The 'I am' Review

I am is a resonant chamber piece for its talented actors and a possibly the finest cinematic study of modern Indian relationships to come along in quite some time.  The film's gratifying, unaffected handling of drama is incendiary. Director Onir weaves a haunting relevance to the current political climate surrounding gay relationships - a news bit within the film reminds us that those not in support of gay rights predicted the end of the world in the event of gay marriages being legalised. Mind you, the stories don't end in ideal scenarios – I am is critical and merciless at every turn. And the searching, agonised qualities of its characters feels very real.

As far as indie character flicks go, I am is in a class all its own. The mid section does betray the novelistic roots of Onir and Urmi Juvekar’s glowing script, but the soulful performances make this an emotionally rewarding experience. The film does little more than capture the sad truth of characters exploited at a young age. That is not the goal, of course. The intention here seems to be one of greater ambition - to spread the idea of acceptance to generations struggling with matters of sexual orientation and questions of mortality.
 The plot spans two decades, documenting the crucial events in the lives of Afia (Nandita Das), Megha (Juhi Chawla), Abhimanyu (Sanjay Suri), Jai (Rahul Bose) and Omar (Arjun Mathur).  We realize pretty quickly that the characters’ lives aren't going to be ordinary. This becomes clear when, in the film's most effective scene, a betrayal leaves a web designer (Nandita Das) without a husband - the first of many tragedies which drains Onir’s world of colour. The story follows the woman turning to single motherhood via in-vitro fertilization, consumed by curiosity over the sperm donor (Purab). Meanwhile Kashmiri Pandit Megha (Juhi Chawla) travels to her native Srinagar to settle a legal tussle – she is torn between her hatred for the place and love for her childhood friend (Manisha Koirala). Enter Bengaluru man Abhimanyu (Sanjay Suri), a staggeringly shrewd young bisexual filmmaker, who seems to be confused but not conflicted by his sexual interests. He is a sincere, twinkly-eyed innocent who refuses to put labels on the love relationships he forms, and hides a devastating secret about himself from the world. And somewhere in Mumbai, Rich Businessman Jai (Bose) is suddenly overcome by rage  after he spots young Omar (Mathur) making new friends. The stories do entwine, and though sexual attachments form fleeting alliances in this bunch, I am really is a story of companionship, of people exploring their necessity to each other. Radhika Apte’s character, for instance, is drawn to Abhimanyu’s honesty and sweetness, and never pines for the unobtainable love.  

The Kashmir segment is the least convincing of the lot - it comes across as hackneyed melodrama thanks to its laborious exploration of its themes. It may be earnest but it is rarely convincing and never engaging. That includes Koirala’s one-note mopey performance - her most intense moment is about drying clothes – she notices Chawla’s character reminiscing the old times, and suddenly turns sympathetic and arches her eyebrows. While less pathetic, she is no less of a mope with a new expression. There is nothing profound here, either, in the depiction of the Kashmir issue. Actually, there is nothing much of anything important here. Another minor failure of I am is that it falls victim in its attempt to cram too much information and tie up too many random events in its two hours. Also, Onir doesn’t seem to have the veritable gift of incorporating subtle, ingratiating musical cues into his story, he relies on making the cues individual overblown melodramatic characters of their own.

However, every single detail is right - the interiors of a Srinagar home, the awkwardness of youth, and the excellent performance of Nandita Das as a struggling suburban divorce’e.  It is worth the price of admission to watch her smile at the conclusion of her story arc.  Purab as the meek and nervous sperm donor spends much of the film feeling vaguely uncomfortable, and he seems uncomfortable playing uncomfortable. Nandita Das is a performer of great warmth – she can create dialogue without words. Rahul Bose takes on his character with a confused air, emanating a sensitivity he has not shown in any other role to date.  Sanjay Suri is remarkably complex and convincing as the sexually ambiguous manchild. Juhi Chawla is always lovely to watch, here she is given lesser material than that which made possible her incredible performance of Teen Deewarein.  And Shernaz Patel manages to evoke empathy for what is ultimately the most difficult and the most complex emotion soaked in by any of the characters. Anurag Kashyap and Anurag Basu deliver touch-and-go performances in their cameos. 

Onir doesn't shy away from the carnal side of the homosexual characters, making the scenes between them all the more unsettling, though natural. The only way to break the taboo against male kissing in Hindi films is if a major star did it. I am has such a scene with Rahul Bose’s character. And Onir does not drag the camera away to shimmering lights.  Someone in the audience ruled this scene ‘too distracting’. The same person lavished praise upon River Phoenix in My own private Idaho and Sean Penn in Milk. The taboo stays firmly in place in 2011. Why are we horrified by the sight of male kissing in our movies? Why are item numbers so common, yet the male body is vulgar and ugly?

Watch I am, for it is compassionate and touching, no less complex and gripping than what its trailers made it out to be. 

First published in DNA

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