After dinner, Nirmali’s husband finds her kneeling down in front of the fridge. She is devouring a spicy piece of chicken with unwavering attention. Her husband finds it cryptic but doesn’t say a word. The scene ends there and shifts straight to the bed, her head on his chest, eyes wide open. Although he is talking, none of his words register.
What captivates so seamlessly in Bhaskar Hazarika’s Assamese film Aamis is this subtle shift of normal and strange, that slowly tends to descend more towards the latter, making strangeness normal. Set in Guwahati, what starts off as a sweet interaction between a PhD student Sumon (Arghadeep Barua, effortless) and a pediatrician Nirmali (Lima Das; unforgettable) quickly changes route, and feels unfamiliar within seconds. What eventually starts off as a sweet romance quickly translates into horror, and then into a psychological drama- for Aamis is truly genre-defying in terms of its execution, your reaction a testimony to your own recognition of the very concept of what is considered normal.
Nirmali devours the meat cooked by Sumon, trying new dishes every other day- wild rabbit, squab cooked in banana blossom and catfish with colocasia. They eat together, he with his fingers and she always preferring a fork. An understated, eventual liking flourishes. Without any trace of physical intimacy, their bond over devouring meat grows, and pulls them back for more, until the questions arise. An affair with a married woman? “She’s using you as a puppet,” Sumon is warned, to which he only says, “Don’t discourage me, now that I am in love.” Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox lingers in memory in this retrospect, but it is here where the subtlety ends. Pulled towards each other, yet pulled apart, Sumon and Nirmali’s cravings take turns- the realization dawns upon them that there is no physical intimacy. The relationship is forced by the moral tendency surrounding even the possibility of an affair between a married woman and a younger man. Food becomes their only connecting factor; meat, the symbol of repressed hunger.
Hazarika places Nirmali at the centre of this crossfire. In Lunchbox, it was about the woman cooking for the man, as is considered normative. But, it is Nirmali here who articulates the craving for flavours, and fearlessly tries new meat with an hunger she never knew existed within her. The only film that comes back to distinctive memory is Nabyendu Chattopadhyay’s 1987 Sarisreep, where the women of the house took to food to counter-attack each other in terms of supremacy in the house. Even then, that film was reduced due to its half-baked characterization. But no other film in Indian cinematic history treats the woman quite like Aamis does. Here, Nirmali undergoes a journey through her desire for meat. It remains present initially in a very subtle manner, and then it grows, as if there was always a capability within her she never quite explored.
Food has always been a metaphor used excessively in horror films, that it becomes overwrought and redundant. From the raw steak crawling across the kitchen counter in Poltergeist (1982) to a flustered Drew Barrymore burning her popcorn in the opening scene of Scream (1999) and then the chocolate bars Charlie routinely snaps with her teeth in Hereditary (2018)- hunger is everywhere in horror. In Darren Aronofsky’s mother! (2017), the kitchen table is covered at different points throughout the film with grapes, cheese, cake, lemonade, tea- and yet the focus is not on Mother’s consumption but the suppression of her appetite. Later in the film, she is horrified to observe that one of the guests cuts into the cake with a spoon. We overhear one man direct the others: take the fruit and the cheese and the pickles. Her hard work is left undone, and consumed by others while she eats nothing. Throughout the film she has suppressed her own desires- for love, respect, privacy- and it is still not enough.
Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering is another point of consideration. As much as it is about recovery from alcohol addiction, it is also about other forms of addiction: love, desire, food. “In addition to my calorie-counting notebook,” Jamison writes, “I kept another journal, full of fantasy meals I copied from restaurant menus: pumpkin-ricotta ravioli; vanilla-bean cheesecake with raspberry-mango coulis; goat cheese and Swiss chard tartlets. This journal was the truth of me: I wanted to spend every single moment of my life eating everything. The journal that recorded what I actually ate was just a mask- the impossible person I wanted to be, someone who didn’t need anything at all.” Aamis makes up for this space. Aided with an evocative music design by Goutam Nair and shrap editing by Shweta Rai Chamling, Nirmali’s hunger becomes neither inherently good or bad, and her seemingly opposing emotions both shame and desire- are allowed to exist side by side.
Intimate yet distant, sensuous yet macabre, Aamis quietly creeps under your skin without your realization. Hazarika’s film is a wild-ride of uninhibited desires and what eventually comes at the cost of love. It is a tour-de-force of unhinged cinematic experience, that places Hazarika as a vastly original talent to watch out for. You’ll never quite see meat the same way after Aamis. Relish it.