Director: Aruna Raje
Cast: Usha Jadhav, Rajeshwari Sachdev, Girish Kulkarni, Sachin Khedekar
Despite some compelling productions like Sacred Games and Roma, Netflix seems to be slipping in recent months. The sense of competitive urgency can be an overriding reason that is best avoided. The streaming giant's latest work, Firebrand, produced by Priyanka Chopra's Purple Pebble Pictures and helmed in Marathi by Aruna Raje, does not have the kind of quality I first saw coming out of the Netflix stables. For instance, its first production in 2016, The Birth of a Nation, was nothing short of brilliant.
In Firebrand, Raje tries to analyse the effects of rape in a teenage girl, who gets waylaid and abused by a drunk. Mercifully, the incident itself is shown only in the passing, and what the film concentrates on is how the rape affects her life – more specifically her marriage and even her profession.
Sunanda (played by Usha Jadhav) is a divorce lawyer married to an architect, Madhav Patkar (Girish Kulkarni). If their relationship in bed is fraught with unease – with Sunanda never enjoying sex and, what is more, finding it painfully distasteful, her life in court is often coloured by her aversion to men and to the very justice of the legal process. It took an inordinately long time for the rapist to be sentenced, and Sunanda's arguments in legal cases are blatantly anti-men.
We see this most clearly when she defends a wife (Rajeshwari Sachdev) against her husband (Sachin Khedekar) in a custody battle involving a young, neurologically challenged girl. Despite being aware that the wife is enormously rich and her demands are absolutely unfair, Sunanda's sympathies lie with the woman.
Firebrand has several layers, and Raje does peel them one after the other, and although there may not be any great element of surprise in this, the movie allows us to peek into a marriage – like Sunanda's – that appears harmonious on the surface, but has demons underneath that are difficult to exorcise.
However, the film's attempt to offer a solution to Sunanda's dilemma seems far too simplistic. If the sessions with the psychiatrist have been treated amateurishly, the lawyer's final act of separating love and sex (what has one got to do with the other!) goes beyond the realm of artistic licence – particularly when both the husband and the wife come from a small-town culture with its social rigidity and prejudices. Added to this are the monotonous court hearings and insipid performances. Jadhav and Kulkarni fail to push the narrative in a way that a viewer would feel a sense of pain and intense anger at the fate which befalls Sunanda. Firebrand, thus, manages to merely touch the edges of a malaise as horrific as rape.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is an author, commentator and movie critic)
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