The two deadly sins

Love and food, lust and gluttony become intertwined themes in this disturbing and tender Assamese film

At first glance, Bhaskar Hazarika’s second feature film, Aamis (Ravening), is nothing like his debut Kothanodi. While he drew from Assamese folk tales (Burhi Aair Sadhu or Grandma’s Tales, a compendium of 20-odd stories by Rasaraj Lakshminath Bezbaroa) for his first film, which was shot in rural Majuli, Aamis is his own script and set in contemporary, urban Guwahati. But both films are similar in their complex and thought-provoking portrayal of unusual, almost forbidden, relationships and fallible individuals — especially women — struggling with their personal demons.

Out of the blue

Hazarika tells us there is nothing planned about the subjects he picks for his films. The idea for Aamis came to him, out of the blue, when he saw a couple in a food court sharing a plate of fried chicken. “They were deeply engrossed in the food. They were connected not because they were talking but because they were eating together. It made me think of this crazy plot,” he says. What has emerged is a unique film. It is in the realm of horror, is bizarre, shocking and subversive. It is ominously genteel when it comes to the world it is located in, disturbingly gentle in its telling, and menacingly mellow in its narrative.

All of this only accentuates the violence and the violations embedded deep within the seemingly regular, possibly sinister, situation. Aamis will have its world première at the upcoming Tribeca Film Festival.

Director Bhaskar Hazarika

Director Bhaskar Hazarika

Aamis is about restrictions imposed on love and how it can lead to people embracing their darker side. “Love is the central pillar holding up the experience of being human. Yet, whom you can love is limited by bewildering range of boundaries — class, caste, religion, age, nationality and gender,” reads the director’s statement. So we have Nirmali, a doctor, and Sumon, a Ph.D. student, bonding over food — a variety of fresh, organic and exotic meat that he introduces her to. Their passion deepens in their discovery of food but the possibility of togetherness eludes them; she is older, married and the mother of a child.

A proxy for desire

From playing Cupid, food turns into a proxy for desire. Making food for a beloved, a lover relishing it, become expressions of longing. Eating together is a rebellion of sorts and also a consummation. Lust and hunger are basic instincts. So gluttony runs parallel to the immense craving for love. Everything gets centred on a mundane lunchbox.

A denial of the fundamental flavours of life only leads to perverse addictions. “It’s how you often end up eating a lot if you can’t have the one you love… Repression finds a way out. It could be alcohol, cocaine,” says Hazarika. From the everyday to the exotic to the taboo — it’s a journey to transgression and depravity when it comes to both food and desire. And food that nurtures and fills the many voids in life also eventually becomes a font of nihilism and transgressions. He says he did not want the film to provoke, but neither is the film about ultra beautified food a la Instagram.

Universal theme

Then there is the anthropology of food, food histories and tradition — the unusual variety of meats people eat the world over. How one man’s basic diet can seem abnormal to another. But can any food be ‘abnormal’? Can any love be ‘illicit’? “Aamis is not designed to carry any message other than empathy for those who make terrible choices in the pursuit of love,” says Hazarika. There is something universal in the theme of food. As Hazarika says, around the world, cities have begun to resemble each other and offer a similar anonymity when it comes to love, food or sexting.

He then talks about cinema in Assam. The only way it can survive, he says, is by looking beyond the 40-odd halls in the State to a bigger market. “The films need to be made locally but on global themes.” He wants filmmaking in the Northeast to break out of the ‘insurgency’ paradigm.

His first film was made with ₹21.5 lakh raised from crowd funding. This time he has two producers and co-producer. “We left no place untouched in Guwahati. It must be the first film shot in sync sound in the noisy city,” he says.

Hazarika picked an interesting assortment for the cast. Lead actor Lima Das, who plays Nirmali, is a dentist in real life and a proponent of the Assamese dance form Sattriya. The male lead Arghadeep Barua (who has an uncanny resemblance to Hazarika ) is a popular musician with the group Bottle Rockets in Gurgaon; he was discovered just a couple of weeks before the shoot. All the actors were put through their paces in an intensive acting workshop held by actor Seema Biswas.

The film has been at the 2017 Asian Cinema Fund’s co-production market in Busan and at the 2017 NFDC Film Bazaar. Hazarika tells us about the programmer of a big festival who had read his proposal and expected a harsher, darker film. But Hazarika has always believed in the power of the oblique. “I think the more you show, the less provocative things become,” he says. He found his unit, cast and crew responding to the story with sympathy rather than with disgust. Tenderness and transgressions get curiously entwined. “I had initially titled it Beautiful Sick… there’s something beautiful around even the shittiest gutter in the world.”

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