Freedom Fight (Malayalam, Anthology Of 5 Stories, SonyLIV)

Directed by Jeo Baby, Jithin Issac Thomas, Akhil Anilkumar, Francies Louis, Kunjila Mascillamani

Rating: ** ½

The masterly Jeo Baby who gave us the great The Great Indian Kitchen last year is billed as the “presenter” of this 5-storeyed anthology. Baby even directs one of the stories , and that without doubt, is the central attraction of this enormously craggy though nonetheless remarkable omnibus with stories about an individual’s personal space and the freedom that the space strives desperately to wangle in the midst of insurmountable societal pressures and prejudices.

Jeo Baby’s story Old Age Home shines brightly. It’s set in an idyllic verdancy in a luxurious bungalow where the patriarch(Jijo George) who has just retired is detected with the beginnings of dementia. A househelp(Rohini), evicted from her home by her son, is brought in by the sensible practical wife(Lali PM). The dynamics among the three characters are encunciated with a clarity and complete lack of guile.There are no evil characters in Jeo Baby’s story. The conflict that arises within the domestic setting is not about power but powerlessness and how the best of intentions could be squandered in practical necessity. The direction is here phantom-brilliant. Jeo Baby leaves the characters to their own devices. The fact that the three actors, specially the redoubtable Jijo George, know exactly what to do, makes it all look easy and graceful

The quality of grace is tragically missing in the other storie, except perhaps the story Ration directed by Francies Louis where class differences bubble to the surface in a quaint coastal Kerala town between two neighbouring families. Food plays a pivotal part in the equation between the two families and when the well-off blogger(Mini IG)’s rare frozen fish disappears from the economically modest neighbour(Kabani)’s refrigerator I was reminded of Maupassant’s shortstory The Necklace where the non-affluent woman looses her aristocratic friend’s necklace, goes from pillar to post to replace it, only to discover it was fake. Some such searching anxieties guide the course of the story which features the director Jeo Baby as the husband of the non-affluent woman.

The gentle touch is ripped out of what could have been the third illuminating story on the dyanamics of personal freedom Asanghadithar directed by Kunjila Mascillamani where women working in small dress stores in a huddle of airless shops, decide to protest to get a toilet built. The lack of private space to answer the call of Nature is an acute problem for women who cannot just go to a wall and relieve themselves. The story is brave enough to take on a taboo subject. But the treatment is turgid and humourless with the women discussing bodily fluids over cups of tea .After a while it not only gets tedious but also embarrassing when the men are used as boorish props in a set-up that is blatantly gender-biased.

Bodily functions acquire a new level of acceptance in Pra.Thoo.Mu. Directed by Jithin Issac Thomas this story of a thrashed and humiliated sewer cleaner is filled with a raging indignation ; the theme of tyrannical injustice gets drowned in a flow of excreta. Shit happens, literally in this brutal story which luckily for us, is in black-and-white. Bodily wastes in colour may have been a bit too much of realism to take.The volume of physical abuse and emotional violence in this story are irrationally exacerbated. Director Isaac may argue that there is no room for squeamishness in a society constructed on laws of inequality. Fair enough. But I still don’t want to watch the privileged bully politician (Siddharth Siva) literally defecating into the sewer clear(Unni Lalu)’s face. Hats off though , to the actors for being part of one of the nastiest depictions of social injustice ever put on screen.

While each of the four above stories possess redemptive curves Geethu Unchained directed by Akhil Anilkumar is an outright failure. Neither fish nor fowl, neither funny not tragic, just exasperating, this is the story of an office-going middleclass girl(Rajisha Vijayan) who must make up her mind about marrying a man who proposes to her. This one is so low in quality I wonder how it got here in this anthology!

Or maybe the overweening mediocrity of Geethu Unchained is supposed to remind us that even stories of shit cleaners can be more estimable than stories that are plainly shitty.