Onir’s I Am – the kind of cinema I like: film review

Posted: May 1, 2011 in Uncategorized
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** Spoiler Warning: Scenes and stories of the film, I Am, are described as part of this review. If you intend to watch the film and do not want to know about this, you should stop right here. Perhaps read this after you see the film, and share your thoughts about the film. **

Having seen previous works of Onir (Sorry Bhai and My Brother Nikhil), it did not take much persuasion for me to get to the cinema, when his new film, I Am released this week.

The very few screens that the film was showing at (had to go to a new cinema, where I’ve never been to catch this show), and the sparsely occupied first Saturday evening show after the release, is an indication of his kind of cinema being a niche variety.

But as it turned out, I Am is the exact kind of cinema that I like.

I like stories of real people, their challenges, their weaknesses, their struggles, their emotions.

I like these better than science fiction (someone going into the past and changing things or whatever) or fantasy (magic wands and flying people in strange lands) or stories of people having the rarest of rare diseases, etc.

I Am on the other hand, depicts a story which is more commonplace, something that doesn’t demand a lot of imagination to understand or appreciate.

There is just so much happening in real life around us, all of us have stories to tell, there is drama, there is emotion, there is joy and fear and insecurity and what not. Why do we need to go to out of space or in some strange lands to create movies.

So, thanks to Onir for a real-life story.

Oh wait.. was it one story or many stories??

Yes, that actually is a question. And I am almost tempted to feel that Onir was working on multiple ideas (have seen this often in very creative people) to perhaps make multiple screenplays. And either there was not enough material to do 5 different films, or he just did not want to wait for so long. And hence, he fitted them into a single film, I Am!!

And I did not realize this part. So half-way after the interval, I am still wondering.. “is there going to be some interesting end, where all of these are going to combine into some kind of climax?”. But they don’t and which is fine.

So there are a few independent stories of characters who are thinly – very thinly – connected to each other. And those connections are shown. The only purpose of showing this could be that, while we feel, we are the ones carrying the biggest burdens of stress on our heads, the reality could be that there is a struggle inside each of us. Maybe we just don’t show it, or we don’t notice these in the people we meet and interact with. But if there was a way to glance inside the opposite person’s life, there is perhaps, an equal if not bigger struggle right there.

So with the different characters, Onir takes on some major issues, all at one time:

  • Lady with a bad experience of a relationship, has sworn off men but still wants a child of her own. And believes that the genes of the donor sperm will impact the child, so struggles to want the right person, and struggles with her own decision, of doing it her way. Nandita Das in this role, is brilliant. She is of course, one of India’s best talents. And has that classic Bengali look. Thoughtful, deep thinking, artistic, yet sensual. Onir shows her without much make up, and in some of the scenes (especially the one with a background score, where she is going through Kolkata, in the metro, mostly), the creases on the face show, and she actually looks ‘old’. But this may have been by choice, to depict the dilemma inside her, and the accompanying stress. In this episode, we also see a subdued character depicted by Purab Kohli. Well played again. After Rock On, here’s another good performance by the man, though in a small role here. Aerial shots of Kolkata at dusk, are quite brilliant.
  • Then, there is this other story of a Kashmiri Pundit (Juhi Chawla) who has migrated out of Srinagar during the times when things got very difficult for the Pundits to stay there. And who returns to finally sell off her old family property there. And meets her childhood friend (Manisha Koirala) and her Kashmiri Muslim family there. After so many years, the relationship is stressful. Somewhere deep inside, Juhi feels that Manisha and her family and their kind, were responsible for driving her and her family out of their homes here. Till Manisha talks about her side, and what her life has been reduced to. Without any flashbacks, but just showing facial expressions, as they walk around the now-changed favorite childhood locales, the angst can be appreciated. Juhi and Manisha, both are brilliant here. Also if the Srinagar shown here, and the people of Srinagar shown here, are realities, then it is really, really sad. Streets full of security personnel, fundamental suspicion all around, basically sad faces, dirty barren Dal lake. True, as the Kashmiri says, “meri jannat ko kisiki bahut buri nazar lag gayi”. The destruction of paradise, as it were.
  • We have the story of Sanjay Suri, and the issue addressed here, is about child sexual abuse. And particularly about how, the character abused, learns to first gets gratification for his acts, then learns to demand, and ultimately masters the art of exploiting the elder, in return! As he says later in life, “at age 13, I became a slut”!
  • And then there is the character of Rahul Bose, corporate head honcho, having the best of life. And he’s gay. Pre-homosexuality acceptance bill, we see his struggle to keep this a secret, and a particular harrowing episode of a run-in with the cops. And his feeling of freedom, post the passage of the bill. Interesting to see the evolution of permissiveness on Indian cinema screens. I still remember how a flower would come between the camera and kissing lips, or the long hair of the actress covering the embrace of the couple, as the lip-lock was taboo on the screen. That’s left far behind. Almost seems laughable in today’s times. We have seen so much more, since those old days. So not sure if this was a new first. A gay kiss on screen, between Rahul Bose and his partner. And Bollywood and Indian society move to the next level – will not say, if the next level is up or down. Leave it to your own moral judgment on the matter!!
To summarize, Onir spins an interesting set of stories, in I Am. Extracts excellent performances from all the cast. And that’s important, as it is all about acting and about emotions, and hence totally dependent on the actors to deliver. Which they do.
Seeing performances of Nandita Das, Juhi Chawla and Manisha Koirala, you are left wishing that they would get more good projects, and we get to see a lot more of these trio of good actors!
In terms of a recommendation to see or not, clearly this film is not for everyone. If you’re the Source Code or the Harry Potter or a Shor in the City or a Naughty at 40 kind, you can safely give this one a miss. I Am is chalk and cheese different from all of those kinds. But like me, if you are a sucker for some good storytelling, good acting, real-life depiction, then go for I Am. You will not regret it.
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