I for identity
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- Published 30.04.11
I Am opens with Rabindranath Tagore’s celebrated lines of empowerment: “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high....” And while many films quote many lines at the start and can never justify why those words were put there to begin with, Onir’s four-in-one fourth film is that rare celluloid experience which actually lives those lines from Gitanjali.
Over the half-an-hour screen time that each story gets, all the four protagonists of I Am — and some of the characters they bump into — develop minds without fear and learn to hold their heads high as their identities are threatened by their minority status in society.
While it’s easy to pack the four title characters into one basket as ‘victims of discrimination’, Afia, Megha, Abhimanyu and Omar are much more complex than sympathy-seeking sorry souls. They are vehicles of choices, of choices they make and of choices gifted to them.
There is a vague attempt to tie the four stories together with characters from one story randomly wandering into another but you must know that I Am is a classical portmanteau movie where the stories exist on their own. And they are no easy stories, with the struggle getting more physical and the wounds getting more raw with every passing reel.
I Am starts with Afia (an earnest Nandita Das), a woman in Calcutta whose maternal pangs are reignited when she spots her ex with his pregnant wife. When “I am never going to trust another man” converges with “I want to have my own child”, Afia opts for artificial insemination.
Onir, who turned Pedro Almodovar’s Live Flesh into Bas Ek Pal, picks the Spanish master’s favourite theme of lives connected through events and organs, and bends Afia into a beautiful relationship tale born out of a little cup at the fertility clinic. The sperm donor (the effortless Purab Kohli) gets sucked into the life of a woman desperate to put a face to the man who fathered her child and their lives change in an instant.
The next story is simply called Megha but it deals with two women — Megha (Juhi Chawla) and Rubina (Manisha Koirala). One comes from a Hindu pandit family who couldn’t return to her Kashmir home for 20 years and the other is her childhood Muslim friend who had to stay there for those two decades, pinned to the barbed wires. “Jannat mein jeene ki sazaa!”
Essentially a verbose story, the two veteran actresses bring all their expertise to the enterprise and bring alive the sweet-turned-sordid history of the space they occupy. While many full-length films struggle to drive home the point, Megha with its miniscule length manages to write in bold the ultimate tragedy about Kashmir — “Everyone has paid a price here.”
Abhimanyu, the child abuse tale, gets the shock-and-sensitivity balance just right. Perhaps because Onir had planned an entire feature with the same story and so when he compresses it into 30-odd minutes, every little layer slips in somewhere.
What makes the episode rise above the usual suffocating moments, is that Abhimanyu (a restrained Sanjay Suri), the man from Bangalore who was abused by his step-father (a terrific Anurag Kashyap) as a child, gives it back to the world by using everyone around him. “I was a slut at 13!” Add to that his constant dream, where he sees himself as a girl seeking her mother’s protection, and his pet cat as the purring witness to his upturned world and you have a short which makes you uneasy but never alienates you.
That’s not what you can say about the last story Omar. In a twist in the title tale, Onir names his final Mumbai lap after not the victim (Jai, played by Rahul Bose) but the hustler (Arjun Mathur) who fakes a relationship and exploits the prevalent homosexuality laws.
If you find yourself squirming in your seat when the two men kiss, wait for the cop (an explosive Abhimanyu Singh) to arrive and Omar — and I Am the film in totality — switches to fifth gear. It’s a violent culmination of a tale that leaves you scarred and even scared about the world that surrounds you.
For a film, which was funded Rs 500 at a time from supporters through social networks, I Am is a monumental achievement. It has its share of problems — the English dialogues don’t roll off the tongues too well, the songs slow down the pace — but just like in Onir’s first film My Brother... Nikhil, this one too is about what is being said and not how it’s being said.
Most of us may not have the misfortune of fighting the war that the four people have to wage in this film. But if you look closer, there’s a mirror there somewhere for each of us.