A still from Aamis
By Uday Kanungo
When director Bhaskar Hazarika’s film Aamis released last November, after a stellar festival run at such reputed places as Tribeca Film Festival, the Covid-19 pandemic was still a month or so away. However, the film already presciently contained aspects of the coronavirus crisis that would go on to occupy all of humanity this year – namely, our interactions with wildlife, the cultural significance of varied eating practices, and the very way we traverse across the binary between edible and inedible. Following the story of Sumon, a Ph.D student researching the culinary cultures of North-East India, and Nirmali, a married pediatrician, the viewer very soon turns unknown corners, and descends deeper into something much more transgressive than extra-marital affections.
Hazarika sets the story in a modest and innocuous township which, by its very subdued surroundings, seems certain of its moral values. Only the two protagonists seem prone to explore beyond their circles. Sumon disregards his research simply to spend more time with Nirmali, and in her turn, she finds herself fighting against mundane fidelity to a partner who is not always present beside her. They are brought closer by a peculiar hobby of trying different eclectic meats every time they meet, not knowing themselves how they progress towards a transgression, one dish at a time. While telling the story, Hazarika’s camera lingers considerably on the Assamese countryside farms and bamboo-made shacks in which many local delicacies are served on the protagonists’ plates. These scenes establish how closely the characters are connected to the local space they live in. The tale of two people is thus, always, backgrounded by a geographical sensibility that abounds in miscellaneous food items, and underneath the plot, the film turns subtly into an exploration of the political and moral underpinnings of what we choose as food.
Although the film nudged its audience to think about how the majority of the population viewed communities through the lens of their food, Hazarika’s bold decisions ensured that the film transcended localities and states and became an essential moral conflict framed rapturously in a chilling story. When Sumon explains in a scene that his research explores how the definition of ‘normal’ changes as quickly as we change cultures, it foreshadows the way the choice the lovers make will challenge our moralities as well. At a time in the country when the eating habits of many communities led to their vilification and occasional violent crimes, Aamis comes across as a fresh study of what makes people draw lines based on the cuisines their neighbors eat.
Recently, the national award-winning director spoke to us about several such aspects of Aamis, his filming process, how the film can be perceived amid the coronavirus crisis, and what he plans for his next venture.
The first thing I was struck by was the great device of telling the first half of the film mostly through a montage of text messages between two characters. That was a refreshingly different choice, instead of the usual dialogue and exposition. How did it strike you to convey their relationship through messages?
It’s a fact that in modern times relationships usually develop first over texts and phone calls. Also both the characters are shy and awkward people, so I have observed that such kinds of people are more forthcoming when communicating over texts and phone calls rather than in person. Besides we only have 90-100 mins to tell the story, so having them meet each other regularly just to talk would rob us of the chance to see their lives apart from each other.
They have an ‘us vs the world’ sensibility about them. Did you view them existing in a world beyond morality? Because the film felt like it was letting them breathe, and the end, paradoxically, liberates them in a way, and not the opposite, as some may think. It reminded me of works like Lolita and how they end, they stretch into a fictional future where they transcend moral planes.
I look at that scene as that point in Nirmali’s life when she realises that she has nothing else left to lose, and does not care anymore what others think of her. It was this constant fear of being judged that made her repress her feelings for Sumon initially. It is indeed ironic that she becomes free at the moment of her incarceration. As for Sumon, all he ever wanted was to be touched by her once. So finally his love story seemed complete. At one level the whole point of the film is to refrain from judging the sinner, even though you’re free to hate the sin. What’s it they say in the bible – “let he who has not sinned throw the first stone..”? It’s like that.
People often categorize Assam, in fact most North-Eastern states, as places whose food habits would be unusual. Was that parallel ever going on in your mind while writing this…that people called Sumon and Nirmali’s relationship as strange as some people would call the eating habits of people they don’t know? As one of the characters says at a party that ‘all normal cuisine is relative’, so, did you think of that parallel?
See, the thing I need to state straight off the bat is that Aamis is a film from the pre-Covid world. In that world, which we have left behind forever, what people and communities choose to eat was an example of the diversity of human civilization, something that is worthy of preserving.
The destruction that Covid19 has wrought has put the spotlight on this aspect of human food habits, in particular the commercialization of wild animal meat in “wet markets.” In Aamis, we had flagged the dangers brought by commercial farming of meat to human health and the environment, which was the reason why Sumon and his ‘Meat Club’ would not eat anything that has been produced by the meat industry. I think that position is still valid.
I read somewhere that you like Edgar Allan Poe and Lovecraft’s work? Is that true? And if so, is the transgressive element in Aamis influenced by that genre of macabre?
Yes I have read a lot of both authors’ work as well as other masters of the genre, in my youth. Their work has had a deep influence on me so far. I like how fantasy, sci-fi and horror writers challenge one’s imagination and beliefs, and I hope to achieve the same in my work too.
The film had great blocking and interesting contrast between foreground and background. I’m thinking of scenes where they are framed by the window and eat facing the wind, for example. I was wondering if you do any story-boarding at all?
Well, when you’re doing indie cinema on a shoestring budget, many things, such as storyboarding and exhaustive location recces are luxuries you do not have. So most of the blocking was done by cinematographer Riju Das, myself and Chief AD Ghanashyam Kalita on the spot, incorporating the existing props and backgrounds that the location offered. Besides, not all films require extensive storyboarding as this oftentimes limits your imagination at the moment of art creation. The script in itself had very little camera cues.
How was your experience taking the film around all the festivals in the world? Was there a strong sense from the audience that they had not expected an Indian film of this tone and boldness – something not dramatic on that large scale they are probably familiar with and so on?
I had experienced the international festival circuit with my first film, which I personally took to many parts of the world. So some of that first excitement was missing. The film travelled to festivals mostly alone, and feedback from audiences have mostly been good.
There is a lot of foreshadowing, shots and statements that hint towards a certain movement of the story. If it was intentional, then how do you place them in your screenplay? Do you work towards the climax with all these hints, placed in advance, or does the whole thing fall into place more or less simultaneously in your mind?
As I never tire of reiterating, I do not sit down to write scene number 1 unless I know what the last scene is going to be. This makes it a relatively simple matter of getting from here to there, rather than setting off not knowing where you’ll end up. And because I know where this is all leading to, it makes it that much easier to seed or foreshadow the end throughout the script
Could I ask you a bit about your upcoming projects, if you are planning a feature film soon, as soon as the Covid crisis ends, or any other projects, and if you could tell what do they deal with?
We just concluded shooting for a film I wrote called Emuthi Puthi. It’s an Assamese film and a bittersweet comedy about a family on the road. It’s a fun and breezy film that also happens to be the first ever shot on iPhone out of the North East, and is directed by Kulanandini Mahanta. It’s being produced by the little studio I founded called Metanormal, and we hope to bring it to audiences as soon as the situation normalizes a little. Apart from that, I am busy with writing assignments for web series and films.