Jeo Baby has directed one segment in Freedom Fight, the latest anthology from Malayalam cinema, but we sense the man’s influence throughout the entire project. He has ‘presented’ it. However, it’s evident after watching all five films in it that it’s not just a mere credit. You can see that the man behind The Great Indian Kitchen has inspired, to a great degree, the five filmmakers he assembled for Freedom Fight. In terms of narrative boldness, each filmmaker has dared to go where they haven’t gone before.
Each film has a different tone and style. It’s an effort from a group of liberated filmmakers working efficiently to deliver something unmarred by restrictions or conventions. They function like school children suddenly told by their teachers that they can use their school playground for any purpose they wish. And it’s only fair when you have ‘freedom’ in your project’s title. And once you see it, you’ll understand why this wouldn’t work as a big-screen release.
The predominant feeling in Freedom Fight—which collectively delves into class, caste, gender, power, marital, and health issues—is frustration, usually on two sides. One group is frustrated at the oppressive conditions they have to live or work in, and the other group is frustrated because now their irresponsibility is being questioned. Freedom Fight made me think many things, but it would be impossible to jot all of them here. I’m sure that new thoughts will pop up when I revisit it or reflect on it at a later stage. Also, I’d rather the reader experience some of its most powerful moments on the screen instead of having to read them on here.
The first film is Geethu Unchained, led by Rajisha Vijayan and Renjit Shekar Nair. The former plays a woman who can’t seem to make up her mind about getting into a relationship because the men around her have a lot of issues. She has just gotten out of a breakup, and now here’s a co-worker (Renjt) approaching her nervously to propose.
When we see Renjit first, he is scared, but the grossly underutilised actor will present different sides of his character in a way that makes you feel that he is playing four or five distinct people at once. On one side, we see Geethu struggling with the stifling atmosphere of her home. There is pressure from her father, mother, and brother for various reasons. On the other, she has to handle the shifting psychologies of the men. What we see here is not something new. However, filmmaker Akhil Anilkumar makes everything seem fresh by employing inventive editing, close-ups, inserts, flashbacks, alternate scenarios, and a delightful twist ending to drive his point home.
The second, The Unorganised, is among my absolute favourites in the anthology. In the film directed by Kunjila Mascillamani, Srinda is a textile shop salesgirl who, along with other working women in the area, struggle with the idea of working in toilet-less shops. The film is admirably unrestrained in openly addressing a woman’s everyday ordeals. It works as a ‘greatest hits’ compilation of many gender-based issues without seeming forced. And I was bowled over by the degree of humour that punctuates the raw conversations without being intrusive. Kunjila has a clear idea of where to add what. I laughed out loud in several instances, most notably the interactions between Srinda’s character and another woman.
Although not just limited to these two women, Kunjila uses their ignorance of certain matters as an opportunity to conduct a mini ‘school’ without sounding preachy. I know for sure that I’ll be revisiting at least this one again and again.
The third, Ration, has Jeo Baby as one of the main characters. Playing a husband bothered by financial limitations, the film works as a poignant tale of a couple who has to deal with a harmless error caused by their child. It’s not really a big deal, but for them, it is. But I imagine we would’ve behaved in the same way in their place. Directed and edited by The Great Indian Kitchen editor Francis Louis, Ration presents a dilemma that would’ve been easier to resolve if one party expressed things more directly. Instead, they complicate things further by taking a long, anxiety-inducing hairpin bend that, in their eyes, ‘fixed’ everything but eventually made things needlessly worse in ours. That final shot is bound to make one ask, “Man, what a waste! If only they did that...”
The fourth, Old Age Home, directed by Jeo Baby, gives us another example of the magnificent acting prowess of Joju George. The actor is scaling newer heights with each film. His incredibly moving performance as a middle-aged man grappling with the early signs of dementia is enough for me to say that Joju has entered the league of actors like Mammootty and Mohanlal.
There should be someone like this in most Indian households. They take advantage of their patriarchal position in the prime of their youth, but once they enter old age, they seek the sympathy of everyone around them by constantly bringing their frail state to their notice. As the house help with whom the man establishes a special bond, Rohini is, as usual, stellar. And Jeo Baby’s style in this film is diametrically opposite of what he did in The Great Indian Kitchen. It’s like an MT Vasudevan Nair film made by Jeo.
The fifth and final film titled Pra. Thoo. Mu (the expanded form, once revealed in the final credits, is guaranteed to leave you at least with a chuckle) is the angriest one of the lot. Rendered in black-and-white, it reminded me of filmmaker Martin Scorsese’s decision to shoot Raging Bull in grayscale to tone down the impact of the blood in the boxing scenes.
Perhaps filmmaker Jithin Issac Thomas opted for the same format for a different reason. The bodily secretion is of a different colour and consistency. An episode of septic tank workers rebelling against a despot followed by blood-boiling acts of retribution, its intensity is cranked up by zooms and freeze frames, complemented by the fearless performances of Unni Lal and Sidhartha Siva.
Film: Freedom Fight
Directors: Akhil Anilkumar, Kunjila Mascillamani, Jeo Baby, Francis Louis, Jithin Issac Thomas
Cast: Rajisha Vijayan, Renjit Sekhar Nair, Joju George, Rohini, Jeo Baby, Kabani, Unni Lal
Streaming on: SonyLIV