On a typical afternoon, Neha Beauty Care & Training Centre is appropriately raucous with marriage talk. “I said: What else is love if not this madness?” Sachi, an emotional and playful beautician with nervous bravado, declares in half-jest. “Craziness is what love is!”
She works at the beauty parlour in the dully chaotic, sedating interiors of New Delhi’s working-class Ambedkar Nagar district, the simultaneously shadowy and luminous setting of Priya Sen’s Yeh Freedom Life.
Sachi’s family does not approve of her relationship with Sai, who is also a woman. Parveen, the film’s other protagonist, traverses a similarly torrid terrain of queer love.
Fast talking, personable, and masculine-presenting, Parveen mans his family owned cigarette stall on a bustling intersection. He lives with his adopted stray Katty, and for a considerable duration of the film, his girlfriend Annu. After Annu marries a cis man due to familial pressure, Parveen hopes that one day Annu will return to stay with him.
Akin to the arguing domestic beings in Rahul Roy’s Sunder Nagri (The City Beautiful, 2003), Sen’s camera affords Sachi and Parveen a stage to articulate their romantic choices before their loved ones. Over a period of several months, she essays her protagonists in their respective places of work as they negotiate their own versions of matrimony, unfurling an unrelenting but affection filled psychogeography of India’s capital city.
Sen’s world building is intuitively thorough, at once oneiric and lived in. Narration inventively meanders a novelistic structure, beholding the goings-on of the urban landscape with equal credence, if not screen time, as it does Sachi and Parveen’s inner lives. Public gatherings, politically prophetic and mundanely vibrant, embody the city’s marital and religious regimes. A curiously elaborate opening sequence unfolds a right-wing state sponsored Godh Bharai (Hindu baby shower) targeting working class pregnant women. On another cloudy morning, a Karva Chauth (Hindu festival for married women) ceremony occupies an alleyway; later, a cast of child performers awaken a nighttime Ramlila (mythological Hindu epic) stage. Sparsely, one afternoon, two Muslim youths carry a holy chadar (cloth sheet) and walk the lanes to the rhythm of devotional hymn.
Tied with a confident, loose consistency and a shapeshifting versatility, Yeh Freedom Life relishes in its cosmopolitan collage of working class life. Cinematographer Ankur Ahuja lenses ambient economies of the street—bridal posters of dolled-up Bollywood actresses on beauty parlour walls; shimmering curtains of packaged tobacco sachets alongside stickered chewing gum containers; advertisements of beaming superstar Salman Khan on an autorickshaw. Print and pop cultural imagery pepper the film’s glittering, decaying locales.
The intimate spaces of Sen’s lovelorn protagonists echo this cinematic intrigue. In Sachi’s parlour, Ahuja romantically frames furnishings and drapes: white, polka dotted curtains waver, recalling the stagnant attention to domestic fabric in Rosalind Nashashibi’s Hreash House (2004). In a memorable composition, Sachi lounges in her pastel green salwar-kameez against a similarly coloured backdrop. She is mirrored in multiple reflections behind her, her figurations shrinking and duplicating.
While the salon mirror envisages Sachi’s interiority, Parveen’s portrait, conversely, bursts alive with his television box set. Nightly, it broadcasts a slew of loud visuals from a daily soap opera or a grainy, pink tint of old Hindi language film. At one point, the screen’s low budget animation fills the frame. We see the title cards’ marquee, fluorescently eclectic, pillared by brightly technicoloured, trembling roses. A bilingual montage, “Programme Shaadi,” slips the viewer into a trippy, hallucinatory detour.
Throughout the film, sound designers Vivek Sachidanand and Hashtone (Mumbai) layer such sonic moments with an atmospheric score—interlacing cadences of whirring fan, flickering lightbulb, cacophonous traffic, grinding street-side sugarcane juice kiosk and drilling construction machinery. The mix intimates an aural sensorium that surrounds Sachi and Parveen, who inhabit this syncretic but stiffening slice of the city.
The film’s two protagonists careen, in a sense, towards their “freedom lives,” refuting the linearity of traditional character profiles. Sen chooses, instead, to study in fleeting detail a fluid and turgid life of desire. Zestful, even essayistic in its pathos, her project satisfyingly journals the beating heart of an urban margin.
Yeh Freedom Life is now streaming via True Story.