'Nude' Review: Art, Freedom, And One Of The Best Films Of The Year [New York Indian Film Festival]

A row of women, bent over on the river bank, uniform, toiling away at dirty laundry on the outskirts of their village. One of them, Yamuna (Kalyanee Mulay) breaks formation. She turns to dive into the water, and to free herself from the shackles of tradition and gendered expectation. The mere swerve of her foot towards the river feels like an enormous gesture. As she swims to a quiet inlet, she spies on another woman, swinging from the branches, youthful, carefree and detached from concern. But in a moment, that freedom feels curtailed, when a man swims up to the woman on the tree. He is her lover, but there's something amiss about the setting. Something intrusive about this male presence, sexualizing a moment that ought to feel untethered from time.

Within seconds and without words, Ravi Jadhav's Marathi-language Nude establishes its emotional stakes, presenting a pristine vision of freedom before snatching it away. The rest of its runtime – a melodic 110 minutes that you'd wish lasted longer – follows Yamuna trying to win back this fleeting feeling. First, by escaping her abusive husband and moving to Mumbai. Next, by becoming a nude model at a college of the arts.

Yamuna confronting her husband, her boss and her village before escaping to the city could be its own feature, but it's a story Jadhav tells briskly and melodramatically in minutes before re-adjusting his pace. He provides Yamuna, her son Lahanya (Madan Deodhar) and her aunt Akka (Chhaya Kadam) with ample breathing room between dialogue, filling each exchange with character-driven beats as Yamuna navigates the new possibilities in front of her, in the hopes of educating her son. She searches for jobs to no avail – there's simply not enough room for the poor in a gilded Indian metropolis – but her aunt Akka somehow manages to take care of her in the meantime.

Akka makes more money than expected to for someone who claims to be a sweeper. She's the rare woman in her slum dwelling who provides for her unemployed husband, and her refusal to reveal her real job leads Yamuna to follow her one morning, resulting in the discovery that Akka is not only a nude model at a local art institute, but respected by students on higher rungs of the social ladder. As a unemployed woman herself decades prior, Akka learned that men prey on desperate women. But as a nude model, she decides when she's naked or clothed. Her body isn't sexualized by leering eyes; rather, it's a tool to educate. And yeah, the money's pretty good too.

Nude is a complicated film. Perhaps even a daring film given its political backdrop, but it is, above all, a tender film. Jadhav's camera, deployed skillfully by cinematographer Amalendu Chaudhary, loves Yamuna. It loves to see the enormity of the world through her eyes. It loves her body without intruding, capturing her nudity from a distance and her initial trepidation in close up. It captures her increasing comfort with her new predicament, flanked by nude sculptures and paintings of students past, as if she's being absorbed by the history of art itself. It captures her reclaiming her personal and financial freedom through a form of expression, but it also knows full well that she still isn't entirely in control. Her newfound freedom is a comparative freedom, in contrast with her previous circumstance. A relative freedom, as she moves from one male dominated space – the household – to another – academia. It still comes at a cost.

In lesser hands, Nude would be the story of an art student (Om Bhutkar) who grows close to his new muse. Here, he remains anonymous and perfunctory by necessity until the narrative demands his perspective. Or perhaps it would be the story of Malik (Naseeruddin Shah) as a famous, barefooted painter for whom Yamuna begins modelling privately. Instead, Malik is a walk-on cameo – a clear analogue to painter M.F. Hussain, who was charged with offending religious sentiments with his nude paintings of Hindu goddesses – and the object of protesters' ire, which spills over to Yamuna herself. Or perhaps it would be the story of Yamuna's son, an avid artist (though one following in the footsteps of his father's temper), on the verge of discovering his mother's profession as the education she provides for him sets him on this inevitable path. Instead, Nude is the tale of a woman navigating these intersecting worlds of men, finding new joys with every step she takes while discovering the price of each new happiness.

The film posits education – artistic education specifically – as a path to empathy. And while it pays little attention to the broken systems that deprive millions of Indians of education – it presents its uneducated men as brutish or lazy, while its art students are painted with a uniformly kind brush – its uneducated women are the crux of the story. They provide in secret, and they quite simply care in secret by stepping outside the bounds of 'traditional' modesty, though the film has no qualms about contextualizing their need to care as a burden in the first place.

Akka and Yamuna are outlets for male anger at home just as they're outlets for male art in the workplace, forgotten as easily as they were welcomed as their faces and bare bodies go on to earn the artists fame and fortune. As much as art provides them a sense of freedom and stability (just as they provide artists inspiration and learning), it discards them just as readily, placing the burden on these women even when other men object to the art in question and threaten to burn down the college. Once again, in lesser hands, these truths would perhaps go unnoticed. In Nude however, the characters are tragically aware of the limitations of their freedom, blessing their successors like mothers passing down wisdom and resilience to their daughters.

But that doesn't mean they don't revel in the momentous joys they can steal. As grand, operatic strings turn even the mixing of paint palettes into montages worthy of war epics, Yamuna and Akka share in moments of delight, often at the sheer fact that they're allowed to exist unburdened for two to three hours at a time. Their smiles are infectious, tearing through the fabric of the screen as Jadhav's film justifies its own existence at a time when increased Indian film censorship makes nudity a risky endeavor. In Nude, art is as educational as it is euphoric. Capturing the soul at its purest is a lofty goal, especially for a film that explicitly enunciates this mission statement, but Nude lives up to its own objectives, balancing tragic circumstance with jubilation, often in the same instance. Few films this year have been as thoughtful, as precise, and simply, as caring.

/Film Rating: 10 out of 10