in both India and the United States.

Unfreedom juxtaposes two story lines, both of which touch on freedom and the lack thereof (hence the title). One takes place in New Delhi and concerns Leela (Preeti Gupta), a young Indian woman who doesn’t want to get married, and Sakhi (Bhavani Lee), the bisexual American artist she really loves. Sakhi paints nudes and won’t commit to Leela, because she also like men, while Leela’s father is an old-school, authoritarian guy who can see only one acceptable future for his daughter: conventional marriage to a man. Leela, however, is driven by desperation to kidnap Sakhi in a bit of hyperbole that is grating because its unreality contracts the expectations set up by a film whose technical aspects largely adhere to Hollywood conventions.

The other story takes place in New York City and its environs, with the shift in location set up with a series of shots ticking off landmarks like LaGuardia airport and Times Square. This story is also about a kidnapping, in this case of a liberal Muslim scholar, Fareed (Victor Baerjee) by the extremist Mohammad (Bhanu Uday), who wants Fareed to make a video denouncing his life and beliefs. Unfortunately, the psychology of both characters is left largely unexplored, with the exception of some flashbacks, while the levels of violence displayed make this part of the story feel almost like torture porn.

For the most part, Kumar (a native of India who studied at CUNY and SIUC) and his crew have a good grasp of the conventions of Hollywood storytelling (maybe they should be called “international conventions” since they have been adopted so widely, even if they were first developed in Hollywood). The cinematography by Hari Nair is particularly good, creating many striking and memorable images. Where the film falls down a bit is in basic storytelling, as it is easy to get lost in the cuts between India and New York, and even more so in the many jumps back and forward in time. The problem is one of both script and editing, and it is unfortunately because the key to this film is understanding the parallels between the two present-day stories, and between the present and past of the characters.

Much has been made in the publicity for Unfreedom about it being banned by India’s Censor Board of Film Certification, a decision that the filmmaker is appealing. I’m not sure exactly which aspects of the film are considered particularly objectionable in India, but I suspect it is some combination of female nudity, lesbianism, and the political ideas expressed by some of the characters. However, most Americans won’t find much shocking in this film, beyond some rather graphic violence in the political story line. | Sarah Boslaugh

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