DIRECTED BY ANIRBAN DHAR
STARRING: NANDITA DAS, JUHI CHAWLA, MANISHA KOIRALA, SANJAY SURI, RADHIKA APTE, RAHUL BOSE with PURAB KOHLI, SHERNAZ PATEL, ARJUN MATHUR, ABHIMANYU SINGH, POOJA GANDHI, ANURAG BASU and ANURAG KASHYAP
Anirban Dhar a.k.a. Onir’s ‘I Am’ is a collage of four inter-connected stories that, thankfully, do not add up to a mission statement as part of a bigger picture. The individual stories, however, try, where lesser the conspicuousness of effort, the more likeable the film ended up being. That was how the equation worked.
The first segment is called ‘Afia’ and follows Afia (Nandita Das) through the fall of her marriage that rattles her enough that she decides to have herself impregnated artificially and goes on a search for the right person to do the trick. In the waiting room, she strikes an awkward sort of conversation with Suraj (Purab Kohli), who looks a tad too old to be a (medical) student. Kohli appears to have been in his early thirties (he is, presently, 33) when the movie was filmed, so it’s the right kind of hunch, I come to learn, contrary to belief. I understand why he needed to look more mature, but I felt he couldn’t pull off the confusion and the innocent romance that could be attributed to, say, a 22 year old in the same position.
Juhi Chawla, who makes a brief appearance as a friend and plot-propeller in ‘Afia’, has a segment of her own in ‘Megha’, where she plays a Kashmiri Pandit who takes a very brief trip back home to compare suffering with Rubina (Manisha Koirala), a childhood friend of hers. Amidst tension and the whole backhandedness that constituted almost the entirety of the visit, we barely get a hang of the fact that these two women were, once upon a time, actually good friends. In one scene, Onir actually had to resort to a voiceover by pre-pubescent girls to stress upon the fact that these people were, indeed, capable of innocence, many moons back. The segment ends with a ‘Before Sunset’ sort of blame-game where the Muslim woman has the last word. It was one of those moments that you like more for what it did to you than what it reminded you of.
‘Abhimanyu’ gets the pride of position and is the strongest segment, cinematically, where it also looks to be most sincere. If there is an allegory, I did not see it (on Abhimanyu as the son of Arjuna in the ‘Mahabharata’). Nevertheless, if there were a contest, it would have turned out most imaginative, best acted and best shot amongst the lot.
In ‘Abhimanyu’, Sanjay Suri plays Ashish a.k.a. Abhimanyu with a story behind the name change and his utilitarianism. As a child, Abhi (as he is called) had been repetitively abused (sexually) by his stepfather Vinay (Anurag Kashyap in an exciting little cameo) in the absence of his Mother who constantly went out of town. Helplessness turns to manipulation as Boy becomes Man, finding himself in a game that he knows exactly how to play. “He wanted to marry a single woman with a little boy,” is what he comes up with when he finally breaks the ice with his Mother, a horrifying little detail where the woman would, subsequently, have to live with the fact that she has, to some extent, lived an extensive lie.
What is arguably the strongest portion in a film that epitomized discontent also had me disappointed the most as a consequence of unnaturally raised stakes. ‘Abhimanyu’ had two exceptional human beings in Natasha (Radhika Apte, breathtaking) and Abhi’s mother Asha (Shernaz Patel) in whom the film went skin-deep at best. On the one hand, we have the woman who loves Abhi unconditionally, on the other is the one who loved her husband in much the same way – with complete acceptance, no holds barred. These are incredible people that the film is diplomatic about, the filmmaker – as utilitarian as Abhi himself.
The last section has Rahul Bose and Arjun Mathur meet-cute as Jai and Omar. Jai comes across Omar peering on top of ‘the Times’ at him where he’s real quick to get the drift and drift along as well. ‘Milk’ is the choice for a movie for the evening, where they settle for dinner and a drive instead, parking at a place for one of the rarest of scenes in an Indian film – of men kissing and rather passionately. Ankle-deep, barely, and they’re pulled out by a Cop (Abhimanyu Singh) who looks like he’s swallowed Chris Cooper essence from ‘American Beauty.’ Homosexuality had still not been legalized in the country, which means Jai, the corporate among the two, has to pay. And how?
‘I Am’ is, like I said, a collection of four inter-connected stories. There is much deliberation in the fluidity of characters across stories; in the links that entitle them to do so. There is also subtlety in that deliberation, at the same time. It works. And yet, much like every other experience I have with an Indian film, I found myself estranged. It’s not Brechtian mastery in play, but bad taste in decision. I am minimalist when it comes to background scores, and I simply cannot take distractions in form of song. The music is good, but I felt it was unnecessary. I’d rather hear the wind speak than have a violin to describe figurative turbulence.
‘I Am’ is a story about four people that should’ve covered eight. But an eight-person film would ask for emphasis on sixteen. It’s like Ebert’s ‘Hamlet’ analogy – on how the Extra would call it a story about an Undertaker who meets a Prince. In a death of perspective, ‘I Am’ keeps its second-bests at sea. What could’ve been a great film tones down to ‘sensible Bollywood’ with Rahul Bose and his eight-pack abs. It’s a new kind of ‘fancy’, lesser stressed.