Unfreedom director on censorship row: 'Showed me how important it is to make your art the way you want'
Director Raj Amit Kumar tells us about his long battle to get his debut feature, Unfreedom, released.
Raj Amit Kumar’s debut film, Unfreedom, starring Preeti Gupta, Bhavani Lee, Bhanu Uday, Victor Banerjee, and Adil Hussain, has received mixed reviews from critics worldwide. The film deals with how Hindu and Muslim extremists muffle the voices of love and peace in India and the US, respectively.
Unfreedom never got a theatrical release in India since it was banned by the Central Board of Film Certification; the director refused to fulfill the CBFC's diktats. Now that the movie is out on Netflix, audiences are curious to know more about the characters and their motives, and the “controversies” it has run into.
In an email interview with Firstpost, Raj Amit Kumar tells us about his long battle to get the film released.
By naming your film Unfreedom, what are you suggesting? Is there no freedom in the world (since the film is shot in America and India), or is this about the freedom that the leads (Husain and Leela) don’t have?
The naming of my film Unfreedom is simply to question what freedom may truly mean in our times. It is about making choices and having the courage to make them.
Husain makes a choice to kill and test if his father figure, Fareed, will pick violence. Fareed, also a Muslim, makes a choice to not pick violence even when his wife is being slaughtered. Leela makes a choice, knowing that she will be raped, to not give up on her lover, and her sexual identity. Devraj makes a choice to get his daughter raped to “cure” her. These are all choices.
Both sets of extremists in the film want to control others and aren't above using violence to do so.
Extremists and fundamentalists are the cheapest and most horrifying creatures who, in the name of religion, spew violence and torture on society and its individuals. Politicians always needed them to control societies, and they need them more today. In fact, today’s political system uses religion as a very strong tool. Take any country – India and the US are two big examples. Religion historically was always there to support and facilitate a political control on society. We are just witnessing it more blatantly today.
For the Muslim extremists in Unfreedom, there’s background music that repeats the words 'Allahu Akbar', and for the Hindu extremists, there’s red tika on their foreheads...
Yes, they are part of the descriptions of these groups. Are you trying to say that those who are not extremists also pray the azaan and wear red tilak? If you are asking that, I would say, “so what?” I am very clear that I am talking about people who wear religion on their sleeves. And not just wear on their sleeves, they force it down other people’s throats, and that too violently.
In one of the scenes in Unfreedom, a Shiva linga stands atop a piece of phallic art. Would the CBFC ever have given a nod to that scene? How many cuts did they ask for in total?
Again, what is such a big deal? It is Shiva “Linga” (penis), isn't it? I mean, that is Lord Shiva’s penis that we pray according to our mythology, don’t we? I don’t even understand what the issue is here. First of all, in case “Shiva linga” didn’t exist in our mythology and was not part of our everyday culture, I would say, “Okay where did that come from?” But even then, if anyone wants to depict something related to sexuality of our so-called gods and goddesses, what is the issue? Why is it off the table?
The CBFC offered me several cuts... but I was not going to (cut a single frame), and I did not. That’s why Unfreedom got banned.
Devraj Singh (Adil Hussain) watches his daughter Leela get raped in the police station. Was the sequence meant to show how far conservative people can go, when their beliefs are questioned?
I don’t know if “conservative” is the right term to use. To me, it’s “the father of the nation” watching their daughters being raped into heterosexuality. And there are several factual events like that we have known around us in the country besides the whole symbolic aspect of it. So to me, he is not just father of Leela, but a father figure in India, a symbolic patriarchal socio-religious system that is witnessing and complicit in this rape to teach our girls “a lesson in moral, social, political and sexual norms”.
If the film had released in Indian theatres, wouldn't right wing groups have attacked it because of all things Unfreedom tries to say?
So, I should not have made it because now right-wing groups are going to attack film theatres? And what kind of weak and impotent or complicit government authority we have that can’t stop them from doing so? For what do we put a government in place that can’t even maintain law and order so that its citizens are not scared to be free on streets and watch movies? Do you think if Naxalites were vandalising theaters, they will receive the same treatment that right-wing groups are getting?
The New York Times said in its review of your movie: “The lovers (Sakhi and Leela) are almost as objectified by their director as by the patriarchy that oppresses them.” Why were the sex scenes so deliberate and exoticised?
So, if I am telling a story about two women lovers and their sexual struggle, I should keep the sex between them off-screen? That will make it non-gratuitous, and less objectifying?
As far as my viewpoint goes, I made a film based on what I think should go on-screen and what should be off-screen. Beyond that point, I don’t give a damn what anyone feels about it.
What has this experience of writing, producing and directing a film — only to then have it it banned — been like?
About seven years of my career have gone into making one film and working around it. I have just finished shooting the first major schedule of my second feature film, but it just has been an unnecessarily longer journey. We are filmmakers, we want to make movies and not worry or think about bans.
Has the ban affected how you will make movies from now on?
Hell, no. It has only given me strength and shown me how important it is to make your art the way you want to make it. And there is no higher truth than that.
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