“Are we going backward or forward?”
By the time this dialogue appeared in the film Unfreedom, it was hard to be sure whether the characters were talking to each other or the audience.
The premise of the film is a fascinating one — it follows the oddly parallel lives of Hussain (Bhanu Uday, Monsoon) and Leela (Preeti Gupta). Hussain has recently arrived in New York and joined an underground Islamic extremist group that is planning an elaborate kidnapping of a well respected Muslim leader, Fareed (Victor Banerjee; A Passage to India, Meherjaan). Leela, on the other hand, runs away from home a week before her wedding to track down her long-lost love, Sakhi (Bhavani Lee), imploring her to commit to their relationship.
Leela’s life is further complicated by her choice to come out to her dad — a police officer, who uses all his resources to search for Leela — as gay, in an emotional video she leaves behind on a flash drive. What unfolds are stories of two characters who, though in completely difference circumstances, are leading lives on the fringe, in pursuit of their own versions of freedom.
This, however, is the extent of the narrative’s depth. What follows a gripping opening set-up of Hussain and Leela’s lives is an erratic mix of flashbacks, violence, sex scenes, and flat dialogues. Unfreedom has good intentions laid in both the stories, with gripping action sequences that, at times, seem more valuable than the interactions between the characters.
Leela’s distressed and emotional state, as she proposes to Sakhi in front of Sakhi’s boyfriend, takes a sudden and unbelievable violent turn which comes across as an overdone and phony. Hussain’s storyline is even less clear — fraught with flashbacks that attempt to show his descent into extremism, all that comes across is a child witnessing some kind of violence in his home; his family ties, or how he eventually got to a level high enough to execute a complex terrorist plot, get lost in both his stoic personality and lack of plot depth.
Directed by Raj Amit Kumar, Unfreedom sprung into the news after recently being banned in India for its homosexual themes. It tries, in its own way, to tackle important issues that deserve screen time in major productions: the coming out of, and cultural biases against, sexual minorities in India; forced arranged marriages; and fighting Muslim stereotypes in America against the shadows of radical Islamic terrorists movements.
What fails, then, is its delivery — weak dialogue, poor acting, and overdramatic soliloquies that bring what should be subtle social commentary right into the audience’s face. Just when Unfreedom begins to scratch the surface of the issues it obviously cares so much about, it tries too hard — and ends up doing more telling and less showing.
It’s disappointing that a movie with such noble expectations, strong plot-points, an array of talented actors, and crisp, awe-inspiring cinematography ends up falling flat. It would be remiss to write off the entire movie, however. There are several key characters, moments, and actors that stand out. Fareed, played by veteran actor Victor Banerjee, has several wonderful dialogues around the fight for tolerance, visibility, and peace as a Muslim in America. His presence on screen is natural and exuberant, and there is a sense that perhaps supported by a better script and direction, the film could have benefited more from his presence.
Also of note is Gupta’s portrayal of Leela. Her expressiveness and authenticity in portraying Leela’s anguish and hopelessness give a lens into what it might be like for a lesbian woman to finally stand up to society, her family, and her love in the pursuit of happiness and stability. There are other moments throughout the film as well — when it doesn’t get caught up in brandishing guns to prove a point or its awkward and unnecessarily long sex scenes — that portray darkness, conflict, passion, love, and hope.
Perhaps by trying to cater to an audience that has never been exposed to the issues of sexuality and Islamic extremism in these ways before, Unfreedom crosses from social commentary into unrealistic melodrama. Though its ban ensures some of these audiences may never see the film, at least for now, what remains is a leap of faith that these issues are slowly inching closer and closer to the mainstream.
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Born and raised in California, Priya Arora has found a home in New York where she is currently pursuing a master’s degree in counseling psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University. Follow her on Twitter at @thepriyaarora.