Recent Netflix Film 15 August Forces The Question – How Free Are We Really?

The Madhuri Dixit production, 15 August, currently streaming on Netflix, offers metaphors for freedom that raise the question of how much freedom we have as individuals in our society.

15 August, a movie produced by Madhuri Dixit and her husband, hasn’t received the best of reviews. The absurdist comedy moves slowly and is at times repetitive, though it does have its moments.

The film follows two main sub plots. In one, a little boy, Ninad, gets his hand stuck in the hole into which the flag pole is supposed to go. In another, Jui and Raju, who are in love with each other, must figure out their future quickly, before the boy that her parents have selected for her, and who is coming to see her on that day, whisks her away to the US.

Ninad’s condition is a metaphor for all the Indians who are “stuck” waiting for the fruition of false promises by politicians; who still rely on tradition and religion, as much as they do in science. Jui and Raju, symbolize the youth, and their ache for freedom.

What freedom, you ask? I was asked this question years ago, when as a 20 something year old, I complained at a family gathering about not having enough of it. An aunt was quick to rebuke me, “what freedom do you not have now?”

I wasn’t able to answer that question then, perhaps because I didn’t have enough clarity. I felt stuck somehow, but I was living a privileged life. I was alive. I had an education. I had a white collar job that paid well. That’s more than most women in this country have.

Now, I have a better idea.

Yes, I have a lot. My life, and the lives of many women in India are better than the lives of women in some other countries. We have legal benefits and protections, that on paper look fantastic.

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Is that enough though? Should we settle for what we have and not hope for better?

Jui in 15 August, is fighting for the right to choose her life partner – a struggle that many of our youth, especially women, still face. Here it is simply the issue of money – Raju is poor and unemployed; the US suitor is rich. For many others in real life, the issues are not only of economic class, but also caste and religion. Honour killings are the extreme manifestation of this lack of freedom.

Women are still not free, to leave their houses late at night; to roam around without a care in public spaces; to walk out of abusive marriages with confidence; to not have children; to choose career over family.

Men are not free from the expectations to “be a man;” to protect and provide; to set down the yoke of toxic masculinity.

We are bound, even now, by societal expectations and judgements. The enemy we fight is not external. It is often those we love who place these handcuffs on us.

However, to paraphrase one character from the movie, nothing is more powerful than freedom, and while India is free, it can do better. We need to be more inclusive of those who have been marginalized; offer opportunities to those who have been denied them for centuries and free ourselves from the social conditioning that keeps us where we are.

This does not mean that we must become more “westernized,” because the West is not perfect. This is simply about making sure that every single citizen has the freedom enshrined in the Constitution.

Real change comes from a change in mindsets. Freedom comes from within – from us, the people. We have had a great and gloried past, but it isn’t the time to rest on those laurels. One cannot go forward by looking back.

I imagine an India in which my children will be safer than I am, have more opportunities than I do, and be freer to make choices. Bigotry, discrimination and hate will not get us there. Respect, equality and acceptance will.

Image source: a still from 15 August

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