Aani Maani On MUBI Review: A Tender But Tragic Film On Vigilante Cow Protection

At 90 minutes, the film is an immersive world building exercise that is designed to be unraveled
Aani Maani On MUBI Review: A Tender But Tragic Film On Vigilante Cow Protection

Arun Karthick's Nasir (2020) trained us for Fahim Irshad's Aani Maani. Both films have a Muslim protagonist and the everydayness of their lives, built slowly without fuss or fanfare — one in Tamil Nadu, one in Uttar Pradesh — plays out against a sinister backstory that is waiting to strike, like a patient hooded snake. In Nasir it was the rath before the riot, and in Aani Maani it is the ban of cow slaughter before the imminent human slaughter. How else to end a film where you sculpt characters with such tender attention, against a background of blanket hatred? To make a realistic film is not unlike translating tragedy when your source material is the contemporary Indian condition. 

Unlike, say Gamak Ghar, a film whose currency and purpose was its attention to detail, here, the attention to detail is in service of something greater. To create, within us enough love for these characters, so at the end, when one of them is taken away, the sting is both sudden and hurtful. That tension alone is enough to keep the hazy, languorous narrative afloat. 

Bhutto (Farrukh Seyer) is married to Tarannum (Priyanka Verma), living in their house with his father (Shamim Abbas), his mother (Padma Damodaran), his divorced sister (Neha Singh), and her child Aayat. Bhutto runs a keema kebab and paratha hole in the wall, and divides his earnings between his mother and his wife. There is a little rancour between Tarannum and her sister-in-law which irons out like an easy crease. Bhutto and Tarannum fell into marriage through love — it is established that she is from a village, illiterate but sharp, who pronounces j with an ease that z just can't form, Naju instead of Nazo, Farj instead of Farz, Daraj instead of Daraz. She stands up to him often because with love comes comfort with confrontation. 

There is such a lived in quality to the house — Tarannum cuts her nails by the pots of flowers, sits on cots for her lice to be picked, the open courtyard where Aayat turns round and round and round becoming dizzy and falling to the concrete floor laden with pink flowers fallen from a tree. Bhutto's father has a strong voice and records messages that are blared around the town, for a living. One of the rooms in their house is his recording studio, where he uses the foamed plastic of egg cartons as sound absorbers. There is a parrot. They take empty family pack bottles and cut them in different shapes to house small saplings — sometimes the top part is cut off, sometimes the bottom, sometimes a hole is cut in the center of the bottle and it is hung horizontally. There is no design to the house, it is built and embellished by accumulation over time — an oil bottle here, a charger there. There is a terrace where they pickle dry mangoes. The lullaby-like music by Jason Fernandez and Nilesh Dhumal helps stitch this world together. 

At first glance, there is an innocence in the movie — its title referring to running round and round till one goes tired with dizziness, its title credits in all three languages in a kid's scrawl, and the initial scenes where a saccharine kindness coats even the most vile insults. But then, as the film edges outside the house door, the title takes on a different meaning — the wilful spinning of a world out of control, that was once an act of childishness now becomes the very bread and butter of politics. The swirl is a restless condition of being caged and not the unfettered chaos we first saw. We hear that Bhutto spent 8 years in prison under false allegations, though the details aren't laid out. Instead of making him a whimpering shadow of his former self, it has emboldened him to stand up for what he thinks is right, even at the cost of himself. Farrukh Seyer brings this ego, this affection, and this confidence to brittle excellence. 

The film, though, has its rough edges. Some of the acting feels like lines being read. The cloying love for Aayat with a CGI butterfly is a bit too designed to be of any effect, as is the romantic ballad bunged in for dramatic effect that is too generic in its sweep and style. There is nothing wrong with romantic songs, but in a film that is aligned so closely with a world, the sudden song is a stylistic jolt with little pay-off. Even the final climactic lament did little to elevate the sadness, instead distracting us from it. 

Hereon, I will discuss spoilers. 

This intimacy builds over the course of the film. We see individual rooms, and individual angles of the house, but it isn't until the very end where one-shot runs clumsily through the entire house, that we actually figure out the architecture of the house — what leads where. Similarly, it is only at the end that we find out that Bhutto is actually a pet name. His real name is Akhlaq Ahmad. That name Akhlaq is its own myth — reminiscent of the man who was lynched over rumours of hoarding beef in 2015. If the name was brought up upfront, we would have, in some sense, known where the film was heading. By design, these details were kept from us, building a world with just enough detail to elicit affection, only to have the rug being pulled from under our feet. 

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