Google’s founding motto was to ‘do no harm.’ Shame that the rest of the world’s internet users don’t share its manifesto. Reputations can now be trashed and the unsuspecting turned into global laughing stocks at the click of a mouse. Set against this digital revolution comes Anupama Chandrasekhar’s tragi-comic, Free Outgoing – part of the Royal Court’s Upstairs Downstairs season – which explores what happens to a middle class Indian family when a DIY blue movie goes global.
Set in Chennai, forthright widow, Malini’s world is shredded when a film of her teenage daughter, Deepa, having sex finds its way from her boyfriend’s mobile and on to the internet. Her notoriety and the ensuing shame devastates all their lives; both Deepa and her brother Sharan are expelled from school, and the family is then turned on first by their community, and then paraded in front of the national media for the country’s delectation as a tormented, broken Malini is forced to face the cameras. However we never see Deepa, a clever device, that at once makes you address your own voyeuristic tendencies, prurient desires and the prejudices endemic in patriarchal society.
This clash between the modern world and the parochial mind set of village India is fought out at the level of female sexual propriety and unsurprisingly entertainment and technology are the culprits blamed for corroding the children’s morals. Set entirely in the family’s living room, with a trophy cabinet full of scholastic accomplishments proudly on display in the corner, a mocking totem to Deepa’s achievements, Malini goes ballistic, rampaging through this room destroying her mod cons from the video games, to the TV, when she finds out, while the only punishment meted out to the boy concerned is the confiscation of his phone. But not matter what the era, Mother India it seems, has always turned her back on her daughters as we learn that Malini too was disowned for marrying someone unsuitable, and betraying her Tamil heritage.
However Lolita Chakrabarti’s Malini, is compelling throughout. Tough and unflinching it is through her that other issues surrounding female status and the dual aspect of female sexuality as an asset to use, a virtue to protect, are explored. It is when she comes up against the creepy Ramesh, a work colleague, played by Raj Ghatak , a wolf in sheep’s clothing if ever there was one, that we see her visibly manipulate the identities of mother and woman to survive.
Amit Shah, as Sharan, is an excellent bit of casting and his is an brilliant study of anxious, awkward youth, struggling with his growing responsibility, frustration at his powerlessness, and the duty he feels to preserve his mother’s reputation and care for his sister.
No doubt Free Outgoing reflects the schisms in Indian society as it flourishes into a super power and the handling of the material is flawless under Indhu Rubasingham’s direction, but what is provocative in Mumbai, looses a lot in translation, Free Outgoing could have benefited from being clipped in parts, as Paris Hilton’s internet indiscretions, and the workings of ravenous TV news networks desperate for dirt and detail are commonplace and have sadly made this kind of drama a little prosaic, pedestrian and unchallenging.