Picture this: on a dreary Sunday afternoon in 2010, you decide to visit your local independent cinema. There, you discover it’s the last day of an artsy film festival ー something about identity in Asia, or perhaps LGBTQ rights around the globe. You notice that a collection of short films is about to be shown, and you buy a surprisingly cheap ticket. There are six other people in the queue, and one of them works there, but everyone seems excited. You sit down in the third row ーa prime spot, but not so far forward as to seem over-keen. The lights go down, and the titles roll.
This is how it feels to watch this film.
Directed by the enigmatically mononymous Onir, I Am is an anthology film, telling four based-on-real-life stories. We travel across India to visit Afir, Megha, Abhimanyu and Omar as they struggle with their respective identities and histories.
The thread linking these rather tenuously intertwined lives is less obvious than perhaps intended. There is a certain visual identity throughout, helped by identifiably late-00s fashion, but the stories don’t seem particularly connected on a thematic level. Brief descriptions of the film found on Netflix and Wikipedia cite identity and fear as common themes, and upon reflection I also found fraught relationships, struggles against adversity, and searching for closure ー though I did really want to see them.
Another less favourable commonality (from an artistic perspective of course, I’m not saying adversity is favourable…) is a lack of clarity around relationships. For example, Megha and Rubina in the second story: are they sisters? Childhood friends? Unrequited lovers? And Abhimanya and Jai at the start of the third: are they just old friends? Do I see hints of sexual tension? It should be noted that I spent these two stories waiting, mostly without success, for the gay storyline, so queer yearning may have exacerbated my confusion.
Top-tip: don’t look too hard for the gay storylines early on. By the end, they will find you.
Unlike thematic threads and relationship definitions, the dialogue meanders smoothly, flitting between English and the five Indian languages of Hindi, Kashmiri, Kanadaa, Marathi and Bengali ー often within the same sentence. This is rarely jarring; except, perhaps, when Megha says almost a whole sentence in Hindi with just the phrase “massive heart attack” in English. Look out for that one.
As you’ll probably deduce from the following analysis, the stories, I feel, get better as the anthology progresses. They become more powerful. The ending of the last story (which I won’t spoil, don’t worry) left me shaken to my core, and made me research the themes it explored.
Yet, for me, the film started off less impactful, less thought-provoking, and less loud.
A more generous critic might call the first story understated. Our protagonist here is played by Nandita Das. Afir, we discover in a series of somewhat chaotically placed flashbacks, is recently divorced. (Sidenote: upon learning this, there was a moment when I expected the infamously memed Indian soap opera editing. Instead, rightly or wrongly, we remain understated.) Afir struggles with her decision to have a baby as a single woman, facing opposition from friends, and we follow her emotional journey.
Biggest Gay Mood: “I’m never gonna trust another man, ever. It’s just not worth it” ーAfir
The first story’s best quality is shared, and indeed often exceeded, by the other three: it is visually interesting. The use of blue light is particularly intriguing, perhaps representing Afir’s deepest moments of doubt. As the start of our anthology, it also holds the excitement of discovering the exquisitely placed soundtrack. As I wrote in my notes: ‘Hindi rock is IT sis’. That was my biggest take away from the first story, and if I’m being generous I can say that it at least set the scene for the anthology well.
Next, as we fly with Megha (Juhi Chawla) over to the Kashmir region of India, the tone becomes more sinister and tense. She is making a brief trip back to her hometown and we discover, alongside Megha, the devastation brought on by ongoing internal racial conflict. In a confidently powerful auditory effect, screams and gunfire thrust themselves into the soundtrack as she revists her uncle’s now dilapidated house. Indeed, it is not obvious at first that these sounds only exist in the building’s own memory. This serves for an even more forceful effect.
And yet, I have to ask myself why the moment that stressed me out the most in Megha’s saga was thinking she was about to pour (surely expensive) saffron into a river. [Mild spoiler: it turned out to be her father’s ashes.] Perhaps it is because the rest of her scenes felt somewhat repetitive, and at the same time rushed ー Megha couldn’t wait to leave, and by the end neither could we. Still, there is a sensitively played dynamic between Megha and Rubina, and this tactfully played relationship is a definite highlight. Overall, this second story is best summed up by one of the last images we see of Megha: reaching out tentatively towards Rubina, where the camera is positioned. It is almost touching.
Next we move onto Abhimanyu (Sanjay Suri), or ‘Ashu’ for short, whose trajectory is less immediately obvious. We start seeing him lounging and chatting with his friend-or-maybe-girlfriend. Her name is Natasha, but with so many characters in 1 hour and 50 minutes, in my notes I just called her Eyebrows ーthey are, even upside-down, magnificent. I will be referring to her as such throughout the review. Eyebrows (Radhika Apte) and her eyebrows are the stand-out of this story, she loves and supports Ashu through the difficult revelations of his past. Perhaps the biggest lesson from his story is a damning account of how badly abuse can fuck you up.
Flashbacks and dream sequences are used rather weirdly in this story, and it is not always obvious which, or both, of the two categories some scenes fall into. There are several references to largely unexplored questioning of gender and sexuality, which, being placed earlier in the sequence than the anthology’s only truly queer storyline, initially echoes of tokenism. Watching the flashbacks and/or dreams, I asked myself several questions: who is he in bed with? Is that his younger self? Why is Ashu a girl in some memories/fantasies but a boy in others? Why are there so many kittens? We only get a definitive answer to this last question, and it is rather sinister. I can say that I did enjoy the moment when the music unexpectedly and yet smoothly transitions from in the background to from Ashu’s guitar and vocal chords. Although, to be honest, for this whole scene I was just missing Eyebrows. Yes, that is her on the header. Where is her story?
Britney Line Time: “what am I to do to win my life?”
Wrapping up the anthology, Omar’s story, headlined by the absurdly beautiful Arjun Mathur, is where this film truly shines. And it’s the GAYEST, by far. Take that, straighties.
I say Omar’s story, but we begin with Jai (Rahul Bose), the only character I remember seeing in two different parts of the anthology ー he had lunch with Ashu in his story. We see the two meet in an all too familiar awkward encounter: each one tries to determine whether the other is a homo, despite their mutual (gay) intentions being glaringly obvious to the viewer. We follow them through dinner into Jai’s car as they travel through a dark cruising district of Mumbai. With nowhere else to be alone, the music stops as they approach a kiss in the car. Suddenly in silence, we hear (not specifically sexual) heavy breathing and sniffing before they even touch. The lack of music, so expertly used elsewhere in the anthology, highlights a special mix of desire and awkwardness in this short-lived almost-sex scene. Shame, both interalised and external, takes center stage, as it grapples with lust and greed. The silence of the night is deafeningly loud.
This last story highlights the anthology’s true strength, and at the same time undermines its weaknesses. I Am’s greatest power lies in its volume, not in its subtlety. What were meant to be understated moments early on are lost to powerful socio-political statements. Glimmers of light are overtaken by darkness: during bright moments, the sun only peaks behind the clouds, but when it rains, it pours.
Header image via Netflix (screenshot)