Anurag Kashyap called Bhaskar Hazarika’s Aamis/The Ravening (2019) unlike anything “that has ever come out of India before”. While watching this unsettling film, I couldn’t help but wonder how we, as viewers, make sense of a story that is not quite like anything we’ve seen or heard before. The impulse is to try and fit it against everything else that we know, slot it into a box that feels familiar and comprehensible. Sometimes it works, but other stories are slippery creatures with lives of their own, refusing to fit into the neat cages of our understanding.
‘Aamis’ is Assamese for what is, in India, called “non-veg”, the flesh of animals as food. In the film, Dr Nirmali Saikia (Lima Das), a married paediatrician, meets Sumon Baruah (Arghadeep Baruah), a young anthropology researcher, when his friend urgently needs medical attention. Nirmali, whose husband is mostly away from home—helping the poor in far-flung corners of rural Assam—runs her practice, brings up her son almost single-handedly and seems mostly content with the quiet rhythms of her life. She is amused by Sumon’s stories of a meat lovers’ club that prides itself on its culinary adventurousness and farm-to-table approach to meat eating. A throwaway joke about trying some of the meat they cook next in lieu of her fees leads to a rapidly developing friendship with Sumon over different types of aamis food and long texts about eating meat.
Unlike her best friend Jumi, who is conducting a rip-roaring affair with a younger man, Nirmali is constantly wary of the temptation of physical attraction towards a younger man with whom she’s already forming an emotional attachment. Sumon is just as conscious of propriety, even as he turns down both former lovers and professional opportunities for the chance to spend more time with Nirmali. Their faces might light up whenever they are together, or even when just texting each other, but Sumon will always call her ‘baideo’ and be careful to sit in front with the driver and not join her in the backseat of the car. Nirmali, on her part, makes it a point to tell her husband about her new friend the very day he returns from tour and invites Sumon home to dinner to meet her friends and family—perhaps to reassure herself that there is nothing to hide.
When asked how he’d classify his film, Bhaskar Hazarika told this writer that Aamis is a “bait-and-switch experiment where you invite the audience to experience a romance and then turn the story quickly towards the dark”. He added, “I thought it would be interesting to observe how audiences respond to something like that.”
In Aamis, Hazarika leans into one of the primary justifications of bigotry—meat eating—to question fixed ideas of what normal is. The film bends genres to explore philosophical questions around flesh—as both the site of desire and as the object of consumption.
What initially seems like a genteel, bourgeois romance moves into darker territory as Nirmali and Sumon’s attempts to rationalise their desire away have an unexpectedly gory effect. When they try to confine their relationship to a socially approved box, meat becomes both the vehicle and the metonym for their fleshly desires. While they are careful never to touch each other even by accident and reduce their relationship to a tawdry physical affair, the sublimation of desire in Aamis turns into almost a perverted version of Bhakti.
What makes Aamis a fascinating watch is the tenderness with which it treats its characters, even as their determined disavowal of desire leads to more and more grotesquerie. It was a deliberate decision, said Hazarika, not to make the gore visible on screen. “I believe that suggestion is always more powerful than depiction. Because no matter how viscerally you depict something, it cannot be more visceral than what the imagination of the viewer conjures up,” he said.
So the camera focuses on the rapture on Sumon’s face as he imagines the pleasure he can give his baideo by feeding her, on the ecstasy on Nirmali’s Madonna-like face as she savours what Sumon brings to her. The viewer is left to watch in horror as their actions become more and more depraved, all justified by them in the name of not giving into lust.
Meat isn’t just Nirmali and Sumon’s means of sublimating their desire and feeling better about not committing adultery; it has always been the object of caste, religious and regional discrimination—a rationalisation for the violent dehumanisation of certain bodies
As much as Sumon and Nirmali would like to believe that their actions are dictated by reason, the film constantly makes us aware of how unreasonable and powerful Eros is. Nirmali may be able to walk away from Sumon when they are both teetering on the edge of desire, but her restlessness and dissatisfaction with the vegetarian dinner that her husband surprises her with is obvious. In a telling moment, the finicky, dainty Nirmali, who asks for a fork and spoon even at a dhaba, raids the fridge at midnight, digging into a chicken leg, getting her hands dirty and licking her chops, even as her bewildered husband asks her if she didn’t eat enough at dinner. His friend might talk Sumon into going home and taking a break from this unhealthy attachment, but one phone call from Nirmali is enough to make him head right back to the city. None of us is as rational as we’d like to believe, and the reasons by which we justify our actions aren’t always as sane as we think. “I’m not like you, I’d never judge someone for having an affair,″ chides a hurt Jumi, when Nirmali snaps at her for teasing her about Sumon, but it is that very sense of moral superiority that helps Nirmali rationalise what follows.
Meat isn’t just Nirmali and Sumon’s means of sublimating their desire and feeling better about not committing adultery; it has always been the object of caste, religious and regional discrimination—a rationalisation for the violent dehumanisation of certain bodies. As every northeasterner who has lived in the mainland can testify, aamis is also one of the ways in which our Othering is justified, particularly over The Question Of Dog Meat. Sumon’s PhD is on the meat-eating habits of tribes of north-east India. At the dinner table, when people evince disgust at the idea of eating crow or bat, he responds as an academic, questioning ideas of “normal” food habits. It is a response familiar to many of us who have been denied housing, been rejected by partners’ families, or just been teased, “because you guys eat all that weird food”. As Daribha Lyndem wrote in a 2016 Buzzfeed article, there is no ‘right’ way to answer a question which is so loaded in its intent. Suffocating as it might be to constantly try to fit into the mainland’s idea of “good tribal who is unlike those other tribals and is almost one of us”, there is nothing quite as frustrating as the double-edged judgment of those who will use your own words to indict you.
Dilip, Nirmali’s pompous, self-important husband, reduces the villagers he works with to a unified mass of simple, old-fashioned warmhearted generosity, probably because that single story fits into his personal narrative as a saviour of the masses. The dangers of a single story, as it were, kept gnawing at me when watching Aamis, as I thought of how it was similarly possible to reduce this film into a one-line judgement about infidelity or meat-eating and morality, and to use that to further label an entire people. Because Aamis isn’t just a film about forbidden love between two people—it’s also very much a film about two people in present-day Guwahati who meet and fall for each other over their interest in the meat-eating habits of tribes in the northeast.
Guwahati is almost a character in Aamis—there are beautiful panoramic shots of the city which make its chaotic urban jungle look deceptively pretty against its blue hills and occasional glimpses of the red river. The film documents the quotidian minutiae of everyday life, and there is much that is familiar in it to those of us who know Guwahati. Sumon lives in one of the dilapidated hostels of Guwahati University while Nirmali and Jumi drive along the eternally traffic-laden roads. Jayanta Hazarika plays on the morning radio and the ubiquitous cacophony of Assamese news channels is background noise to the climax. There are familiar faces, such as Sattyakee (D’com) Bhuyan, one of the most prominent names of English theatre in Guwahati. Aamis brings Guwahati to life in a way that we don’t see too often on the big screen.
Imbuing the film with the textures of ordinary life in Assam is decidedly a political choice, says the director. “In my imagination, the Assamese community is culturally more synonymous with the tribes and communities in South East Asia and even further east, rather than the dominant Punjabi-Hindi culture of the subcontinent. So when I’m developing Assamese films, I make sure that this distinction is out there. No one should mistake an Assamese film for an Indian film, in the same way that no one confuses a Malayalam or Marathi film for an Indian film.”
But how do we establish our difference and refuse to be subsumed into a bland, RSS-prescribed Hindutva-centric homogeneity without having that same assertion weaponised against us? When we always run the risk of being flattened into a single story, perhaps it is just as important to ask who gets to interpret our stories as who gets to tell them.
Last month, the Indian judiciary decided that six men who were caught on camera killing a man for transporting cows could go scot-free. We live in a country where people feel entitled to enter your house, raid your fridge and kill you for having “the wrong kind of meat” in your freezer. Perhaps tomorrow, it will be for eating any kind of meat at all. The righteousness of dogmatic vegetarianism is a slippery slope that increasingly seems to end with lynching in today’s political climate, and I can’t help but wonder if this is the moral straitjacket that this film will also be read against.
Aamis is a particularly brave attempt in this political climate, more so because it runs the risk of being read in the most literal, reductive terms about the immorality of meat eaters, especially “those primitive, morally lax tribals” who need to be brought under the great sattvic Hindu civilising project.
The righteousness of dogmatic vegetarianism is a slippery slope that increasingly seems to end with lynching in today’s political climate, and I can’t help but wonder if this is the moral straitjacket that this film will also be read against.
Aamis opens with shots of three people going about their day as Jayanta Hazarika’s Mur monor batori bur plays in the background. It ends with a tender moment between two of those people, even as the rest of the world judges them for their actions. The real tragedy of the film is what happens to the third person we saw in the beginning, whose story gets swallowed up in Nirmali and Sumon’s love story, because it renders visible—albeit briefly—which bodies we see as disposable when we are convinced of our righteousness. What stayed with me from that ending is horror at the empathy the film made me feel for Nirmali and Sumon, two People Like Us, who give into their worst instincts in their attempt to do what they believe is the right thing. I didn’t get any neat, easy answers from Aamis, but it certainly left me thinking about questions of right and wrong for days afterwards.