Netflix’s ‘Firebrand’: Weighty Themes Lost in Poor Execution
This Aruna Raje directorial marking the first digital venture of Priyanka and Madhu Chopra’s production house Purple Pebble Pictures sketches a female character, less examined in Marathi cinema. Usha Jadhav plays Sunanda Raut, a Dalit civil lawyer who relentlessly represents women in divorce and maintenance cases. But her streak of success and self-assurance in the family court belies her trauma of being raped as a teenager. Haunted by her past demons, she finds physical intimacy in her otherwise fulfilling marriage, difficult.
The themes of female sexuality, self-discovery, sublimated rage, catharsis, the victim narrative and middle-class morality that it attempts to tackle fall short of translating on screen with finesse.
The depiction of the ghostly mirages and half-repressed recollections of the distressing incident – the sexual violence - exude the cringeworthy aesthetic of the 70s-80s cinema. The flaw here is not the gaze but the technical flair. Barring the actors in pivotal roles – Usha Jadhav, Sachin Khedekar, Girish Kulkarni and Rajeshwari Sachdeva, the supporting cast has put up shoddy and exaggerated performances. What seems like the poorly dubbed voice of the autistic child, thrown into the mix, makes matters worse. The uneven emotional narrative is not effective in conjuring Sunanda’s wounded profile.
When she takes on the case of disturbed and self-injuring Divya portrayed by Rajeshwari Sachdev who is seeking divorce to ‘destroy’ her rich husband Anand, (played by Sachin Khedekar) for his perceived infidelity, Sunanda questions her own principles and confronts the fact that she is overcompensating with her aggressive crusade for justice. The trajectory of the two marriages could have served as a minefield of insights on modern relationships but ends up coming across as designed. Rajeshwari’s performance oscillates between play-acting and over-the-top. Girish Kulkarni, Sachin Khedekar and Usha Jadhav do justice to their roles with some restraint in their performances even as they struggle to find the beating pulses of their parts.
Firebrand doesn’t come withoutits sparks. The most intriguing part of the film is Madhav – Sunanda’s patientand supportive husband. Some of the most tender moments of the film stem fromthe relationship that the couple shares. The exploration of the dynamic of a bonddevoid of toxic masculinity makes for a refreshing representation. It alsomakes a case for how friendship fosters a modern marriage.
Relevant Themes But Inelegant Treatment
For a film that weaves legal drama into the chronicle, the courtroom scenes are amateurish and loud, replete with overbearing and didactic background music. Think lines to the tune of ‘Courtroom mein mardon ka shikaar karna accha lagta hai na’ in the bilingual tale with a generous splattering of Hindi. Firebrand could touch a nerve if it had traded this garish treatment and incoherent emotional notes for an understated tenor.
Despite managing to get many things right about therapy, this high-pitched fervour also seeps into the counselling scenes. A scene meant to evoke pathos - Sunanda breaking down in her therapist’s chamber with a soft toy as a stand-in for her rapist – only summons up a stagey awkwardness. As the therapist explains the psychological concept of erasure of anguishing emotions accompanying traumatic occurrences, the film becomes verbose with expository dialogue. A scene where serious charges of domestic abuse are explained away with a dash of misplaced humour is particularly clumsy.
Firebrand somewhat comes into its own in the last act as it attempts a twisted and provocative end but seems too convenient to be completely convincing.