Aami movie review: Manju Warrier holds attention in an often engaging but too often risk-averse biopic
Based on the life of Kamala Das, Aami has a thoughtful, engaging tone but it is too risk-averse to be as captivating as the woman whose story it tells
castManju Warrier, Aangelina Abraham, Neelanjana, Tovino Thomas, Murali Gopy, Anoop Menon, Vinaya Prasad, Indrans, Renji Panicker, Lakshmi Priya, Rahul Madhav
Aami’s opening scene shows a woman on a hospital bed in 1971, Bombay. Kamala Das, star of the Indian literary firmament, iconoclast and thinker, is lost in musings that will persist through this 155-minutes-long film.
We go back in time with her, to 1939 and her ancestral home at Punnayurkulam in Kerala’s Thrissur district. The film reminds us that little Kamala — Aami to her relatives — is from a literary family. Her mother, for one, is the renowned writer Nalapat Balamani Amma. She asks a lot of questions, this girl who might have been silenced elsewhere, but not in this home frequented by cultural stalwarts, where questioning minds and progressive thoughts co-exist with several gender, caste and class status quos.
The guilelessness and quiet rebellion reflected in what Aami asks remain an intrinsic part of her personality into her adulthood, as it is presented to us by award-winning writer-director Kamal. Through his eyes, we follow Aami from Punnayurkulam to Calcutta where her Anglophile father works, to her husband’s home in Bombay, on her travels with him, Thiruvananthapuram after his retirement and her death in a Pune hospital in 2009 — all factually accurate. We follow Aami when, at 15, soon after India wins Independence, she is married to Madhav Das, 20 years her senior, and becomes Kamala Das. Later, she assumes the pseudonym Madhavikutty for her Malayalam works. In her twilight years, when she converts to Islam, she calls herself Kamala Surayya.
Her many names mirror the multiple personalities dwelling in this one intriguing woman. There was the feisty nonconformist of her autobiography Ente Katha (My Story), which has captured the imagination of generations of Malayali readers and which, media reports tell us, she later confessed was as much myth as bio. There was the columnist who spoke frankly of a woman’s sexuality even back then. Both are a far cry from the restive creature — sometimes mouldable yet usually firm in her convictions, decisive yet wracked by confusion, sensible yet at times whimsical — that dominates Aami even while it brings us those other facets of her persona too.
(Spoilers ahead, if you choose to consider them so)
A person may well convey an impression of strength while struggling with herself. Aami’s flaw is that while it effectively captures Kamala’s restlessness and constant unease, it does not take us closer to understanding why that spirited child grew into this troubled woman. Was it mental illness and/or the trauma of having a sexually aggressive husband who hired a prostitute to train his teenaged bride to please him and callously flaunted his male lover before her?
A doctor is consulted in passing. Aami’s primary failing at this point is the mixed-up characterisation of Madhav Das who, after the initial cruelty, is shown displaying extreme kindness towards his delicate wife and supporting her career. Without a transition from one stage to the next, it feels as if we are seeing two men instead of one who evolved into a better person.
Still, the woolly writing of the husband apart, it is possible to buy into Kamal’s conception of Kamala as tough yet conflicted, although a reason is not proffered or justified — it is possible if you heed his reminders that Aami is just an interpretation of this very public woman.
The reminders come mostly through the medium of the ageless Lord Krishna (played by Tovino Thomas) from whom she seeks solace and answers when she is most disturbed.
These are the scenes in which Kamal indicates that his Aami is a portrayal not just of the Kamala Das/Surayya extensively covered by the news media and revealed in her interviews, but also of the fantasy of herself that existed in Kamala’s head as Kamal envisioned her.
The director’s intent is encapsulated in this line spoken by Malayala Nadu magazine’s editor: “Ente Katha. Madhavikutty. Is this all true or are they this woman’s imaginings?” The same can be asked of Aami: is this all true or are they this man Kamal’s imaginings?
Aami’s appeal for you then depends on whether you are willing to buy into those imaginings.
The film worked in large parts for me because in recounting Aami/Kamala’s life, Kamal has adopted a poetic, ruminative tone that I found compelling. He is aided greatly in this by Bijibal’s mellow background score, M Jayachandran’s tuneful songs and especially Shreya Ghoshal’s beautiful singing of them (for the nth time, hats off to her for her Malayalam diction), and the atmospherics conjured up by Madhu Neelakandan’s cinematography.
When the narrative does occasionally become leaden, Krishna returns and lifts the film as much as he lifts Kamala’s mood. This is in no small measure due to Tovino Thomas’ likeable screen presence and the writing of the dialogues here to sound like conversations between real people instead of ponderous metaphysical reflections. Aami’s Krishna is a delightfully non-judgmental and secular being who addresses the protagonist as a friend, not as a deity on a pedestal.
An array of well-known character actors appear in minuscule roles. Each leaves an impression though Renji Panicker as the Malayala Nadu editor benefits from the best writing of the lot. Through that one character — disparaging Kamala before others, lascivious when alone with her — Kamal’s screenplay captures the hypocrisy of a deeply patriarchal, sexually repressed society that was equal parts shocked and fascinated by a woman’s remarkable openness about concerns usually swept under the carpet. Murali Gopy is good as Madhav Das despite the writing.
The casting of the lead could have been better. If you can tolerate the distractingly thick and dry, odd-coloured make-up Manju Warrier is saddled with (it ages her too much when Aami/Kamala is in her 20s, then not enough until the final shots), you might be drawn into her world as I was.
The star delivers an involved portrayal of the adult Kamala, and is well matched by the sprightly Aangelina Abraham playing her as a child. The deadpan Neelanjana is a poor choice though for a teen Aami. She weighs down crucial scenes with the girl’s first crush (a truly handsome Muslim art teacher) and in her husband’s bedroom. I was relieved when the segment with her was over.
The political hot potato in Kamala’s story is her conversion to Islam in 1999. It is the film’s most interesting and simultaneously disappointing portion. Kamal does a good job of depicting the controversy that erupted when Kamala Surayya first emerged on the scene, and in reminding us that her decision was none of anyone’s business but her own. Among Aami’s most gripping passages is a scene that has Kamala confronting Hindu fundamentalists who try to obstruct her return to Punnayurkulam. Another shows Muslim conservatives dictating life choices to her.
One version of events is that Kamala embraced Islam under the influence of a younger man she fell in love with. She herself told the press she was drawn to Islam when she studied it to teach two Muslim children she had adopted 27 years earlier (her family has confirmed the adoption). Aami opts for the former, possibly because it allows the screenplay to steer clear of the highly critical comments Kamala made about Hinduism that infuriated Hindu extremists at the time.
The film also plays safe with Muslim extremists by offering platitudes about Islam’s respect for women without a countering voice. The late writer had a right to change her religion, but it would not have been anti-freedom for Aami to critique her more ridiculous pronouncements about Islamic culture in interviews, including a romanticisation of the purdah and what at least some readers must surely have seen as a betrayal by a woman who once abhorred fetters, when she said, “I’ve had enough freedom… Restrictions bring their own happiness.”
Kamal sticks his neck out by dwelling at length on Kamala’s conversion, but sadly does not go far enough. Similarly, in the matter of Kamala’s friendships with men, except in the case of Akbar Ali played by Anoop Menon, it avoids revealing how often her fantasies translated into an amorous reality. While Kamal may argue that he genuinely believed they did not, the tacky handling of an interlude with an impactless male Italian pen friend indicates some awkwardness on the part of the director on this front.
This hesitation encapsulates the pluses and minuses of a film that takes on a controversial subject, offers a commentary on social mores in Kamala Das/Surayya’s lifetime, but holds back beyond a point. Aami’s thoughtful tone is engaging but it is too risk-averse to be as captivating as the woman whose story it tells.
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