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I Am in touch with reality
May 01, 2011
In November 2009, filmmaker Onir and his producer-actor friend Sanjay Suri brought a short film to the Indo American Arts Council’s film festival in New York. The film I Am Omar was a brave exploration of gay lifestyle from the perspective of two men who do not have the privacy and the space to meet for sex.

While the story had an unexpected twist, there was true honesty in the gay characters played by Rahul Bose and Arjun Mathur. It was nothing like the mindless fluff that Dostana presented.

Onir and Suri told us the Omar was one of the four somewhat interwoven stories they were working on, all dealing with different facets of identity — what we are and how we become like that. Last year they brought the complete film I Am to another film festival in New York — with each story more courageous than the other.

There is the piece about Afia, a woman in her 30s who decides to get pregnant through artificial insemination, but not before she meets the donor; Megha, a Kashmiri Pandit refugee, who revisits her home, reconnects with a childhood Muslim friend and faces the limited options she has, given the current state of affairs in the Valley; Abhimanyu, an adult who struggles with the memories of sexual abuse by his step father; and finally the story of Omar who meets another gay man at a restaurant and the two start to make out in the car, since they have no other place to go to. I Am is a very mature film that is equally compelling.

Today’s Bollywood films work on too much noise. On rare occasion that can be somewhat entertaining, but most of these films are moronic comedies or poorly written love stories. The filmmakers bank on the so-called box office draw of the stars, although that is no longer a guarantee.

I Am is quiet like real life. And it has no big name stars. But it draws on the tremendous talent pool of former Bollywood stars Juhi Chawla and Manisha Koirala, and the leading personalities of India’s independent cinema — Nandita Das, Purab Kohli, Bose and Mathur.

The filmmakers took many risks, something very few Hindi language filmmakers do, since they fear they would not find an audience. But Onir is known to take risks. His first feature My Brother Nikhil brought to the forefront the issue of HIV at a time when there was much confusion and stigma attached to the virus. There is still the stigma and discrimination against people infected with the HIV virus, but in its own small way My Brother Nikhil did help to correct the misperceptions among some people in India.

With I Am, Onir and Suri did something even more unique and this has been widely reported. They went online on social media sites — talked about the film, while it was still work-in-progress, and took contributions from investors, sometimes as low as Rs 1,000. One report said this enabled them to raise half the film’s budget.

When the film was nearly finished, they showed it to many journalists, long before the release date was set. The journalists respected the review embargo policy, but by occasionally mentioning the film in their writings they created enough buzz for the film. Most Bollywood filmmakers would never do that — almost reflecting a level of uncertainty and insecurity about their films.

I Am surely does not have the marketing and publicity budget similar to that of most big Bollywood films. But Onir and Suri made sure the film would stay in the conversation, and along the way built an engaged audience that was eager to explore a new intelligent film. 

It is very important to acknowledge the filmmakers’ attempts to seriously impact the landscape of independent filmmaking in India. Things are evolving in Indian cinema. The star system and the films that it fueled are in a troubled state. Audience is getting smarter and expects better quality films. And that surely creates room for good inspired cinema like I Am.

New York Indian Film Festival
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