How and where does one begin to describe the infinite satisfaction of watching a film that emerges from the closet with some arresting and disturbing home-truths on what goes on when the lights are off? Tiptoeing through the darkest corridors of the human heart director Onir in I Am comes up with four stories on the question of individual, sexual and geo-political identity.
There are no happy beginnings or endings for any of the four protagonists in I Am. Each one creates a universe of sublime sorrow spearheaded by an inability to ...well, fit in.
Squares among circles? So be it. Onir revels in creating damaged but empathetic worlds for his four heroes...No, these are super-heroes in their resilience and determination to tackle discrimination without succumbing to their internal injuries.
When Afia in the first story, played by the luscious Nandita Das asks her buddy Juhi Chawla if she'd lend her brother for some serious sperm banking, Juhi (who we get to know in the next story is Megha reclaiming her heritage in Kashmir) walks away in disgust. We can't. We don't want to. Artificial insemination gets a cinematic treatment in the story as Nandita meets her sperm donor (Purab Kohli in a timid mode).As they speak gently into the night, a warm fertile relationship grows between them in the fertility clinic. No they don't fall in love. Where is the space for that to creep in?
The punctuations in the first story are bolder more aggressive than the other three, as though Onir wanted to get all the 'cinema' in his film out of the way as early as possible.
For the second story I Am Megha, Onir takes his compelling drama of the damned to Kashmir. The location is treacherously pretty. The dreaded 'm' word stalks the streets with unrelenting impunity. Here under the shadow of militancy two dignified women, one a Kashmiri Pundit and the other a local Muslim, interact with restrained annoyance. They are upset and angry. But they won't colour the ambience with their prejudices.
Thanks to the two actresses Juhi Chawla and Manisha Koirala who play out the Ingmar Bermanesque drama in the deceptive tranquillity of the Valley I Am Megha comes to life as a chamber-piece set in the outdoors. And if that sounds like a contradiction in terms then stick around. Onir specializes in interpreting the beauty of the world outside as a counterpoint to the squalidity that is secreted in places not visible to the human eye.
The third story I Am Abhimanyu on child abuse is understandably a portrait of acute complexities brought to a virile fruition by the director's determined evasion of any self-pity in the abused child's character. Rather, Abhimanyu (Sanjay Suri) grows up as quite a manipulator, not sure of his sexual preferences but sure that he'd milk the ambivalence of his tortured past for all that its worth.
Amazingly, Onir goes through the three phases in Abhimanyu's life, as the abused child going on to a manipulative adolescent and thence to whining adulthood, in just about 15-20 minutes of playing-time. Portable epic, indeed! This story also has the most intriguing array of actors, from Suri as the grownup permanently-wounded Abhimanyu to Zain Salam as the adolescent Abhimanyu to Anurag Kashyap as the sexual molestor, to Shernaz Patel as the mother in denial and Radhika Apte as Suri's bohemian sounding-board who knows she may not be able to have sex with the man she so openly loves because of his tortured past. Whose locks is it anyway?
The sexual candour of this episode makes for remarkable viewing. Onir desists from making any judgement on those who scar the wounded. And really, who are we to wonder what lies beneath the surface of the simmering sexual politics of that overrated universe known as domesticity?
The rawest most guttural and devastating story is saved for the last. I Am Omar is a story straight out of every gay person's favourite nightmare. While making out in a car with his newly acquired toyboy Omar (Arjun Mathur) Jai (Rahul Bose) is accosted by a vulgar homophobic cop.
Here we must pause to note that Abhimanyu Singh as the cop on the bawdy beat comes up with the most bludgeoning performance in the film. His filthy language and his even filthier intentions towards the cowering gay man are brought out by the actor with a ferocity and clarity that provide an entirely new definition to credible characterization.
This story is shot with the quivering conviction of a crime reporter with a video camera who has suddenly chanced on a scene of atrocity that far exceeds his call of duty. The enormity of the crime is represented in the beads of sweat that appear on the victim of the police atrocity's brow. Rahul Bose is full of righteous damnation.
The stench of fear and discrimination is the strongest in the last story, almost as if Onir wants to leave us with a feeling of foreboding and guilty.
This, says I Am, can happen to anyone who doesn't conform. The isolation of the unorthodox is palpable in every precious breath that the four-storeyed tale takes. The quartet of stories are backed by the most wonderful team of actors and technicians all working towards building an enchanting edifice of power and sex, lust and longing, loss and strands of redemption. These are not "happy" stories. How can they be? When the people in them are so intrinsically unhappy? The challenge for Onir is to make his tortured characters acclimatized to their pain and suffering without making them look like resigned victims.
You can't really find a film that has more to say about sexual politics in the desolation of the suburbia. If you've ever lived in the metropolis you are sure to have run into one or the other of these characters.
I Am brims over with the indignation of discrimination. But there is no room for hysteria or melodrama in the storytelling. Though all four stories are shot by one cameraman Arvind Kannabiran, each one conveys its own mood texture and urgency. Though all are joined at the hip each story has its own unique rhythm There are no empty symbolic gestures of reconciliation and pacification in this world of disaffected derelicts. The emptied-out world of the four protagonists is filled with the noises of smothered pain. Each protagonist carries his burden of guilty and grief to the last.
There is no getting away from the despair. But there is no sense of pessimism in the telling of the stories. That's the beauty of this little gem of a film. You get affected. But you don't lose hope. At the end of the tunnel there is a beam of light. You can't miss it.
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