Jeo Baby brought together five filmmakers (including himself) to make films with good content; and coincidentally, they all had the underlying message of freedom.

Jeo Baby with beard
Flix Interview Saturday, February 12, 2022 - 14:41
Written by  Cris

Content matters a lot to Jeo Baby, the man who directed The Great Indian Kitchen, a film that got people talking about women’s labour in the house. In the few minutes of an interview that he could spare on a Wednesday, Jeo mentions “content” half a dozen times. When, during the pandemic, it was too hard to make a full-length film, and he thought of an anthology for which he looked for “content”. The anthology that’s come out is Freedom Fight, but Jeo had not asked filmmakers to make their content about freedom per se. It’s just a happy coincidence that all of them, including Jeo, wrote scripts which had the underlying message of freedom and the fight for it.

“That’s what a person needs more than anything else – freedom,” Jeo says, during the interview. It is not always something you be conscious of, but you might just have a part in curbing another’s freedom. Jeo thought of his father when he made Old Age Home, his film in the anthology. It’s about an old man having memory issues, who walks around dazed and disoriented, and has a special craving for sweets he cannot have on account of his health..

“I used to hide sweets from my father because he was diabetic. I have scolded him when he was supposed to take a walk but instead hitched a ride home,” Jeo says, sounding guilty of his past actions. You can see Jeo’s experiences reflected in how he got Joju George to play the old man so beautifully. What makes Joju marvelous is that he seemingly does not find it at all hard to step into the shoes of a man several decades older than him. He reveals the adorable side of old age, when men sound like children and ask permission for everything. “Can I have a laddu?” he asks pleadingly to the new domestic worker in the film, played by actor Rohini.

Rohini, proving more and more with every new film what a talented performer she is, laughs like a friend, seeing the old man’s dilemma. In one scene, he keeps pestering her about going to the temple, and she turns to look at him, breaks into laughter, and asks, “What do you want now, sir? The payasam in the temple?”

Read: Freedom Fight review: Jeo Baby’s anthology is enjoyable, makes you think

Jeo with Rohini and Joju

Jeo builds a beautiful camaraderie between the two characters. That too comes from his own life experiences, when his mother-in-law had moved in with them and began a friendship with his father. “It is my wife Beena who found this out. My mother-in-law would let my father have an occasional sweet or some sugar in his tea. She said it would do no one any worse if he had something he liked once in a while. My father also liked to talk a lot – like Joju in the movie. But all of us in the family were like strict hostel wardens to him, he didn’t have company,” Jeo says.

Joju knew about Jeo’s father’s situation, he says. During the filming of his earlier movie Kunjudaivam, Jeo had spoken to Joju about it and about the idea he had to make a film. “Also, I have always wanted to work with Rohini chechi, because she is such a wonderful performer. And Lali joined the film because she looks like my mother in appearance,” Jeo says.

Lali PM plays the partner to Joju’s old man character as Baby, a woman who takes an interest in making snacks with jackfruit and running a business in her old age. She tells her complaining children that it is only now that she is finally getting to do what she wants, and she is not going to stop. There, behind the main story, we glimpse another freedom sought by many women, who keep aside for their youth to raise children.

“That part comes from my mother’s life. I have used even the same lines she speaks, running her jackfruit business,” Jeo admits.

The whole film is, in that way, lifted largely from his life. But so are most of the other films in the anthology.

Jithin, Francies, Kunjila, Akhil and Jeo

Kunjila Mascillamani, who made Asanghadithar (The Unorganised) in the Freedom Fight, tells the story of Penkoottu, the real life fight of a group of women to bring toilets to the street they worked in. Ration, directed by Jeo’s editor Francies Louis in the anthology, is also based on a real life story. In that one, Jeo acts as a disgruntled man who is no help to his wife when she gets into trouble after cooking their neighbour’s fish. 

“I enjoy acting, especially such characters. Since I knew Francies, I made a few suggestions as well. But I haven’t interfered in the creative process of any other films. I didn’t even know any of them, and found them, when I was searching for films with good content,” Jeo says.

Jithin Issac Thomas joined the team after Jeo happened to watch his feature film, Attention Please, and liked it. His film in the anthology, Pra. Thoo. Mu., talks about the plight of septic tank cleaners. Kunjila came onboard after Salu, Jeo’s Director of Photography, told him about her. Both Salu and Kunjila were students of the Satyajit Ray Film & Television Institute. The fifth filmmaker, Akhil Anilkumar, who made the short about a woman’s freedom in choosing her partner, Geethu Unchained, had called Jeo to ask about an online platform for his short film, and Jeo liked the story. In all these cases, Jeo only looked at the content of the work.

Watch: Trailer of Freedom Fight

In his own film, he knew he wanted to say a story that was entirely different from the hugely successful The Great Indian Kitchen. He couldn’t repeat himself as a filmmaker. He’d made his statement, made clear his politics on the subject. And he got to know the impact truly well. So many women contacted him, Jeo says, and still do. He can’t say one message was more striking than another. “One woman said she’d been feeling guilty about separating from her husband and felt better after the movie. Another said she stepped out of a house of abuse after the movie. A third said the film made her like herself better. Even a few men wrote to me to say they understand the lives of their wives and mothers a lot better,” Jeo says.

He hopes that Old Age Home too will initiate conversations, on the plight of old people and the restricted lives they lead. 

The film began streaming on SonyLIV on Friday, February 11.

Read: 'The Great Indian Kitchen': Women have only their chains to lose and nothing else