Cast: Usha Jadhav, Girish Kulkarni, Sachin Khedekar and Rajeshwari Sachdev
Director: Aruna Raje
*some spoilers ahead*
In her latest film Firebrand (a Netflix feature produced by Priyanka Chopra), National Award-winning filmmaker Aruna Raje explores a complex female character — a feisty lawyer who has risen above childhood trauma and crushing deprivation to become a successful divorce attorney, one who apparently revels in beating her male opponents in court. This, of course, is her professional front; her superhero costume, if you will.
On the personal front, despite all her spunk and strength, she is unable to truly move past the source of her trauma — she was raped by a drunk stranger when she was in school. The gruesome incident weighs so heavily on her that, decades later, even intercourse with her husband is a triggering experience.
This dichotomy between her exterior and interior is at the core of Firebrand. It is a theme worth exploring, simply because a sexual assault survivor's external demeanour is often questioned. Society expects a survivor to look and behave a certain way, without realising that the true impact of trauma is often buried beneath the layers of one's personality. However, despite a strong choice of subject, Firebrand fails to treat it with any real nuance or depth.
The main problem, of course, is the writing. On the one hand, Raje decides to spell out the characters, their motivations and their thoughts quite literally, while on the other, the conflict and resolution are treated without delving too deep. More often than not, things are said through dialogue and not through the power of the cinematic medium.
Right at the start, we are introduced to the protagonist Sunanda, with one of her lawyer colleagues *talking* about her legal prowess, rather than us actually watching her demolishing an opponent with her arguments in court. She does win cases, often pipping her male counterparts, but the title Firebrand itself is a bit of a misnomer, because you never really see her unleash any sort of fiery beast from within throughout the film. She is a good lawyer, but never justifiably 'firebrand’.
The lack of depth is something that extends to the technical aspects of the film as well. The craft on display; the dialogues and performances; the production design; and even the flow of the plot; much of how the film is made makes it seem more like a teleplay than cinema. Things are made worse by rather patchy editing. An abrupt cut is not a crime, but when you cut mid-conversation frequently, particularly after a serious line of dialogue or revelation, your narrative is bound to be uneven and off-putting.
Despite so much going against it, the film may hold your interest primarily because of the characters. Make no mistake, the performances are sometimes theatrical and mostly functional. But the characters — the protagonist Sunanda (Usha Jadhav), her husband (Girish Kulkarni) and the couple (Sachin Khedekar and Rajeshwari Sachdev), whose divorce case becomes a part of Sunanda's journey — are all worth investing in.
The husband's character is the kind of man we do not see too often, real or reel. The trauma is Sunanda's to bear, but her husband is an important stakeholder in it, particularly if the marriage is affected by it. Had the writing been more intricate, Kulkarni is the kind of actor who would have churned out a stunner of a performance. Here, he does the role justice, but no more.
Jadhav's Sunanda is a protagonist worth rooting for, because of the building blocks that come together to create the character. She was dismissed because she is a Dalit, she was shamed for being dark-skinned, and then her life was thrown out of gear because a man decided to use his brute power to rape her. She takes all of this and channels it into her ambition, and finds success. The trauma does not really leave her, often crippling her when she is in a safe space.
The journey towards reconciling these two aspects of her life makes for a great setup on paper, packed with explosive potential. What a pity we never see it ignite.
Rating: 2.5 stars