In a monthly series–a kind of a double bill–we pick two films that share characteristics that may not be obvious at first glance. In the second instalment, we discuss Nagisa Oshima's In the Realm of the Senses (1976) and Bhaskar Hazarika's Aamis (2019)
In 1978, the great Japanese provocateur, Nagisa Oshima, made a film called Empire of Passion. It was about a married woman, with a seemingly peaceful family life, who begins a torrid love affair with a younger man from the village. A crime of passion follows, done in the heat of the moment (and regretted immediately). It was both a companion piece and a follow up to the controversial erotic classic In the Realm of the Senses (1976), Oshima's most famous work, also a tale of forbidden love, but one that unfolds between a former prostitute and servant, Sada (Eiko Matsuda), and her master, Kichizo (Tatsuya Fuji), in 1934 Tokyo.
On the face, the Assamese film Aamis, the most talked-about Indian indie film from 2019, directed by Bhaskar Hazarika, is closer to Passion than Realm: Nirmali (Lima Das), a paediatrician in Guwahati, married, with a son, meets Sumon (Arghadeep Baruah), a young guy and so on. In fact both end similarly, with the lovers being subjected to public shaming after the story comes out in the open.
But in terms of what happens in between—and this forms the heart of the two films—Aamis and Realm share something unique. The couple at the centre engage in a dangerous and pleasurable game that goes out of hands. I use the word 'game' because there is an element of playfulness and fun in their actions that makes the viewer take part without judgement, leaving aside moral hangups—at least, for a while, until things get really messed up.
Sada and Kichizo engage in extreme sex, all the time, in as many ways as possible, constantly pushing the upper limits of satisfaction. Kichizo initiates it, seducing the initially shy, folksy, Sada when she is cleaning the floor in his house and soon they are inseparable in bed, locked up in one of the rooms in the nearby inn, away from his wife. He suggest the kinks at first, stopping her on the way to the washroom one night and asking her to do it with "a full bladder" because it results in better sex.
If the games are explicitly sexual in Realm, in Aamis it is covertly so. Nirmali and Sumon–unlike Sada and Kichizo–are able to carry out their intensely private moments in public places in broad daylight. He is hardcore meat lover, doing his PhD on the meat-eating traditions in North East India, who introduces her to different kinds of meat, taking her to offbeat eateries that serve unusual meat (when he is not dropping off tiffins boxes at her clinic). Even their meet-cute is meat-related; his friend has had a bout of food poisoning after a night of gluttonous revelry and looking for a doctor, he rings her bell on a Sunday morning. It starts with wild rabbit, and the choices get wilder: baby pigeon, bat.
In both cases the men give the women the push to experiment and soon, they'll discover what crazy hunger they have unlocked in them.
From the beginning, he's been the giver in the equation and she the receiver. Sumon feeds Nirmali in a literal sense (a sly overturning of the adage that a woman's way to a man's heart is his belly). And Oshima films Sada and Kichizo in way that it becomes clear who is steering the sex; the camera is from her point of view and mostly she is mounted on him, and not the other way round. It comes to a point where the men in both the films are ready to undergo bodily harm to satiate the seemingly insatiable appetite of the women.
It's important to note here that sex is curiously absent in Aamis—just like food is curiously absent in Realm. The lovers in Realm are so consumed by their sexual activity that they don't get time to eat. When one of the geishas arrives outside their door to serve some food, Sada says they'd rather not eat because "a full stomach makes you feel sleepy".
The only time we see them eat is when food and sex combine, as in one of the most notorious scenes in the film—and in film history—where she offers him rice cake dipped in her cum ('They say true love means eating food dipped in your lover's juices," she says). Kichizo is only too happy to go one notch higher when he suggests a crazier idea: he inserts an egg in her vagina, asks her to lay it like a hen, and then eats it.
Nirmali and Sumon, on the other hand, don't even touch each other, even though the sexual tension is palpable in every frame. This is emphasised in several occasions when their hands come close, but Nirmali is careful to withdraw at the last moment. She is torn between the moral and the carnal. She is in denial that she might be having an extra marital affair—just harmless meals with an interesting new friend—and her way of convincing herself is to make sure that they don't get physically intimate. That's where the meat-eating ceases to be just meat-eating. It becomes a form of sexual release. Of the flesh. Corporeal.
It also becomes a weapon in the hands of a filmmaker who has said that Realm was "a constant reference in the initial days of ideation" and who consciously draws from the film in a well-disguised manner. Made at a time when a new sexual freedom was invading cinema all over the world—from Bertolucci to Scorsese—Oshima's film was a radical attack on the strict censorship rules in Japan, where the uncut version has never been shown till date. (Ultimately both Realm and Aamis are empathetic looks at individualism that strays far away from the norm, and gets punished for it.)
Hazarika makes us think about sex without showing anything sexual, and, he makes a political statement that's relevant in the context of present day India, where under the current Government, meat-eating is being projected as increasingly immoral
Taking a leaf out of Oshima's book, Hazarika does two things. He makes us think about sex without showing anything sexual, and, he makes a political statement in the context of present day India, where under the current Government, meat-eating is being projected as increasingly immoral (beef is banned in several states and recently, dog meat was banned in Nagaland). And by doing so, he not only has his cake but eats it too.
Hazarika's film takes meat-eating to its extreme. Unbeknown to herself, when Nirmali has human meat for the first time–cut from Sumon's own body, and fancily presented, embedded in egg whites, as if it's some kind of fusion dish–she is in another realm. Things could go only one way from here and they do, when Nirmali and Sumon are caught by the police and the doomed lovers of Aamis have been turned into sickos, freaks from a shocking story in the news, a critical comment on the dehumanising ways in which media portrays people.
Realm was actually based on a real life story that caused a sensation in Japan. Convicted of murder in the second degree and the mutilation of a corpse, Sada was sentenced to 6 years in prison after she was found roaming in the streets of Tokyo with Kichizo's severed penis in her hand. It was a gruesome, barbaric act in the eyes of the world but in its own perverse way a gesture of love. Sada didn't want to kill Kichizo. It was an accident resulting from a form of erotic asphyxiation to max out the pleasure. All she wanted was to keep a part of Kichizo that connected them.
Aamis is available on MovieSaints.com and both In the Realm of the Senses and Empire of Passion are playing on Mubi