Finally I got around to seeing Aamir over the weekend, and was impressed overall with the film. Does it deserve rediff.com's ranking of being the best film of the year? Only considering that 2008 has been a dud for Bollywood so far, it could be called that, not otherwise.
But it is a remarkable first film for so many involved with the film, including the protagonist Rajeev Khandelwal. The scene where he realises that he has been had is a masterpiece. Hopefully, we will see more of this talented young man in mainstream projects, and not relegated to where the current talent basket is, in a reservation called multiplex films.
Aamir Ali is an improvement on SRK's Kabir Khan. Like the latter, and like millions of Indians, Ali is a committed citizen blind to the different shades the tricolour takes at times. He is even in love with a girl from another community, that ultimate sign of apostasy for the orthodox.
India, for such a one, especially a returning NRI, should be paradise, even despite the airport bureaucracy who think there's a world of difference between Aamir and Amar. This is not a pretty film, nor does it pull any punches.
At the heart of the two recent Muslim characterisations in Bollywood is the question: how much elbow room does a moderate Indian, who happens to be a Muslim, have?
Kabir Khan was lucky, he only had to grapple with majority scepticism, apart from wrestling with his inner demons.
In contrast, Aamir Ali's challenge is external, numbing, and stems from what he has made of his life. He earned his MBBS, went abroad, did well, lives in an apartment in middle class suburbia. His is the typical Muslim success story, like so many we see around us in our little conurbations. But when his qaum, or those claiming to speak for his community reach out to him, Aamir Ali realises he is not the same as them, there is little in common between their worldviews.
His story spans a few hours; he is left with no time to think, or react, but merely follow the voice on the phone till he realises that he has been fed a criminal lie. There is only one road ahead for such a man, and needless to say it is a one-way.
The film is short, and moves at a quick pace, so rather like Aamir Ali, you, too, don't get time to think too much. It's only when you sit back the next day and ruminate, do the questions come at you.
Like, Aamir Ali has no one in the city who he can phone from the airport when he doesn't find his family at the airport, and no one answering the phone at home? At a time when maids and streetside vendors flaunt cell phones, he has no friends with one?
But fair enough, things like these are mere niggles, no film is free of them, and these were not the ones that gave me a sense of disquiet.
What did, was that throughout the film Aamir Ali doesn't come across any 'normal' Muslim. As he is slowly being sucked into the vortex of extremism, Aamir is revulsed at the voice haranguing him on the phone for abandoning the qaum and going abroad, making merry with a non-Muslim girl, not realising the pitiable conditions in which the community is living.
And along with him, I too felt a slow rise of revulsion, but it was at the portrayal of no other voice in the film barring the one in Aamir Ali's head that was rational. You can explain it away that the milieu in which Aamir Ali finds himself, Mumbai's Dongri, is like that only, but it is not a fair wash. It is suggested that everyone and his shopkeeper in the area is aware of the cat-and-mouse game being played with Aamir Ali's life. Everyone in this area seems to be serving as eyes and ears for the Fat Man Pulling The Strings, and while they may not be complicit in the actions they are certainly conniving at it through their silence.
You can laugh this off if Aamir was a pure masala entertainer, but it is not one. Since the film is dealing with one of the burning issues of the day, if not THE issue, the subtext becomes as crucial as the main script. And the subtext, I realised, was what made me uncomfortable.
I am not reading or hinting at any motives into first-time director Rajkumar Gupta's bold film or its script. It is just that at one level I was so absorbed in the film, even shattered by the end, and on another level was wondering at the kind of reactions one will walk away with from the theatre. Will it reinforce the upsettingly common stereotype of the Muslim being a terrorist, if not a participant or abettor then at least a conniver? As seems to be everyone in the film?
Take the scene when Aamir walks back after collecting the hideous looking briefcase. His feet are leaden, and through the long walk back he can feel the eyes of the locals on him. Eyes that are knowing, that seem to say 'we know what is in that briefcase, we know what you are going to do with it'. It could well be the filmmaker's tool of telling us how Aamir feels at that moment, as if the whole world knows what he is doing, but the message that comes across is that everyone knows. And is silent.
It is this passive connivance that enables the film's grim denouement. Unfortunately, it also seems to lend credence to the oft-articulated view that it is the community's silence, interpreted as connivance, that is responsible for the scourge we are facing today.
Which is what made me hugely uncomfortable about Aamir the film.
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