Four short stories, roughly 25 minutes each, make up the honest and hard-hitting feature I Am, directed by Onir. In the first, Nandita Das is an embittered woman determined not to lean on a partner to fulfill her desire for a baby. The next is about a displaced Kashmiri Hindu, played by Juhi Chawla, who returns to Srinagar after 16 years, to sell her old home and confront the ghosts of the past. The third stars Sanjay Suri as a manipulative filmmaker still grappling with the sexual abuse he suffered in his youth. And Rahul Bose appears in the fourth as a gay man brutally exploited because his sexual orientation makes him a criminal in his own country.
Each recounting a tale of betrayal, the four chapters in I Am are held together by protagonists desperate to start afresh and assert their individual identity. Director Onir addresses relevant themes, but spares us that self-important tone that ‘issue-based’ films invariably tend to take. The stories in I Am unfold leisurely, and with a silent grace that makes it easy to root for its principal characters. There’s warmth and quiet dignity in the relationship between Nandita Das’ character and Purab Kohli’s, who make polite conversation in a doctor’s waiting room. There is a sad wistfulness in the scenes between Juhi Chawla’s character and her Muslim childhood friend, played by Manisha Koirala, whom she visits for the first time in many years. There’s playful mischief in the nervous flirtations between Rahul Bose’s character and Arjun Mathur’s who he encounters in a suburban coffee shop.
There is however, a slight sloppiness to the dialogues in the third film starring Sanjay Suri, and interlinking the four stories through common characters comes off as a tad labored.
Of the cast, Abhimanyu Singh stands out with a brazen, unflinching performance as a corrupt cop who misuses an unfortunate law to his advantage; and Juhi Chawla is a portrait of suppressed vulnerability as she confronts her feelings about an old home and an old friend. Even actors like Purab Kohli and Arjun Mathur leave a lasting impression in less showy roles.
Accompanied by a haunting score, I Am is an occasionally disturbing, but ultimately hopeful film about companionship and acceptance in this judgmental world. I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five for I Am. For its fine performances and its inherent honesty, don’t miss this one!