I Am (A)
Cast: Rahul Bose, Nandita Das, Sanjay Suri, Juhi Chawla, Manisha Koirala, Anurag Kashyap, Radhika Apte, Abhimanyu Shekhar Singh, Arjun Mathur, Shernaz Patel, Anurag Basu
Most movies these days are desperate to please. They want to keep you happy, to seduce you with sexy songs, sexy bodies, sexy locations. They want you to settle in comfortably, in perfect homes glowing with the warmth of beautiful love affairs and solid relationships. But sometimes, one angry one stomps along, to challenge your world, your worldview.
This one forces you to see what you’d rather not, to think about stuff that’s best ignored. Onir’s I Am is angry, honest, bold and doesn’t let you off the hook. In fact, as it progresses, it gets scarier, crueller.
I left the hall lacerated and saw the world a little differently. It seemed much harsher than the one I had come from to the film.
Written by Onir, Urmi Juvekar and Merle Kroeger, I Am is a collage made up of four lives, each one bruised, some brutalised, all struggling to be.
The first story, set in Kolkata 2009, is of Afia (Nandita Das). A web designer, Afia wants a child, but her husband doesn’t. She pesters and he finally reveals that he loves another and wants a divorce. Angry more than devastated, Afia decides two things: never to trust a man and that she will have a child on her own.
A supportive doctor finds a suitable and safe donor. Afia wants to put a face to the sperm. She wants to meet him. But the donor doesn’t want to meet her and signs on documents to confirm that he will not make any fatherly claims. But Afia insists and finally meets Mr Good Sperm Count — a young student from Jamshedpur (Purab Kohli). Afia has doubts, urges, needs. Can she do it alone? Without a man?
The next story, set in Srinagar, is Megha Mattoo’s (Juhi Chawla). A Kashmiri Pandit who was hounded out of her home along with the other 300,000 Kashmiri Pundits by threatening, chanting crowds, Megha is still seething — on behalf of her parents, on behalf of her dead chacha, on behalf of all refugees. She’s angry at all those Muslim friends who stayed back and wants nothing to do with the house the family still owns in Srinagar. So she flies to Kashmir to sell the house.
Megha’s childhood friend Rubina (Manisha Koirala) picks her up at the airport. Rubina is delighted to meet her old friend and fondly chatters in Kashmiri. Megha prefers Hindi, English or silence. As the two drive home, past men in boots and bullet-proof jackets, the city comes alive — wrapped several times over in barbed wire.
Rubina and her family now live in Megha’s home. They are old family friends and ask about everyone in the Mattoo household. Megha gives cursory replies, communicates that she would like to quickly sign the papers and leave.
Waiting, relaxing in her old room, with her old toys, Megha begins to breathe, unclench. She goes for a stroll, to buy zafran. There is talk of 200 militants and seven lakh military men, of the old days, of that madness, of why both Rubina and Megha didn’t marry. She meets Rubina’s ex-militant brother who is not half the man he once was.
Several questions are raised: Who should be angry with whom? Who is to blame? Who is better off — Kashmiri Muslims or Kashmiri Pandits? Who suffers more — the ones who had to leave, or the ones who could not leave? Onir doesn’t answer. The answers lie tangled in the rolls of barbed wire outside homes, muhallas. And beyond that there is unbearable sadness.
The third story, set in Bengaluru, is of Abhimanyu (Sanjay Suri). A film-maker, Abhi tells his friend Natasha (Radhika Apte) about his regular dream — he is prancing around, playing with his mother, and he is always a young, pretty girl.
But Abhi is not a likeable guy. He uses people and his sexual orientation is ambiguous. He will be what you want him to be — if he has a use for you, that is. But these days Abhi is hassled by his mother’s phone calls, pestering him to visit his dying step-father. Should Abhi go meet the man who sexually abused him for years, every month, twice a month, when his mother would go to visit her parents?
Abhi never told his mother. He was too little, too scared, and step-father slapped hard and had a beard. So Abhi learned quick — to shut up, to endure, even enjoy, and to exploit. He also figured that he was kinda special.
Step-father dies and Abhi finally visits his grieving mother. To tell her and to ask — Did you not know?
The last, and the most brutal and explicit story, is about Jai (Rahul Bose), Omar (Arjun Mathur) and life with Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. Jai is prim and cruising for a “special one”. His eyes light up when he spots Omar, a struggling actor. Omar seems cute, vulnerable, interested.
They chat, flirt and decide to go for a drive in search of a secluded spot since Jai’s parents are visiting. Jai is on top, smooching Omar, when a cop knocks on the window. What happens after is disturbing — not just because it is true, because it is still happening to “them”.
Director Onir’s choice of stories is brave and his direction both cunning and brilliant. He weaves in unrelated stories in such a way that one seamlessly leads to the other. His politics and his confidence are both in-your-face and unapologetic — he even brings in several seemingly unrelated issues, like Marathi chauvinism in Jai’s story, to bring forth the prjudices unique to our cities. Shot on location, each segment has the flavour of its city and its politics. The song in the opening credits, Baangur, sung by Mame Khan, is outstanding.
All the characters in I Am are, to use Mohan Rakesh’s phrase, adhe-adhure. Longing, searching, parts of them broken beyond repair.
I Am can boast of some very powerful performances, especially Abhimanyu Shekhar Singh and Sanjay Suri. But none comes close to Rahul Bose. This would be Rahul Bose’s most powerful performance ever. He is a laser-beam that burns a hole in the screen.
I Am is part financed by Facebook friends, fans and strangers moved by its stories. Indian cinema will remain eternally thankful for their investment, emotion.