I Am: A Review
I Am – Dir: Onir; *ing: Nandita Das, Juhi Chawla, Manisha Koirala, Sanjay Suri, Anurag Kashyap, Rahul Bose, Arjun Mathur, Abhimanyu Singh, Purab Kohli
How do you go about reviewing a film like I Am, the latest from Bollywood square-peg-in-a-round-hole maverick Onir, who boasts an endearing fearlessness when it comes to subject matter, but whose instincts as a filmmaker are still to hit that sweet spot? Like the director’s previous outings My Brother Nikhil and Bas Ek Pal, there is much to admire here (if not enjoy outright – it’s a tough watch for a variety of reasons), not least of which are some strong, nuanced performances and also how the film explores themes quite alien to the mainstream, at least in Indian cinema. Admiration for intentions aside, however, one is left with a somewhat uneven piece of cinema, which is bravely raw and unflinching one instant, but puzzlingly meek elsewhere.
Born out of a Facebook page soliciting ideas and funds from the general public, I Am tells the stories of four individuals, all loosely connected, who have experienced some form of loss and are in process (or search, in some cases) of recovery – of identity, of dignity, of self-worth, of self. Afia (Das), after being dumped unceremoniously by her husband for another woman, decides to become a single mother with the help of a sperm donor (Kohli). Her friend Megha (Chawla), a Kashmiri Pandit forced to flee Srinagar with her family twenty years prior, returns briefly to the embattled city to a bitter homecoming filled with dark memories and an uneasy reunion with childhood friend Rubina (Koirala). Filmmaker Abhimanyu (Suri) is ambiguous about his sexual identity and a serial user of people in his career; it’s something he learned early he believes, when he turned his childhood abuse at the hands of his stepfather (Kashyap) into a give-and-take proposition – “At 13, I was a slut”, he says matter-of-factly. And there is Jai (Bose) an executive and not-really-closeted gay man whose encounter with hustler Omar (Mathur) segues into the most harrowing and powerfully played segment of the film; the policeman essayed by Singh is not one you’re soon liable to forget. However, the first two segments of the film suffer somewhat in comparison to this and Abhimanyu’s thread, both in terms of writing and characterization, as well as treatment. Afia’s narrative is the least engaging, the lack of attention paid to her motivation and the rather stilted conversations with Megha, make it veer into staid Bollywood territory and you find yourself more than a little aloof to her ‘plight’, which is never satisfactorily defined. Megha’s vignette makes things more interesting thanks largely to the subtle examination of the relationship between the two women, but here the overly dramatic background score and certain plot contrivances do at times lay it on too thick. So it’s something of a surprise then (and one that marks the aforementioned tonal inconsistency of the film) that Onir turns it down to terrific effect in the next two segments, relying on the gravity of the situations depicted to provide the drama rather than external devices. It would be easy to pin that on the fact of the director’s own sexuality (which he is very open about) – “well, obviously he identifies with THOSE stories much more!” – but in fact, his remarkably sensitive work in Bas Ek Pal defies this kind of convenient nutshelling of his supposed discomfort with matters heterosexual.
Whatever the other issues with I Am, there are some wonderful actors doing impressive work here: Bose and Mathur are both superb, and Suri continues to be one of Hindi films’ most underrated performers; this is his fourth film with Onir and he only gets better. So, ignore the problems of the narrative weave and the rather abrupt ending, and I Am acquits itself nicely.