I first heard of I AM from Harish Iyer (on whose life one of the stories is part-based). After that, I’ve watched this project grow from an idea into a social media venture into an honest-to-goodness film. One of (and it’s only one) I AM claims to fame is the fact that it is an entirely crowd-sourced film. The movie has over 500 producers from all over the world, people who caught the idea on their social fora/networks and decided to add their support to it.
(Please note this review has spoilers)
Another way I AM stands out is that it adds to the multiple story genre (only sporadically experimented with, by Bollywood with Dus Kahaniyan and Darna Mana Hain/Zaroori Hain). It’s not just comprised of four stories. These stories also have links to each other, no matter how tenuous in the vein of LSD (Love, Sex Aur Dhoka). The key characters in each story appear briefly in the other stories, as support characters. The format is an unusual one and itself bold, considering how the aforementioned films fared at the box office.
Which brings us to the question of whether the movie manages to retain any of that bold attitude when it comes to the subjects. That’s tricky to say, since there are after all four stories to be judged (each by a different director), not to mention a glittering star cast. Each of the four stories deals with a shift, even a crisis of identity through stories of child abuse, single motherhood, homosexuality and war refugees. As diverse as these situations may seem, they are held together by the human condition of dealing with love, loss, betrayal, death and rebirth.
The first story, I AM Afia features Nandita Das in the role of a recently deserted woman who decides to bring meaning back into her life on her own, through motherhood. While the acting was competent, I thought the story’s sensitivity came from the way the situation was laid out. Purab Kohli as the eager but awkward student donor was a refreshing surprise, being as one is used to seeing him in relatively superficial roles.
The second story, I AM Megha was what really caught my attention. After all, what’s a story about Kashmiri Pandits doing in a film about human relationship issues? To my pleasant surprise, it turned out to be the best story in the quartet. I was already impressed by Juhi Chawla’s second actress avatar in Teen Deewarein. I AM only cements my belief that a talented actress was wasted because she arrived in Bollywood about two decades too early for a role that showcased her talent. Juhi superbly brought out the tightly controlled angst, the suppressed anger of a war-displaced civilian as well as the awkward joy of an adult coming home to the place she knew as a child. Contrary to the style of her days in Bollywood, there were no histrionics, no OTT expressions or exclamations. All of this done with a tightened pair of lips and tearless, crying eyes. Manisha Koirala, (perhaps a little luckier with the roles she had a chance to essay in Bollywood) also held her own as the Muslim girl who stayed back in Kashmir even through the atrocities meted out to her family. This story underlined the idea that serious film-making need not be heavy or sluggish.
The third story, I AM Abhimanyu was the one that I really went to watch the movie for, based as it was partly on Harish’s life. I have to say I was rather disappointed. This time, it wasn’t the acting that fell short. Indeed Sanjay Suri as the tormented victim and Anurag Kashyap as his step-father portrayed their respective roles as best as could be expected. But I thought the story itself set out ambitiously, then got scared, tiptoed around the issue without ever facing it and withdrew rather ungracefully. The ending of the story was wrapped up a little too tidily, too quickly for it to seem real. Victims of child abuse struggle to face what has happened to them. Talking about it does not come easily, least of all to a parent on whom rests the expectation of protection. A death brings its own share of emotional upheaval, unwanted baggage and an entire layer of new, hard-to-deal-with feelings. Tying off that story with an emotional outburst in such a situation just seemed like a bad hat-tip to Bollywood at its worst. Possibly because of my high expectations riding on this one, I felt almost angry at the thought that I AM Abhimanyu seemed to parody rather than embody a very tangible, very horrific reality of families. In this one story, the actors saved the story from sinking into a seedy, dark mess. My most vivid memory is Sanjay Suri saying,
“He was looking for a widow. One with a small child.”
Maybe because of the emotional roller-coaster of the past three stories, I was worn out by the time we got to I AM Omar. In all fairness, I did not give it as much attention or patience as the other stories. I AM Omar must face the brunt of its placement at the very end of the movie which magnifies even the slightest of slips. Rahul Bose was probably the only one who could keep this story from bombing. My only real grouse with this story is that it was more about betrayal than gay rights. The narrative was more in the vein of a confidence trickster plot than a human interest story. Still, I guess the film-makers tried to depict something other than the standard familial opposition/ straight marriage/ childhood bullying aspects of homosexuality in India. Full marks for innovation then.
I saw the movie over two months before its release in the theater, courtesy their marketing team. At that time, I was told that some of the feedback could be used to make alterations. I haven’t seen the film in the theater after that so I don’t know if much has been changed. But I would think there wouldn’t be any modifications in major elements like plot and acting. One of the recommendations was to tone down the background music, since its volume and pace completely shattered the sensitivity and subtleness of the stories’ portrayal. I’ll hope that suggestion has been heeded since sound can really kill or create the right mood with the audience.
All in all, I’d say I AM is worth a watch, if only for how many restrictive norms it breaks. It’s hard to speak objectively about something that’s so close (based on a friend’s life), that at least tries to tackle issues most film-makers wouldn’t even talk about and does these by telling a genuine story instead of guilt-tripping the audience into watching because ‘it is about an important issue’. I’d say go watch it and judge for yourself.