While Bollywood has just started to show kissing scenes and Hollywood is slowly integrating gay storylines into films, director Onir has moved much further ahead with his latest film. I Am is a confronting and thought-provoking collection of 4 stories which deal with subjects commonly not spoken about in public and rarely seen in mainstream film. In addition to its subject matter, the film is novel in that funding was partly achieved through social networking and has over 400 producers. Onir and Sanjay Suri initiated a page on Facebook where people were invited to sign up to help finance the film or volunteer their time. Manish Malhotra for example designed the costumes for free and many of the actors did not receive any remuneration. Also, somewhat unusually, there are three directors who appear as actors in the film; Anurag Kashyap, Anurag Basu and Nandita Das. I Am has won acclaim in a number of film festivals, a number of awards already, and luckily for us premiered in Australia as the closing film for the Indian Film Festival. As an added bonus, Onir and Juhi Chawla were present at the screening I attended in Melbourne to introduce the film and to take part in a Q and A session afterwards. My favourite actress, a director whose previous work I’ve enjoyed and his brand new film all adds up to a perfect way to spend an evening.
The four stories are loosely linked together by friendships, connections and chance meetings between the characters, and this works well as a connecting thread without feeling too contrived. The first story is Afia’s (Nandita Das)and deals with her determination to have a child by herself after her divorce. Her friend Megha (Juhi Chawla) speaks as the’ voice of society’ condemning Afia for what she perceives as selfishness and the story raises a number of questions around the issues of single parenthood and artificial insemination versus adoption. The debates between Afia and Megha are honest and natural and the conversations Afia has with a number of her male acquaintances as she looks for a sperm donor ring embarrassingly true. Onir described Afia’s story as the most ‘Bollywood’ and it does follow a more traditional story telling path compared to the rest of the film. I don’t relate to this story personally as Afia’s decisions would not be mine, although I mainly agree with her right to choose.
The second story is Megha’s own and describes a trip she makes back to Srinigar for business, having left the area some twenty years before with her family as part of the Kashmiri Pandit evacuation. She stays with her childhood friend Rubina (Manisha Koirala) and the contrast between the two women; one who was forced to leave and one who had to stay, forms the focus of this section. The suffering on both sides is evident and Rubina envies Megha’s freedom of living in Delhi away from the continual threat of fighting. Megha in turn resents having had to flee the violent attacks on her family. Srinigar looks very similar to my home town of Belfast in the seventies, with bombed out buildings, soldiers everywhere and the ubiquitous presence of barbed wire. But behind the rubble there is still beauty in the landscape and Onir manages to capture this equally as well as the devastation. This was a very touching story and I was surprised to read in the statistics at the end of the film just how many people were displaced as this is something I know very little about.
The third story is that of film maker Abhimanyu (Sanjay Suri) and deals with the taboo subject of child abuse. We see that Abhi was abused by his step father as a child and this is his story about finally being able to speak up about his childhood. Abhi has recurrent dreams of his mother and many of the scenes also have a dream like quality as if Abhi can only bear to relive them a step removed. There is a well-defined contrast between Abhi’s party life style and large group of casual friends and the scenes where he confronts his past with his close friend Apama. Throughout the story Abhi is conflicted about his sexuality and his childhood experiences have had an obvious effect on his ability to form relationships. This is a very difficult subject to film but Onir and Sanjay manage to deal with it sensitively and the story is well told.
The final story is the most shocking for me in many ways, not because it features men kissing, but because of the events that follow. This is Omar’s story and explains how Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code is used to extort money – and more – from homosexual men. Omar is a hustler picked up in a bar by Jai before they are spotted by a corrupt cop. The confrontation is graphic and detailed, and it’s very disturbing to know that it is based on true accounts. Onir expressed his amazement during the Q and A session that the film got through the censors without getting any visual cuts (mainly referring to this story) and I am amazed along with him. Some of the dialogue was muted, however the subtitles were abundantly clear as to the viciousness of the scene depicted despite the many ****’s. Rahul Bose as Jai was incredible in this and was able to effectively portray subtle changes in Jai’s mannerisms as a consequence of his experience. I am very impressed with his performance as he really made me believe this story, much as I didn’t want to.
The film starts with an easy to digest story and ends with a truly sickening one. The progression is deliberate and the style of shooting changes along with the dialogue delivery. Afia’s story is shot with open angles and plenty of space, but by the time we reach Omar’s story the style is much more closed in and claustrophobic. The dialogue becomes more graphic in each story as does the action on-screen. I find it hard to describe my feelings about this film – I can’t say that I enjoyed it, because I felt too uncomfortable while watching. And it’s not a film to be enjoyed as such anyway. It is brilliantly filmed – the actors are outstanding and the stories themselves are very well written and I can appreciate it as a work of art. It would be more accurate to say that I enjoyed the experience and think that the film is excellent, just not one for everyone’s tastes. Thought-provoking and challenging, I Am gets 4½ stars.
Thanks for the writeup on this film. It does sound very compelling, but at the same time, as you noted, I’m not sure I would rush out and try to find it; or even watch it if I stumbled on to it. It would depend so much on my mood.
From your description, it sounds like the first story (with Nandita Das) is the most contrived. I say this because I don’t really know how many women in India choose either single motherhood or artificial insemination as a means to achieve that, or indeed, if there are any sperm banks in India for this purpose. To me this strikes a very jarring note, as of a story that is very plausible in a different country being imposed onto the Indian setting. The other three stories, OTOH, even if they deal with little talked about issues, are more organic to the place, I think.
One question I had was, was there any attempt in the film to draw parallels to the plights of the characters in the four stories, to have a thematic unity? By this I mean, for example, in the last story, there is a section of the community which is clearly being oppressed. Was there any attempt to link their oppression to that of the people in the previous two films, even if that is of a different type? For example, in the U.S., there are a lot of parallels drawn between the fight of gay people to overcome negative stereotypes and that of women to do the same; moreover, it is recognized that part of the reason for the oppression of gay people is because of the stereotyped gender roles that hold back women. I am wondering if there was any of this kind of linking of oppression, so to speak. The first story, from what you have said of it here, doesn’t seem to lend itself to fit into this kind of framework, but maybe that, too, can be made to fit.
As an aside, I think I read that the opening film to this festival was Dabangg? I guess you didn’t write about it since you have already reviewed the film. Did you even go to see it, or did you skip it for the same reason? I am wondering what the audience reception to it was at the festival. Did the audience consist of mostly newcomers to the Indian film experience, or experienced viewers? I am curious about the new viewers’ reaction, if they were there.
Thanks for your comments. All the stories are based on true events or in some cases a collection of events, so while I agree that not many women chose single motherhood (and not just in India) there must be some women out there who are choosing this option. There was a lot more to the story though I just have tried not to give too much away 🙂
There are parallels drawn between the characters in the film but it’s not quite as clear cut as you describe. All the characters are fighting to overcome the events which have shaped their lives rather than actively fighting against the source of the event. So for example, rather than fight against Article 377 or even the police corruption, Jai celebrates the court decision that changed the law in July 2009 and changes the way he lives his life. Rather than fight against the forces that displaced her family, Megha lives in exile but revisits her former home in order to be able to move forward with her life. Onir has written that I Am is a ‘film about people with fractured lives held together by unbroken dreams’ and it seems that their stories are really about how they achieve those dreams and put their lives back together.
The audience reaction to I Am was very positive. People asked questions about the meaning behind some of the symbolism and why Onir had chosen these particular stories to tell. The audience was predominantly Indian, but there was a reasonable group of people from other backgrounds. I would say that most of them had been to see other independent Indian cinema before judging by the questions they asked, and most people had seen at least one of Onir’s other films.
I didn’t go to Dabangg for exactly the reason you say, and I’ve also got a copy on DVD and have seen it quite a few times – I love Dabangg!! So sorry, but no idea about the audience for that 🙂
For the other films I’ve seen the audience has been mixed and since I mainly went to films in the ‘Beyond Bollywood’ section they were regular film festival goers rather than Bolly addicts. Sadly most of these weren’t very well attended and I hope that next year we get a few more mainstream films from the South as I think they would get bigger audiences. That said, I enjoyed the opportunity to see some of the less well known films this year, even if they didn’t all live up to expectation.
Sorry, I’ve been really rushed for the past couple of days, and still am, so I just wanted to say thank you for your detailed reply.
This sounds very interesting! But it also sounds like a DVD purchase for me, so I can skip the difficult parts. And Bollywood or no Bollywood style story, I’ll be so happy to see Juhi in a good role 😀 Yay!
Btw, men kissing and gender confusion/homosexuality showed up in another Hindi film last year: Pankh. I recommend it if only for the fact that it’s so very unique. If you’re into this type of film I sort of blogged about it, but not really a review, here: http://dolcenamak.blogspot.com/2010/07/unbearable-lightness-of-being-milan.html. It’s…. different, very surreal. 🙂
Thanks for the recommendation – I do like these ‘parallel cinema’ films, and although I’ve heard of Pankh I haven’t seen it yet. But I’ll make sure I hunt down a copy 🙂
With I Am, what I probably wasn’t very clear about is that their sexuality doesn’t seem to be the important facet of these characters. It’s almost incidental that Abhi is unsure about his sexuality – the real issue is the abuse he suffered as a child and its long term effects on him (although one of these effects is his confusion about his sexual orientation). Similarly with Omar the story is about the corruption and intimidation rather than the gay characters – or at least that was how I felt. Onir has made their sexuality a lesser part of the story – its not as important that these characters are gay, but rather that they are victims of corruption because of an outdated law. I hope that makes sense – I really need to see the film again to see if I get the same feeling from it a second time. I was so shocked at what was happening that I may not have managed to take it all in! I don’t think you’ll skip it though – just fast forward to reassure yourself it’s not too hideous and then watch it for Rahul Bose who is truely outstanding in my opinion.
And yes – Juhi is great, as always. It was wonderful to see her in Melbourne and to hear her speak about Megha’s story 🙂 And her story, although just as confronting is an easier watch.
I’ve heard much about this film, also about the facebook page and it sounds very attractive for me… But Nandita Das has acted in various films, hasn’t she?
A must-see (for me).
Yes, I think Nandita Das is probably better known for her acting, but she has directed a film as well (Firaaq, which is on my pile of films to watch). I think it’s interesting though that the other two directors, whom I don’t think have acted in any other films, were playing quite important roles in I Am and did a really good job too!
When I saw I Am was playing at the film festival here it was a must see for me too – I really liked My Brother Nikhil and of course I’m a very big fan of Juhi Chawla – absolute bonus to have both Onir and Juhi here 🙂
I hope you get to see it soon.
Thanks for this write up. We’ve been closely working with Onir to promote I Am and I’m so glad its finally out. He originally had planned to make these individually but he’s a direct who forever struggles for funding. In the end I think the four stories work great together and personally I love multi storyline films. I look forward to seeing it even more now that I’ve read your thoughts.
Thanks – I’ve seen quite a lot of the promotion and that did make me determined to see it at the festival – of course the presence of Juhi and Onir was a big draw-card too 🙂
It’s really a great film and very well worth seeing. I hope it gets a wide release in Australia on 22nd, but we haven’t been getting many of the smaller production house films at all 😦
I think the four stories work well together and make for a stronger film. Each individual story works well in its own right, but the combination and the way the film progresses is very effective. Hope you get to see it soon!