15 August review: This Netflix film is a timely, eccentric exploration of the meaning of ‘freedom’

Pradeep Menon

Mar 28, 2019 16:09:35 IST

3.5/5

As far back as I can remember, the 15th of August always had a different *smell* to it. Perhaps it’s just because fewer vehicles are out on the road; or perhaps it is something we put in the air, inadvertently, culturally; either way, Independence Day has always been a bit of a deal for us. It’s what’s supposed to remind us, in case we forget, that we are ostensibly free. But what does freedom really mean? The complexity of that question is dealt with in a quirky, well-intentioned manner in the Netflix film 15 August, which is produced by Madhuri Dixit Nene and Dr Shriram Nene.

Marathi films that celebrate the madcap communal love in a typical Mumbai chawl aren’t uncommon, yet they’re always a good go-to for character-driven plots, because of the sheer scope available to create diverse personalities and tell stories that are at once, unique as well as commonplace. Mumbai’s lack of space has gained national infamy, and the chawl is the ultimate epitome of that most ‘Mumbai’ of socio-cultural concepts. There’s no such thing as over-familiarity when you’re living in such a tightly constrained environment, and each chawl has, over time, developed its own distinct set of characters and characteristics (Recco: Double Seat, directed by Sameer Vidwans, is another charming film with a similar setting).

Despite a backdrop that isn’t altogether unfamiliar, 15 August is still a fresh little gem of a film, because of the way its narrative is set up and how it plays out. Part-love story, part-exploration of whether the common Indian is truly free, the film is breezy and humourous (bordering on good-natured absurdity), and it throws up some moments that will make you stop and think about so many things that we take for granted.

The film hits the ground running: It’s Independence Day, and the residents of Gandhi Chawl are gearing up for their annual flag hoisting ceremony. The opening sequence rapidly moves between a bunch of characters, before we get to the meat of the film - the two parallel stories that make up its narrative.

In one story — the more zany of the two by miles — a little kid gets his hand stuck in a hole in the middle of the courtyard, the very hole the residents intended to use to prop up their flag pole for the tricolour hoist. This becomes the great common tragedy of the day, as almost every resident gets involved in the mission to free the little fellow. The other is a love story between two youngsters in the chawl. The girl, Jui, has to choose between her first love Raju - a resident of the chawl and a struggling artist, and parents’ choice Amit - the good NRI boy who is due to visit them the same day.

It’s the day we celebrate freedom, yes — but both, the little kid with his hand in the hole, as well as the young lovers yearning to break free, are trapped. The former, literally; and the latter, if you think about it, also literally. The goings-on in both stories are sometimes pointedly bizarre, but you can tell that everything in the film is #extra by design. The nuance is only if you really want to make the effort. Otherwise, it’s also just an eccentric ride that you go along on, because the intent and message of the film is clear to see.

15 August is a great example of how it is important for content and form to complement each other. If writer Yogesh Vinayak Joshi uses his characters to drive the film’s message of freedom through some deft situations and scenes, director Swapnaneel Jayakar uses visual craft to breathe life into them. So you’ll see frames that tell you something, even if no one in that shot is actually speaking. Make no mistake, some of the visual treatment is as ‘extra’ as anything else in the film (to the point that the three people in the love triangle are dressed in colours that would make them look like our flag if they stood together in formation.)

The film’s OTT nature is a double-edged sword, however. The fact that it’s Independence Day is brought up so often by so many major and minor characters, you feel like you could just tell the filmmaker, “I. Get. The. Point.” Yes, the 15th of August is different from every other day of the year for an Indian, but only by so much. In Gandhi Chawl, however, it’s an occasion that seems to drive their very existence. The film is also so culturally rooted that much of its transgressions and exaggerations would make sense only to those familiar with the Marathi-Mumbai ethos.

Even then, as far as Marathi films made for Netflix go, this one is many notches above the recently released Firebrand, if you want to sample the kind of wholesome fun a good Marathi film can be. There are characters you’ll fall in love with, who will teach you a thing or two about how many layers exist in seemingly simple concepts such as democracy and independence. And then of course, for good measure, there are all those crazy moments that make you go ‘What the Freedom?’

Updated Date: Mar 29, 2019 10:48:00 IST