There is a scene in the Marathi film Firebrand where the protagonist, a survivor of rape, revisits her horrific past. The graphic scene is not shown in flashes, rather is revisited in detail. Accompanying the scene is a deafening background score, meant to accentuate the monstrosity perhaps. But the sound, akin to a group of dogs breathing really hard, robs the sequence of the intended solemnity and makes it seem like an ill-timed joke. This sharp divorce of what was intended to take place and what actually unfolds on-screen remains Firebrand’s biggest problem. In fact, such misfire(s) define the film.
Directed by Aruna Raje and produced by Priyanka Chopra, Firebrand does not hide what it sets out to be. In a day and age when feminism as a movement and feminist as an adjective are treated as much-abused terms, the film closely deals with issues women suffer from – child marriage, rape, abuse and, as if in a bid to offer some solution, has a lawyer for a protagonist. Sunanda (Usha Jadhav) is a self-confessed workaholic. She fights for women against their drunken, abusive husbands and helps them get alimony and retain their houses and children. A survivor of rape herself, Sunanda finds it difficult getting over the incident, and the film never shies away from presenting her with her trauma.
But for the most part, Raje’s film remains clueless as to what to do with her character. She is torn between being a victim, a survivor, a saviour and somebody, who though seemingly righteous, will willingly compromise on her morals to win a case. These are interesting paradoxes, those that could have added much nuance and complexity to her role but these identities remain disjointed, re-surfacing at the convenience of the film. Her character operates in binaries as she shifts between these roles as an ‘either’ or’ and not ‘both’ ‘and’, in turn, failing to be any.
Much of the film is about Sunanda, and it is surprising how shoddily written a role it is. There are times she appears too dignified to be in a movie like this, but these are too few and far between. Jadhav as Sunanda does what she can, and that is not much. She is convincing as the empathetic lawyer, even as the survivor who remains averse to touch. But then the film goes on and makes her strangle a soft toy as if it were her culprit. It would be comical if it was not this ludicrous.
The good thing remains that she is not the only one at the receiving end of such embarrassment. The tonality of the film might be inconsistent, but it manages to present its characters, played by actors like Sachin Khedekar, Rajeshwari Sachdev and Girish Kulkarni, with cringe-worthy moments, uniformly so. Kulkarni, who plays Sunanda’s husband, moves about as if waiting for a cue. He is a feminist, and it is refreshing for a man to say and believe in words like, “Love and sex are different”. But the same man justifies his roving eyes, as teased by the wife, by saying things like women are beautiful objects and must be admired. Okay then.
But, in all honesty, Raje’s film reserves its most awkward moments for Khedekar. He plays the role of a man going through a divorce and in the heat of an argument with his wife (Sachdev) is told things like, “If I knew you had such genes like this, I would have never married you.”
The problem with Firebrand is not that it is trying to make a statement, but that it is trying so hard to make it that the labour shows. Filled with overarching narratives, the film almost feels bogged down while trying to tick all the boxes and the effort, in turn, comes across as gimmicky. It is a film that will perhaps remain with you for all the things that it could have been. There is no blaze in Firebrand. There is nothing even as close to a shimmer. Let this burn feebly and put itself out.