IFFLA 2011 Diary: Onir’s I AM

By Shekhar Deshpande • Published on April 17, 2011
Nandita Das and Sharman Joshi in Onir's I AM

Nandita Das and Sharman Joshi in Onir’s I AM

Onir’s I AM has already gained pre-release reputation as the first crowd-sourced film in Hindi cinema. Laudable achievement indeed! If that gave him the independence to make the kind of film he wanted, this development bodes well for crowd sourcing. It is a testimony to the integrity of the artist to have molded that energy into something meaningful. For a strategic Saturday night viewing in Los Angeles, the film brought full theater and loud applause in the end, bright signs for the kind of film it is and for Onir himself, whose presence was sorely missed.

I AM is an anthology of four stories by one director. There isn’t enough space here to quibble about the exact term for this form, which presents multiple (here: four) short films thematically linked together, let us note that over the past two decades or so, world cinema has witnessed resurgence of this form with multiple directors engaged in articulating their vision on a shared theme. In a curiously valuable development that needs serious attention, the themes in such anthology films have tended to be social, being deployed for social awakening if not change.

Though anthologies are multi-directorial ventures, there are some examples of individual directors handling multiple narratives with overlapping or shared themes. Adoor Gopalkrishnan’s Oru Pennum Randaanum (A Climate for Crime)(2008) and Naalu Pennungal(Four Women)(2007), Prawal Raman’s Darna Mana Hai (2003) and Darna Zaroori Hai (2006) are some notable recent single-director multiple episode anthologies from India and we know of multiple directorial ventures which are motivated by bringing multiple voices together. IAM is single auteur work. Onir’s film stands above and away from the rest. It combines the multiple perspectives of many directors and yet engages with issues that narrative cinema has shied away from. Its four pronged approach cuts through the placid spectator’s disposition toward idle, sugar coated narratives that flood so much of our mainstream. It is an achievement on that count alone, though there are signs that it will continue to break ground from crowd sourcing to crowd awakening.

The title of the film could well be treated as beginning of a sentence, a declaration of identity. I am Afia seeking sperm donation; I am Megha pointing to the injustice of driving the Kashmiri Pundits out of state: I am Abhimanyu confronting my past as a victim of sexual abuse to live through healthy personal relationships; and I am Omar, who is caught in the vicious inhumanity of the Indian Penal Code that criminalizes homosexuality. These are declarative statements that allow the subject to say who they are. But really, we ought to understand the declaration “I AM” as a result of the action, a fulfillment of a condition. As Descartes would have put it, I seek justice, therefore I AM.Our struggles give us an existence. Without that fight, we are vapid occupiers of space and resources.

A four part narrative, I Am doesn’t idle anywhere. The pace is swift and the intensity of close-ups and the expressive faces of his stellar cast make the film an intense experience. This is the kind of cinema that rattles and moves. It is hard to lodge a charge against Onir that is often levied at other anthology directors, that the episodes are uneven, in some ways a commonplace feature of this form that makes us forgive their otherwise impressive reach. But this work proves that observation wrong. All four narratives are equally strong, and come forth as emphatic statements on how cinema can make eventful interventions possible, first in our minds and possibly in the dormant social space where films like these are needed. All this working within the aesthetic of narrative cinema, with songs to serve as transitions, with rapid and enegertic moves from one scene and one episode to another, the film shows a command over the form.

The film is being released in India in two weeks. It ought to form a centerpiece of our conversations about social change and what cinema can do about it.

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