Ladies and gentlemen, presenting India's first major crowd-funded film! Director Onir and producer/actor Sanjay Suri have taken a growing go-to device being used by struggling small budget filmmakers and made it work for a slightly bigger budget film with an impressive cast and even more intriguing stories. Onir’s I Am is therefore a film truly supported by the people - over 400, in fact - and it's a funding method that will only be used more in the years to come. And it’s only appropriate that such a democratic film tackle stories of substance, those that challenge the status quo and make people think.
The genesis of I Am and its intentions are truly noble. It’s a unique film because of the way it came into existence. As a film, I Am mostly works with special kudos to Onir and Suri for giving a cinematic voice to such unique stories. It tells four different tales about four people at particularly testing moments in their lives - Afia, Megha, Abhimanyu and Omar. Through these lives, Onir presents a platter of social taboos, daring the viewer to confront the issues. He goes from sperm donation/artificial insemination to Kashmiri communalism to child sexual abuse to homophobia. Four very intriguing premises, however don't quite translate into a completely gripping or revolutionary film. Unfortunately, some seemingly forced acting in certain parts pulls the viewer away from being engulfed.
'I Am Afia' tells the story of a woman desperate to have a baby from a sperm donor. It's a topic that makes you take notice, especially when it comes from a society fumbling to adapt to rapidly evolving family structures. Nandita Das, in the lead role, is determined to have a baby through artificial insemination and in the process meets and befriends the man who ends up becoming her sperm donor (played by Purab Kohli). The end result isn't as predictable as you might think, but this episode's refreshing take is somewhat hampered by the actors trying to sound believable with colloquial English or forced Bengali.
'I Am Megha' is the most engaging of the four, telling a Kashmiri story like one we haven't seen on celluloid before. It brings together Juhi Chawla (as Megha, a Kashmiri Pundit) and Manisha Koirala (as Rubina, her Muslim childhood friend) for the very first time. The casting is a treat for Hindi film buffs nostalgic for the stardom rat race that consumed the industry in the 90s. Both Chawla and Koirala deliver incredibly restrained performances, playing two parts of a friendship fractured by circumstance. It's a theatrical tragedy with Kashmir playing a heartbreakingly stunning backdrop. I wish Koirala had been given a meatier role, since she plays the friend eager for reconciliation so convincingly.
'I Am Abhimanyu' raises the intensity further by tackling the issue of child sexual abuse. This episode tracks the life of Abhimanyu (played by Sanjay Suri) through three stages - childhood, teens and then sexually confused adult. The childhood segment is particularly chilling as we see him fall prey to his pedophile step-father (a creepily fantastic cameo by Anurag Kashyap). In the adult segments, however, Suri's performance falls short of making the audience feel his pain. His scruffy hairstyle becomes a distraction, too.
'I Am Omar' is one of the better stories, filmed in almost a voyeuristic manner awkwardly dropping the viewer into the middle of a scenario that is not meant to be seen. A well-meaning professional Jai (Rahul Bose) has a tryst with Omar (Arjun Mathur) one night when the two are thrust into a nightmare situation with a homophobic cop (played devilishly by Abhimanyu Singh) who catches them in the act. The night turns into one of deception and devastation, showing with brutal honesty the victimization of homosexuality in urban India. While Bose teeters on an overcooked performance, Mathur and especially Singh provide the punch in this last episode of I Am.
We must hand it to Onir for consistently confronting societal taboos with stories that would make most Hindi filmmakers wince, afraid of audience backlash and ultimately, a film drowned at the box office. But Onir hasn't shied away from taking the path rarely trodden, something that was blatantly evident from his first film, My Brother Nikhil. With I Am, Onir explores with sensitivity the two things all human beings constantly seek - satisfaction and acceptance. The characters are looking for something more, some closure or achievement, and learn life's lessons the hard way.
It's not an uplifting film but it is one that needed to be made. Of the four stories, Megha's and Omar's really stand out for execution and performances. But all four work in their own ways, some more than others, due mostly to uneven performances. Most of all, they point to a modern India uneasily confronting the issues of our times. They simply can't be ignored and thankfully, I Am does its part to raise the awareness.