The protagonist of Arunaraje’s Firebrand faces battles in the courtroom and the bedroom. Sunanda Raut (Usha Jadav) is a civil lawyer who represents women in divorce and maintenance cases. She faces a peculiar challenge when she accepts as a client Divya (Rajeshwari Sachdev), who wants to make her wealthy husband Anand (Sachin Khedekar) pay for perceived slights and betrayals.
Sundada has another battle to face back home: the lingering effects of being raped as a teenager, which affects her relationship with her husband, Madhav (Girish Kulkarni). The film, which is in Marathi, Hindi and English, has been produced by Priyanka Chopra’s Purple Pebble Pictures and will be released on Netflix on February 22.
Firebrand is a contemporary story of self-discovery and catharsis, Arunaraje told Scroll.in. “Here is a girl who is sexually abused when she was 15 years old, she goes to court, but the parents drop the case fearing repercussions,” Arunaraje said. “She is a Dalit girl and it is an NGO that supports her. She later becomes a divorce lawyer and fights for women. It is a journey about how she finds herself again.”
The film was a response to the rising cases of rape and divorces that have been reported in recent years, and provided the director of Rihaee a way of exploring the psyche of a sexual assault survivor. “Every morning you wake up, there is a breaking news or a headline about rapes,” Arunaraje said. “But I realised nobody talks about how survivors deal with it. There are so many marriages that are breaking up as well. I wanted to explore these two themes together.”
Arunaraje co-directed Shaque (1976), Gehrayee (1980) and Sitam (1982) with her former husband, Vikas Desai. She made her solo debut with the feminist drama Rihaee (1988), starring Hema Malini, Vinod Khanna, Naseeruddin Shah and Neena Gupta. Her credits include the television series Shaadi Ya… and the films Bhairavi (1996) and Tum – A Dangerous Obsession (2004).
Firebrand continues Arunaraje’s interest in feminist themes. One of the debates in the film is about the use of Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code, which deals with the punishment of husbands and their relatives who subject women to physical or mental cruelty. The section has often been vilified, with men complaining that it is misused by women.
“When there is love, the very best is not good enough for you, but when I stop loving you, then even a grain of salt is too much to part with,” Arunaraje observed. “As against that, I also know men who have been dragged to court and put in jail under 498A [under the wrong circumstances]. I did not want to say all men are bad. I wanted a balance and thus included one case that was contrary.”
The film also strives to prove that love and sex are two different things, the director pointed out. “People do not acknowledge that,” Arunaraje said. “Sunanda is married to a man who loves her, but their sex life is not good because of the trauma that she carries. She then decides to confront it and goes to a psychiatrist. She wonders how much punishment is enough punishment. Even if a man is hanged, how are you going to get past this unless you let go and forgive?”
Arunaraje approached Priyanka Chopra to produce Firebrand even as it was being scripted. “Priyanka also believes in the woman’s voice and courageous films,” the director said. “Priyanka was busy at the time and asked me if I could record the script and send it to her. She green-lighted it after listening to the narration.”
Although the film is going directly to the Netflix streaming platform rather than being released in theatres, Arunaraje isn’t complaining. “They [Netflix] loved the film and we were delighted,” she said. “What we would have done otherwise was go to a Marathi theatre and run a few shows and it would be over. Where would we get an audience like this from so many countries? I think the universe wanted the film to be heard all over the world.”