Down south, food dazzles the best in films of Lijo Jose Pellissery. In his films, food and characters’ food choices arrive neatly packed and to go, explaining to us who and what they are, and where they are from. The sights and sounds of the film’s setting is informed by the food made and consumed. The culinary practices influence a character’s thinking and motivation. “Vegetarian dish? Yeah, we can add cauliflower to the chicken curry”, says a caterer in Angamaly Diaries. Move North East, we have Bhaskar Hazarika and his new Assamese film, Aamis. Hazarika goes one up on Pellissery. Or more. Meat takes all forms in this film starring Lima Das as pediatrician Dr. Nirmali Saikia and Arghadeep Baruah as Sumon. She has a peripatetic husband, also a doctor, so she lives alone with her school going son and manages a clinic in the hospital. Sumon is a student of anthropology, studying meat habits of people in the North East. They strike an unlikely friendship from the get go, Nirmali’s loneliness apparent in the way she misses her house and keeps walking ahead during their first meeting.
Aamis means meat and in Aamis, meat is all consuming. It consumes appetite, hunger, dry spells and solitude. Sumon strikes up a conversation about meat with Nirmali and from then on, that is all they ever talk about. There is a place in the outskirts that sells bat meat, says Sumon. I wanted to ask him if he’s watched Ashiq Abu’s Virus or ever heard of Nipah. I quickly dismissed that idea because they had moved on to some other meat and its intricacies. A bug with hallucinogenic bodily fluids! Metaphors are stretched in Aamis at ever chance. One of Nirmali’s friends talks about the man she is having an affair with,”he is hard and soft at the right places!”,she says. Well, at least that’s one familiar meat. At first, they are just foodies checking out their favorite places to eat but then they also consume meat sitting across each other in Nirmali’s clinic, on the same table she has children sat down and examined. It is an innocuous image, something every doctor probably does but there is a foreshadowing aspect to it, as if things are about to get weirder (later there is a scene two friends share, discussing this relationship, as a dog is being cut open by one of them, the veterinarian). There is another throwaway moment that makes sense only later. Sumon googles “platonic love”, at a time when he hasn’t fully understood what he feels for the much married, older Nirmali (neither have we, about them). There is something childlike about that moment, like a millennial – which he is – trying to google and interrogate his deepest desires out of himself. But later on, when we have seen enough and cannot look away (a quality we share with Nirmali), the moment attains startling magnitude. So that wasn’t platonic love, it was the other kind of love? No it wasn’t, it was an encounter with a third kind. Aamis has no business with binaries.
The film is resplendent with shots that last seconds but speak a thousand words, do a million things to us. Like when we see this uneasy but smooth friendship blossoming, with a shot of Nirmali sleeping with a smile on her face and the phone in her open palm. Or when a moment so real and ordinary ensues that we wonder what is it doing in this film where nothing is ordinary. Sumon and Nirmali are at the theatre, and the man in front of them is jolted out of his slumber by the unassuming actor on stage. Nirmali is unable to control her laughter and they both walk out. It’s pure and lifelike in a film where imagination runs wild and distances itself from everything we know. Light and dark alternate too. In the first act, we see Sumon and Nirmali only in daylight, bathed bright and shiny, attractive to us and to one another. As we go deeper into this attraction, and them into theirs, we see them only in the dark. In the darkness of an operation theatre, in the seediness of a mortuary, on unlit streets and unfrequented corners. Aamis succeeds in making the audience feel exactly like its two principal characters and revel in the strangeness of it all. It’s like when Nirmali wants to retch but all she feels are dry heaves. We want to puke too, we want to look away too, but Hazarika’s frames and the actors’ chemistry succeed in making us ravenous, wanting more of this twisted concoction that is far from our own mundane lives.
Domesticity is an all too visible prison in Bhaskar Hazarika’s film. Nirmali is independent and successful, even seemingly content. She doesn’t like that her friend is having an affair. But there are structural issues to this familial life, they are still steeped in convention. She invites Sumon for a party at her place, a rare time when her husband Dilip is in town. The women are all together downstairs while the men are holed up upstairs, drinking and gossiping. They are not gossiping, really, but just massaging Dilip’s ego, praising his altruistic medical endeavors in far flung regions of the country. It’s also the only thing he ever talks, even when with Nirmali. He narrates an anecdote, about the time when he had to wade through waist deep water and his knees were covered with leeches. Sumon mentions how in parts of Europe, that would have made for a great meal. Dilip is quick to change the subject but one wonders if Sumon meant the leeches or Dilip? Sumon helps Nirmali in unburdening this pressure of prosaic living, developing an appetite for the uncommon and being constantly challenged by curiosity. “You’ll never go there, those are not posh meat places”, Sumon says to her. Little does he and Nirmali know that that’s exactly what she’s been looking for all this while. She’s been domesticated in her world for so long that she has a mental block to eat with her hands, she always needs cutlery. For Sumon, academia feels like that cage. The film begins with a day in his life. His research in anthropology, with replicas of bones and bodies in his lab, his routine of hostel life or football and evening trips with his friends. In Nirmali, he finds something he shares with nobody but her. That inquisitive nature, that readiness and willingness to test the limits and try the unusual. Sumon’s friend warns him to stay away from an illicit affair. But as we go along with Sumon and Nirmali, illicit manifests into something unexpected, the phantasmagorical images Hazarika uses to express their innermost experiences making more sense than their otherwise very real, life altering actions. Their supposedly forbidden feelings for each other gains an altogether new expression. Meat and love could stand for many things in Aamis. What is forbidden? What is taboo? Like I said, metaphors are stretched long and thin. Aamis tries to tell us that if you push people far enough with your ideas of control and containment, you probably won’t like what it ultimately morphs into. As Sumon tells a room full of philistines, “Strange doesn’t even cover it.”