A couple in a food court sharing a plate of fried chicken is a common sight, even mundane. But it put dangerous, twisted ideas in Bhaskar Hazarika's head. The couple in question, as the writer-director saw it, seemed connected not because they were talking, but because they were eating together.
Nirmali and Sumon, the couple at the centre of Aamis (Ravening), Hazarika's new film, bond over a shared love for meat. She is a somewhat bored paediatrician, married, with a son. He is a student of anthropology doing his PhD in the meat eating cultures of the North East, and founder of the Guwahati 'meat eating club' (the antithesis of a vegan activist if you may). Together they go on a culinary adventure of sorts.
Sounds like a fun food film? Or a fresh take on an extra-marital romance? It's hard to tell what it is. It must be harder to figure out how to position it, what to tell the audience, and what not to, as Hazarika, whose film played at the Tribeca Film Festival, and at the recently concluded New York Indian Film Festival, is finding out. "That's why we keep delaying our trailer launch," he says in an interview conducted on Facebook chat. "The idea", he says, "went from just a macabre love story to something larger – exploring concepts of sin, punishment, taboo and repression."
Aamis hints at far more disturbing things than what is shown on screen. The potency of Hazarika's film lies in suggestion, hidden in plain sight. A strange sense of unease runs through… It's in the everyday environs of contemporary Guwahati that things go batshit crazy.
With its genre-bending tendencies, and its exploration of the uncanny relationship between food and sex, Aamis calls to mind several Japanese and South Korean films. In an interview with another publication, the filmmaker had spoken about drawing inspiration from the cinemas of the East — "We are analogous to the cultures of South East Asia and further East, and we as Assamese must be aware of it," said Hazarika, whose background includes works as varied as the 'Making of' documentary of Peepli Live (2010), co-writing the story of Abbas Mustan's Players (2012) and the TV horror show from back in the day Ssshhh… Koi Hai. For his National award winning first feature Kothanodi, his interpretation of four supernatural folk tales, Hazarika had cited Onibaba (1964) and Kwaidaan (1964) as inspirations. The film which was a direct influence on Aamis, at least in the initial stages, was Nagisa Oshima's controversial masterpiece In the Realm of the Senses (1976). As in that film, he says "love goes bad and rancid, just like stale meat".
But unlike In the Realm, which is more graphic, Aamis hints at far more disturbing things than what is shown on screen. The potency of Hazarika's film lies in suggestion, hidden in plain sight. A strange sense of unease runs through. Nirmali's place of work, her clinic, is sterile and oppressive, and her domestic life is cloyingly bourgeois (Production Designer Manas Baruah, DoP Riju Das). It's in the everyday environs of contemporary Guwahati that things go batshit crazy.
The 43-year old Hazarika, who lives in Delhi, says he is interested in the works of Weird Fiction authors such as Edgar Allan Poe, HP Lovecraft and Stephen King – which are as much about horror as they are about the sickness of the human mind. Aamis has that distorted, ghastly way of looking at the world. "I get attracted to stories that mess with our understanding of reality, or normality," he says.
If these lofty ideas don't feel… lofty, it's because Aamis, above all, is a great story: sometimes lurid, sometimes beautiful, never boring. And Hazarika is a good teller, always with a surprise round the corner. Aamis is an interesting mix of horror, food, crime thriller; it's a sweet rom-com, a story of female desire and forbidden love all at once, and there are all these big metaphysical ideas. Add to that the current food politics, and the anti-meat rhetoric, in the country. The character of Sumon advocates all kinds of meat-eating. He takes Nirmali to eat mutton, wild rabbits, cat fish and bat meat, and there's even talk of a certain type of insect, notorious for its bad smell, as a delicacy. The closest an Indian film has been in terms of celebrating a diverse meat-eating culture is perhaps Lijo Jose Pellissery's Malayalam film Angamaly Diaries — where a gangster brags about eating python, and where men fight in a local bar over the last plate of rabbit meat.
The character of Sumon advocates all kinds of meat-eating. He takes Nirmali to eat mutton, wild rabbits, cat fish and bat meat, and there's even talk of a certain type of insect, notorious for its bad smell, as a delicacy.
Lest these gross you out, let me assure you that the meat in Aamis is all fancily plated. For a film that raised funds for post production through crowdfunding, hiring a Food Stylist was a luxury; so it was all done by Production Designer Baruah. Would the the film have been born if the couple in the food court that day were eating something that was not meat? "I really doubt this idea would have popped into my head if they were eating a doughnut together," says Hazarika. "Meat is corporeal. It is of the flesh. Just like romantic love."
Hazarika says the whole process, from writing the first draft to shooting the film, took less than a year. The leads were acting in a film for the first time; while the filmmaker says that he wanted to collaborate with Lima Das (wonderful as Nirmali), an accomplished dancer in Assam, he found Arghadeep Baruah (affable as Sumon) when he saw him playing in a band in Delhi. Access to independent, non-Hindi cinema has been a problem, and the producers of the film (Signum Productions, Metanormal, Wishberry Films) are figuring out the release plans. But Hazarika assures that Aamis "will be available to everyone at some point in the next six months."