Tribeca 2019 Interview: AAMIS (RAVENING) Director Bhaskar Hazarika On Making Transgressive Cinema In Regressive India
One of the most exciting world premieres taking place at this year's Tribeca Film Festival in New York is Assamese director Bhaskar Hazarika's sophomore feature, Aamis (Ravening). Hazarika previously made a huge impression with his folk horror anthology Kothanodi (River of Fables), which premiered at the Busan International Film Festival in 2015, and he returns with another dark tale, but this time it's a very different kind of film, but perhaps even more disturbing.
Even India's godfather of indie cinema, Anurag Kashyap has weighed in on Aamis
— Anurag Kashyap (@anuragkashyap72) April 19, 2019
Aamis is a story of star-crossed lovers carrying on a physically chaste, but emotional intimate affair in the northeastern Indian state of Assam. While they dare not cross the line to physical intimacy, they develop an unusual bond through a shared love of exotic fine foods.
Sumon is a young man working on his doctoral thesis studying the meat eating habits of his corner of India, and Nirmali is a pediatrician who has grown comfortable in her marriage, much to her own dismay. As they begin to develop strong affection for one another, Sumon introduces increasingly exotic dishes to Nirmali as a way of expressing his passion without committing adultery. However, it may be too late when Sumon's passion leads him to break a taboo from which neither can turn back.
I spoke with Bhaskar Hazarika about his inspirations, the evolution of the story and of his style, as well as the challenges of making transgressive cinema in a country currently in the midst of an aggressive culture war.
Screen Anarchy: Why don't you first give us a quick description of the film in your own words; what is Aamis about?
Bhaskar Hazarika: Aamis is about having empathy for sinners, because to sin is human. It is also a plain and simple love story between two awkward lovers who suffer the consequences of repressing their feelings for each other.
That's a very sweet summarization of the plot, but it definitely gets pretty dark as their relationship develops. Coming from a more straightforward horror film with Kothanodi, what gave you the idea to move in a different direction for Aamis?
It wasn't exactly supposed to be this way. The film was envisaged to be darker and more visceral, but all of us who put the film together began to empathize so much with the plight of the lovers that the end product became gentler and kinder. However, I do feel that it gave a different texture to the horror and menace of the story.
In some ways, Aamis is a classic story of amour fou. A crazy love that in this case is kept at bay by both the characters' own moralities and cultural mores. Both leads are fighting their own internalized repression, but eventually it all boils over in a kind of crazy way. Were there other similar romances that inspired this story?
Well there is this old Japanese film called In The Realm of the Senses that had a deep impact on me when I saw it about a decade back. I tried to push Aamis towards that zone. Of course we cannot achieve the graphic detail in which that film explored the concept of mad love because you know - culture. So we tried to achieve a somewhat similar effect in the meta narrative - in the things that are left unsaid and unseen. I hope that it works!
Speaking of culture, there is a kind of culture war happening in India these last few years. A big part of the forbidden aspect of the romance is due to the female lead, played by a wonderful Lima Das, is married and this is a kind of emotional infidelity, which isn't explored much in Indian film. What interests you so much in looking behind the curtains that polite society draws over "undesirable" realities?
There's indeed a war going on and I hope I am on the side of those who show a mirror to society. There's this lovely saying floating on the internet that basically sums up my attitude to filmmaking and storytelling, which is to do art that "disturbs the comfortable and comforts the disturbed."
How hard is that in India these days? It feels like in this case the boundaries of culture may have helped shape the narrative in ways that make it more interesting and subversive than it may have been had you been able to run completely wild
Yeah. The more you try to repress something, the more you encourage it to express itself in other ways. Its what happens to Nirmali and Sumon too, come to think of it.
It's part of what makes Aamis so interesting. It's a very difficult film to prepare for because whatever you're expecting, it turns in another direction at every opportunity.
Thanks. I'll take that compliment gladly.
It is a challenging film in terms of tone, I expect this will surprise a lot of people. What are you hoping for in terms of a reaction from the audience?
I am nervous and excited about reactions. Not all who watch it will get it, but those that do will hopefully come out feeling sad and exhilarated at the same time.
Aamis has its world premiere this Friday, April 26th at the Village East Cinema with Hazarika in attendance for a Q&A, if you're in the area, I highly recommend checking out this fascinating film.