Dark, Ravenous and Mad: Hunger in Bhaskar Hazarika’s Aamis

NAMRATA PATHAK reviews the film ‘Aamis’

Bhaskar Hazarika’s ‘Aamis’ translates to “non-vegetarian”. This one-hour-and-forty-eight-minutes movie digs at a number of tags— it is a romance, a food porn, horror, psychological thriller and comedy at once, blurring the borders between genres. The film invests on a patchwork of diverse ideas and the director’s unique frames of installation ensnare us. Without a beleaguered attachment to any, Hazarika’s genre slashing has been a vital deviation from the mundane and old techniques of presentation, also his directorial wizardry of spinning plates, dishing out mouth watering food one after another from this side of the world. Food keeps us hooked to the screen for hours. The culinary delights are hard to miss— we zoom in into a manual with illustrations, hands-on guide and elaborate instructions to cook. This brings to my mind another evocative movie, Chef in which a bountiful cook, Jon Favreau, traces his roots in Cuba to peel out the artificial exteriorities, layer after layer, to discover himself or know who he is. Failing to stick to the demands of a boring menu in an upscale restaurant, the chef chooses a less trodden path. He chooses diversity, not the pomp and show or the glitz that the posh restaurant offers him. Later a contented Favreau is seen making Cuban dishes in a food truck with his son. Like Chef, Aamis steeps us in a world of self realizations and sudden epiphanies, but there is also a descend into madness driven by dangerous fetish and sinister urges.

Bhaskar Hazarika’s oeuvre consists of movies like Kothanodi, his first directorial venture, much acclaimed. In Aamis sifting through new definitions of food, no matter how macabre they are, Hazarika’s intention is not to exoticize the foodscape of the North East, rather Aamis is an exaggerated satire as it banks on the projections of a mosaic of cultures in this terrain, that is, the North East, no matter how bizarre the caricatures are. Food has always been a source of controversy for the North Easterners living in metropolitan cities like Delhi. Such experiences hinge on myriad conjectures that are flawed and lopsided. The differences imbued in the cultures from the North East are usually not taken into stride, accepted in the mainstream spaces. Hazarika’s lines of thought render the periphery interesting as he takes account of certain details, too ordinary to be recorded, like who eats, what is eaten, where and why— and the meaningful ramifications inherent in the act of eating itself. There are a number of allegations poured out on North Easterners as a result of his/her food habits and choices notwithstanding the taunts and jabs. This is a common story of every North Easterner settled elsewhere, in the West, North and South of India, in search of better prospects or to pursue higher studies. They are mocked at for eating dogs, snails, worms and what not. Hazarika turns the tables, extends an invitation to a banquet— he makes us partake of a platter of variety. The director-turned-acrobat balancing dishes, zooming in to deviled eggs; plump, red tomatoes; roasted meat; thick, brown gravy; and juicy insects tailspin into a journey of chaos, head-on collisions, strange consequences, and later a shocking resolution.

Bhaskar Hazarika’s Aamis has overlaps with Nicholas Kharkongor’s Axone. Axone, which can also be termed as a recipe for disaster, is looked down upon with strife and contempt in a Jat neighbourhood in Delhi. Axone, a fermented soyabean delicacy from Nagaland, is a potentially subversive ingredient in Delhi’s South Humayunpur as it clashes headlong against popular food sentiments of the local dwellers in its distinctive sharp flavour and a pungent smell. Regarding food from the region of the North East, Ashish Chopra, author of one of the first cookbooks on North Eastern cuisine, contends, “I have met people who have wrongly assumed that the food is unhealthy or smelly. Lots of effort is being made to change that mindset and bring this cuisine to the mainstream.” In the same vein, Axone foregrounds a typical North Eastern experience, and also shows how it is “otherized” in mainland India. While in Nagaland, the distinctive aroma of Axone resonates well with the local communities, it is not a welcoming sight in a Delhi locality. The celebratory pulse in the movie finally gives in to a cacophony, much to the bewilderment of everyone— neighbours complaining, confusions at many levels, differences of opinions and tiffs between landlords and tenants. In Kharkongor’s words, the film is about racism as “Everyone who has moved from the Northeast to Delhi has experienced this in some form or the other. Sometimes it’s extreme. Sometimes it’s mild”. 

Aamis captures the dark and gory desire to prey on flesh or to hungrily gorge on a juicy piece of meat. The actors (played by Arghadeep Baruah and Lima Das) eat voraciously, close their eyes in anticipation and lick the fingers desultorily out of sheer satiation— they teach you how to eat what you eat, lavishly and ravenously. In Aamis the lead actors, Sumon (Arghadeep Baruah) and Niri (Lima Das), connect to each other through the trope of meat, not the usual broiler chicken that is cooked in a typical Assamese kitchen, but everything unusual that Sumon, a connoisseur in this regard, likes to savour— worms, bats, insects, snails, pork and other kinds. Niri, a paediatrician by profession, initially squeamish at the mere thought of eating them, is married to a man who is not emotionally available for her, a fellow doctor, Dilip, whose profession demands frequent out-of-the-city trips. The food that Sumon craves for, unsual meat, is found in places that are public and dank, in comparison to Niri’s sacred and sanctimonious kitchen. Nirmali, a middle-aged woman with a child, is living a life without any spark— her predictable routine is devoid of any fun or any regime of self care. She drops the kid at the bus stop for his school in the morning, sits with him to do his homework in the evening, tucks him in his bed while planting a kiss on his forehead, and spends the major part of the day attending to sick children in the hospital. For Sumon, a young and promising PhD scholar from the department of Anthropology in the University, to shed inhibitions in the act of eating meat is a must. He drags Nirmali to certain non-descript places, unknown to her, roadside dhabas and forlorn hotels, to make her taste bat’s meat, wild rabbits and catfish with colocasia. An enthusiastic Nirmali quips that until and unless it is dung beetle which she detests, she does not have aversion to any kind of meat cooked and offered to her. Jokingly she asks what is the difference between the meat cooked in the Meat Club (run by Sumon in the University) and the meat that is available elsewhere? With a gleam in his eyes, Sumon reveals the secret— it is ‘meat’, the real stuff, the whole meat, unlike the processed, frozen chunks that are sold in the departmental stores, tasteless and unappetising. Nirmali’s mounting obsession with meat is initiated in the daily encounters with Sumon, and later found an outlet in the disturbing scene in the hospital morgue where she pleaded and accosted Sumon to cut the legs and limbs of the corpse so that she can have a hearty meal. She longs for more meat, more flesh— perhaps eating humans would be the only cure for her growing hunger. This hunger cannot be controlled, and it has taken a toll on her mental health. Certain scenes in the movie haunt us. Immersed in darkness Sumon chopping the legs of the rickshaw puller at the end so that Nirmali can feast on the meat unsettles, leaves us in a daze. Also, his vet friend, Elias, cutting flesh from Sumon’s thighs with a scalpel and knife, convinced by Sumon that he needs a sample of his body to carry out an experiment on Anthropology in the lab. Later, Sumon cooking his own meat for Nirmali— a joyous, sportive Sumon preparing the condiments, slicing onions, pounding garlic, garnishing the dishes and later, feeding Nirmali a part of his own body. And finally, a delusional and deranged Nirmali addicted to Sumon’s meat coaxing him to give her more. The movie has utterly dark overtures.

The simple act of eating is not only rendered political by Bhaskar Hazarika, but the nuances in the  ‘unnameable’ relationship between a paediatrician, Niri, and an anthropologist, Suman, also make us brood on the unforgiving realities that haunt a rigid Assamese society, and partly on tasteful transgressions, an erasure of lines of division, through food. What is shown here is how a plethora of emotions is unleashed by and through the trope of food, meat particularly. Both Niri and Sumon undergo a transformation, a change in their personality— each is made aware of the needs, cravings and desires that they have been so far convincingly repressing due to a lack of societal sanction or for the fear of being ostracized in an orthodox Assamese society. Food makes certain crossovers possible. Food binds them together. In Aamis food brings out a mixed bag of emotions ranging from lust to uninhibited display of dark emotions in both the actors. In this regard, similar is the movie Like Water for Chocolate which has scintillating twists at its heart. What Lumi Cavazos cooks carries her many hued emotions, thus triggering potent reactions in the ones who devour them. Brought up in a traditional Mexican family, she is forbidden to marry, not even Pedro whom she loves with an unmatched passion.  Food brings out all, ranging from ecstasy to despair, in Like Water for Chocolate. Next, the delicious entanglements in I am Love are hard to miss.  Married into an affluent Milanese family, Tilda Swinton lives in a state of constant self denial, like Niri, until she crosses paths with Edoardo Gabbriellini, a talented chef who rekindles and reawakens her passion for life. Hence begins her swirling journey of fulfilment with every dish that she tastes and every dish that comes out of his kitchen.

What is not accepted in a society borders on taboos—the less-talked-about aspects of a woman’s life that are pushed under the carpet, Niri’s chiefly, unveil an undulating psychological landscape, mostly scarred and bruised. No need to say that Aamis adds contours to certain flat surfaces. There are excavations of many kinds. Journeys into a woman’s heart. The survey and exploration of varied dimensions in both Niri and Sumon’s life find an apt manifestation in a strange hunger or the lack of it— Sumon’s palate is defined by his love for meat, not the usual kind, and Niri, the detached and distant eater, is shown to eat fish with a fork and knife. Habits of eating (the topic of research of Sumon, an anthropologist), preferences, choice of food, cooking, culinary skills or simply, the way one eats, by fingers or cutlery, give us snippets of a person’s thoughts, the inner world, and both Niri and Sumon’s are no exception. The doe eyed Niri modestly dressed in soft hued mekhela chadors in Aamis becomes a forbidden chunk of meat for Sumon, whose temptations reached the zenith with each encounter, though not lustful apparently, both, in the meanwhile, shying away from any physical contact or intimacy. But the innuendoes are strong to miss. For Niri, Sumon is a harbinger of a new world, not restrictive, patterned and rule-bound, but a dreamy world of bodily desires. Not only this, in Sumon she finds a connection so deep that, strangely enough, threatens to turn her small world topsy turvey. Being a married woman with a child, and a renowned practising doctor in the city, she is sucked up in a whirlpool of fatal possibilities. The storm is acutely real for her. There is no safe cocoon to withdraw now, not even the confines of her home— ironically she is shown to be more claustrophobic in her own house.  Sumon’s new offerings every time, meat of all kinds, provoke her to discover a part of her own self. Meat becomes her soul-food. Sumon is the nourisher, giver— she absorbs and internalizes as food, like the man, becomes her mode of sustenance. This ravening reaches its zenith with Niri, floating all decorum and etiquette of eating, not mindful anymore, using her fingers to hungrily plop a meat down her throat much to the surprise of her husband. Two lovers unite through meat, as Sumon puts it, they can be a part of each other, if not physically, than by feeding on each other. “Eating” is stretched too far indeed— it has interesting contact points. It amalgamates and conjoins; it has points of convergences. Aamis bridges that gap between an exteriority and a pervasive inner realm— this unification throws everybody in disarray, subverts “normalcy” in its varied manifestations in a social space, most importantly put under scanner a labyrinth of relationships. Food, thus, is the biggest interlocutor.  Also, it is a failed dialogue.

(Dr Namrata Pathak teaches at NEHU, Tura campus)