Director: Raj Kumar Gupta
Story: Raj Kumar Gupta
Music: Amit Trivedi
Camera: Alphanso Roy
Producer: UTV Spotboy.
With Rajeev Khandelwal, Gajraj Rao and Jhilmil Hazrika.
The multiplex was running only one show of Aamir at nine in the morning and we were three of the odd dozen to have braved the drizzle to catch it in this ‘cheap’ time slot. Also, since the auditorium was near empty and the usher not watching it had been possible to occupy the better seats near the top. This experience of viewing; the morning show, the empty auditorium and a film like Aamir to which we had ventured because of its connection with Anurag Kashyap needs to be factored into reading the significance of the film; its success and failure.
Anurag Kashyap who gave us the critically acclaimed Black Friday and No Smoking is the creative producer of Aamir that is directed by the debutant Raj kumar Gupta. Described as a thriller, this film too has received good reviews as well as the niche audience it had aimed at. Describing a few hours in the life of a foreign returned Muslim doctor Aamir Ali (played by Rajeev Khandelwal); the film has a taut, economical structure that succeeds in keeping you on the edge of your seat. Returning from London, the moment he lands in Mumbai, Dr. Aamir Ali gets caught in a series of bizarre experiences that for long do not make sense to him as they take him deeper and deeper into the labyrinths of a terrorist plot that is being controlled by an anonymous figure in the dark who instructs him via a mobile phone. But before stepping out on to the streets of Mumbai, Aamir has a brush with the custom’s officers who harass him, evidently, because he is a Muslim. This is the only scene in the film which is outside the terror plot and can be seen as providing a context to the events that follow.Aamir, an educated Muslim returning to India and to his family, is essentially suspect, merely because of his identity, his religion! It is with the bitter taste of this brush with Indian law that Aamir steps out of the airport and into a nightmare. A couple of boys on a motor-bike throw him a mobile phone that becomes his only connection with a voice and a figure that threatens to destroy his kidnapped family if he did not comply with the instructions that will be given to him on the phone .Thus begins Aamir’s uncertain journey through some of the most depressingly squalid parts of Mumbai. Henceforth he will always be on the run- through crowded narrow streets, cheap restaurants, dilapidated buildings and filthy toilet blocks. But it is not only the filth and the squalor that affects. What one experiences through Aamir is the indifference of crowd as it becomes a silent, often expressionless, unknowing and unconcerned onlooker of Aamir’s plight. It is the achievement of the film that its rendering of the claustrophobic menace of these mean streets is so viscerally real. Shot with hidden cameras and tightly edited to restless music, Aamir’s disgust (at one point he actually throws up!) and fear become as palpable as the hostile city’s indifference to it. The city or rather that part of the city that has remained untouched by the developmental designs of the neo-liberal project, thus becomes a character, the antagonist, along with the anonymous figure on the phone, in this drama of a young man trapped in a plot of which he is the reluctant protagonist. Furthermore, the staged character of this drama becomes evident from the fact that the voice on the other side of phone not only orders Aamir around but also engages him in a conversation about Muslim identity, their marginalized and under privileged status and the duty of successful Muslims like Aamir toward his community. Clearly, Aamir is being taken to all these places with the intent of acquainting him (and us?) with the realities of Muslim existence in a city like Mumbai. Aamir, for his part, maintains that it is possible to overcome crippling social conditions and succeed like he did while also rejecting the suggestion that he owes any allegiance to his community. Most certainly, Aamir’s is the plea of modern individuality, the claim to chart his own course of life and to attain whatever wealth and success it will afford. After a series of torturous turns and hopeless moments, the film reaches the end where at the last minute Aamir foils the designs of his tormentor by sacrificing his own life and probably that of his family members.
Undeniably, in terms of its visual texture and edgy pace, the film scores as cinematic experience. That this experience is powerful enough for us to suspend our credulity regarding the most central plot device needs to be noted. For example, the terrorist outfit seems to have a well oiled network and mechanism in the form of numerous people and places that are silently but effectively present around Aamir, nudging his passage to the goal. That such an outfit should risk an operation by recruiting a total stranger whose choice seems arbitrary does not make sense until we track it to its origin. The director has contested the allegation that his film has been ‘inspired’ by the Filipino film, Cavite (2005) whose plot summary on wikipedia reads exactly like that of Aamir. Remakes are of course not new to the Hindi film industry but what a film like Aamir indicates is that if earlier it was essential to ‘Indianize’ Hollywood or other films by adding the necessary ingredients of song and dance, love interest, comic scenes or generally ‘Indian values’ today in the age of multiplex that is no longer necessary. A frame by frame adaptation is likely to work as well for films that no more aim at pleasing large audiences; the ‘masses’, but at what the multiplex has made space for with its differently sized auditoriums- an urban cinema-literate niche audience. To be sure, over the last few years, increasingly the multiplex has contributed to the making of certain kinds of films that aim at purely urban and overseas audiences at the cost of rural and small town markets. Possibly, Aamir simply furthers a trend that will see the gradual (but inexorable?) erasing of differences in cultural taste and preferences as standards of naturalistic acting and story telling establish themselves as global norms.
In the cinema hall our thrill at Aamir’s trajectory through Mumbai’s Muslim quarters increasingly gives way to a strangely disquieting feeling. For example, when Aamir is being ordered around from one location to another, his ‘educator’ on the mobile phone, always seen in half light, harangues him about the sad plight of his community and his alienation from it. This is also a graphic education of the audience that has lately been used to inhabit, as far as their film viewing experience is concerned, mostly swanky western cityscapes and/or expansive exotic landscapes. Thus, we see the desperately poor living conditions of the Muslims in India through the machinations of a shady and ruthless character. Our discomfort comes from the fact that the poverty and the lack of recourses and opportunities that we see, are being shown to us by Aamir’s tormentor, whose motives are essentially suspect and whose sincerity, even in terms of his professed concern for the Muslim community, doubtful. Consequently, rather than being one of the many serious causes of disaffection among Muslim youth, poverty here seems like an excuse for crime. Besides, right from the beginning of Aamir’s travails, it becomes evident that although one person gives him instructions, at every point and place there are people; taxi drivers, shopkeepers, waiters, woman manning the phone booth, a prostitute, hotel owners who are complicit in the plot. This along with the anonymous hostility of crowd in the streets creates an impression that the whole Muslim community is a part of the conspiracy and therefore Aamir’s enemy. The class character of this conflict, Aamir the educated foreign returned Muslim against the rest of the unwashed poor inhabitants of these grimy quarters is difficult to miss. And when Aamir disobeys the command to leave the bomb in the bus, instead preferring to carry it close to himself away from the crowd thus avoiding a major tragedy, he finally wins the argument with his interlocutor. By refusing to be controlled by circumstances and quite literally taking his life in his own hand, Aamir proves that just as he was able to get out of this rut, educate himself and succeed, he is also able to defy the dictates of his oppressor. Hence, the end that shows us Aamir embracing death with a triumphant half smile is also an indictment not only of terrorists who are trapped or drawn into conspiracies, but of a whole community that ‘chooses’ to fester in ghettos thus giving birth to discontent that leads to terror!
Neo-liberal policies that have made multiplexes along with malls and high rise buildings an inescapable part of the urban skyline along with information high ways that give access to new technology and new film ideas from the First world, allow Indian filmmakers to make ‘instant’ films like Aamir that unsurprisingly ignore the global networks of terror, its geo-politics and the role of the first world in fostering these net works! The resultant insular focus of the narrative reduces it to a morality tale of the existential choices made by a lone innocent man trapped by the evil designs of a fundamentalist crook! The young director, Raj kumar Gupta in an interview said that this was a story of any common man who finds himself pitted against extraordinary odds. Do we understand this to mean that the Muslim identity of the protagonist and the Islamic terror plot is not central but simply incidental to what is essentially a thriller? What then, we may well ask, is the purpose of Aamir’s and our ‘education’? I would like to propose that the film, in its realist figuring of the city’s sordid streets and quarters actually touches on a very profound anxiety of the upwardly mobile urban middle class towards those spaces on the fringes of the city ( by- passed by global economic transformations and home to thousands who battle there for survival) that continually threaten to either spill over into the manicured residential and shopping spaces of the beneficiaries of market economy or to suck you into the black hole of its deathly abyss! In this sense Aamir is any ‘common man’ whose entrapment in this ‘other’ world proves to be so dreadfully fatal.
The multiplex has been credited with bringing the better class audience, who had been wary of sharing the same space with the noisy uncouth lower classes in the older movie halls, back to the now upgraded, suitably exclusive entertainment places. Contradictorily, it has also made available a tiny space (at unearthly hours!) for the low budget, unusual, sometimes experimental films. In this context, Aamir’s affective experience is particularly significant because while, on the one hand, it appropriately displays technical finesse and an ability to cleverly adopt a thorny subject like terrorism to the thriller format but fails to explore its global, national, economic and psychological complexity, it does succeed, on the other, in touching the deepest anxiety of its niche audience toward its desolate ‘other’. After all, our bodies like that of Aamir, as they yearn in desire towards new found pleasures, are constantly on the run from the abrasive touch of that grim despair that lurks just around the corner.