“People put anything in their mouths these days,” Suman (played by Arghadeep Baruah), a 27-year-old PhD student, tells Nirmali (Lima Das), a married pediatrician, when they meet each other for the first time in writer-director Bhaskar Hazarika’s Aamis (Ravening). Suman complains about the ease with which people seem to routinely consume meat without knowing about its origins, how old it is, or where it is stored. It’s this ignorance that triggers the first rule of “Meat Club,” a gathering consisting of Suman’s friends who like eating exotic meats: they don’t buy dressed meat. Instead, Suman reveals to an amused Nirmali that they “buy the thing alive, slaughter, cook, and enjoy it.” This moment seems harmless at first — banal even — made up of small talk that engineers countless meet-cutes between potential lovers.
Yet, a true reading of the sequence arrives by the end of the film when the undercurrent has completely reversed — when it becomes clear that this opening scene foreshadows the ominous. It is Suman and Nirmali’s adherence to these rules that underlines the depraved overtures of the Assamese filmmaker’s sophomore outing. This sequence succinctly captures the subterfuge of Aamis, which had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival last month and plays at the New York Indian Film Festival this week. The film toys with existing tropes in mainstream Indian cinema — star crossed lovers, neglected married woman, food as an aphrodisiac — only to eventually desist their limitations, molding itself into a narrative whose ingenuity belies conventional expectations.
Set in the urban bylanes of Guwahati, Aamis is at its heart, an unbelievably gentle tale of amour fou — both carnal and dietary — and the perverse repercussions that arise when there are moral obstructions imposed on its indulgence and expression. In the film, Suman, who is researching the panoply of meat-eating traditions of North-East India (a nugget that also haunts the film’s satisfyingly repelling climax) and Nirmali, who soon inducts herself in his Meat Club, develop feelings for each other due to their shared carnivorous palate. Yet their romance is doomed from the beginning — they’re separated by age, class strata, and conservative moral values.
Curious about the peculiar preoccupation of the Meat Club after their initial meeting, Nirmali insists on Suman letting her sample a portion of the next dish he makes. That, in turn, sets off a courtship disguised as a culinary sojourn across the city where the two discover each other while eating meat. One day it is fresh fish by the river in a quaint stall, and on another day, their lunch comprises bat meat deep inside a plantation. But despite their visible chemistry — lyrically captured in lingering glances, comfortable silences, and quiet smiles — they never get physically intimate, having internalized the impossibility of their union. Suman is shown googling “platonic love,” and Nirmali, an older married woman, brushes off her friend’s implication that she is having an “illicit affair” with the young student.
Yet even though they repress their shared desires (captured in a visceral shot where the camera captures Suman’s temptation to touch Nirmali’s hand), their love urgently demands an outlet. The film’s enchanting cinematography (Aamis is shot by Riju Das) and its dreamy sound design (the music is by Quan Bay, comprised of Assamese composer Aniruddha Borah and Vietnamese musician Tammy Nguyen) coalesce effortlessly to evoke the texture of the couple’s pining. The “meat” then becomes both a metaphor and a device for their consummation in Aamis. Sumon cooks dishes for Nirmali, quite literally offering his commitment on a plate and she willingly reciprocates his overtures.
Hazarika, who debuted with Kothanodi (2015), an imposing folk horror anthology, takes this seemingly chaste, oft-abused trope of documenting courtship through the metaphor of food to an intoxicating detour and subverts it. In the film, the intensity of his emotions consumes Sumon, who hatches a morally aberrant plan involving a deadly piece of meat that would permit him to get closer to Nirmali without crossing the boundaries distancing them. And even though his self-destructive experiment pays off, it also unhinges Nirmali and her desires, culminating into a shock ending that reimagines filmmaking in ways that invite — and deserve — rapt interpretations.
The audacious atmosphere of transgressive horror is in part elevated by the cultural subtext that makes it impossible to not regard as an act informed by political resistance. In Aamis, “meat” also remains the constant signifier of the fervid othering that has now become routine in India. In one standout moment in the film, Sumon reacts to Nirmila’s husband mocking the idea of considering wild meat as palatable food by reminding him that normalcy isn’t universal. “What is normal to us is abnormal to others,” says Sumon. It’s a politically charged moment that is unsubtle in its critique of the narrow-mindedness that finds itself being scared of diversity. At a time when the government is hellbent on rewriting the history of India as a predominantly vegetarian nation, just the existence of a film centered on meat-eaters feels like rebellion.
Yet much of the brilliance of the genre-hybrid Aamis is in its steadfast refusal to commit. Hazarika crafts Aamis in a way that can be simultaneously read as an emotionally grounded slow-burn forbidden romance, an allegorical nod to the aftermath of socio-cultural repressions, and as macabre corporeal horror. The film’s ambitious sweep of ideas is further buttressed by the fact that Hazarika, a deeply accomplished storyteller, does complete justice to his vivid imagination, disallowing it to be dampened by the unpredictability of execution.
Aamis premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last month and screened at the New York Indian Film Festival on May 8.