This post is written by Bilal Khan who is student of Christ University, Bengaluru.
What we consider normal or not usually depends on our perception of things. A person can conform to the idea of love being compared to a rose. The metaphor stands as old as English poetry, and an individual could agree with it based on the visual, olfactory and tactile imagery it evokes. On the other hand, one kind perceives this metaphor abnormal or even amoral for it connotes love to be thorny, withering and plucked out from its roots. Through this general observation, we get two pointers concerning reality: (1) We associate meaning with signs (as in signified/signifier) presented to us and (2) those meanings are highly subjective. And if the meaning is subjective, how we see reality is also–if not highly–subjective.
Building on these lines, Bhaskar Hazarika directed Aamis/Ravening (2019). The movie revolves around two characters, Sumon, played by Arghadeep Baruah and Nirmali, played by Leema Das. A core aspect of the movie is that romance is ingrained in food culture and habits. The film is set in Guwahati, which also entails a lot of political connotations, but I won’t be focusing on that aspect for now because that would need a blog in itself. But I would like to focus on two central ideas: unconventional norms and unconventional food.
The idea of conventionality is very tricky and must be understood not as natural but as a human construct. A conventional norm then becomes anything accepted by the larger society as usual. Aamis is about breaking that acceptance to promote not an abnormality but different normality. The movie starts with Sumon and Nirmali meeting each other for the first time, where Sumon discusses the idea of his Meat Club. Sumon’s philosophy is that one should know the meat they are eating. Any form of mass-produced meat then presents a corrupt eating habit for him.
A few minutes ago, we also saw Sumon practising this while washing red meat. A focus on the meat pieces was a very conscious decision. At this moment, the audience is sent into questioning if the sight of meat pieces being washed in river water makes them look away or reject it. Hence, a question is raised on mass-produced meats that we find perfectly sealed and packeted in mall freezers. Just because that violence is disassociated and alienated from us, we seem fine with it. Aamis brings these particular notions and challenges them head-on.
A little further in the movie, we see a relationship between Nirmali and Sumon develop. The relationship involves Nirmali wanting to be with Sumon while Sumon gradually obsesses over her. As beautiful and cliché may sound, this relationship is as unconventional as one can fail to imagine. Sumon is a college student pursuing his PhD, while Nirmali is a married paediatrician. When we look at Nirmali’s family, it is based on our normative perception of a modern family. I use the word “modern” as Nirmali is also a bread earner apart from her husband. The family consist of two cis-gendered parents with a child and house help. It’s the perfect bourgeois dream. Hence, Sumon’s presence ruptures this normative structure.
For Nirmali to want anything further than friendship from Sumon is an unconventional norm. Sumon is younger than her and also belongs to a different class. Yet, Nirmali feels things for Sumon she knows are unacceptable. The relationship then ventures to great heights of unconventional notions. As previously stated, Sumon is obsessed with Nirmali, and this is where cannibalism is added to the silver screen. The act will be discussed later, but its need defines a very unconventional form of sexual union. Sumon and Nirmali are both aware of the societal constraints regarding their relationship. Hence, the love language Sumon chooses becomes cannibalism. In the wake of his obsession with being one with Nirmali, he feeds her his flesh. Though disturbing for most people, according to Carolyn Korsmeyer, it represents a sense of “societal breakdown” (qtd. in Jacob and Chattaraj 6). And it is a breakdown. Talking about cannibalism as a love language can be considered madness if said out loud in public, but how can one build a new body of knowledge without being unconventional or resisting the accepted body of episteme?
The third protagonist in the movie would be and should be food. The narrative revolves around the idea of food or the unconventionality of food. To be precise, Aamis tries to portray a food culture among people, but as urbanisation took hold, only particular food habits were pushed. But why is food so important, and why does food mirror people’s cultural identity? Dr Marcel Danesi, a semiotician states in his book regarding food:
Eating events are so crucial to the establishment and maintenance of social relations and harmony that there exists virtually no culture that does not assign an area of the domestic abode to eating functions and ceremonies. All cultures, moreover, have a discrete set of table rituals and manners that are inculcated into the members of the culture from birth. (200)
Danesi has pointed out that all the food habits we carry as cultural members are constructed. The essential part is the inculcation of these rituals. According to Danesi, the traditions are so important to a culture that a person unfamiliar with the practices can even be subjected to “censure and disapprobation” (201). We see something similar when Sumon visits Nirmali’s house at an event and finds himself isolated from other men at the party. The loudest of them, Nirmali’s husband, states how people eat strange things and meats. The noticeable part is that he is an epidemiologist and has to move around isolated corners to “save” people. Dilip’s narrow understanding of the food culture of the places he visits explains how we, as urban-modern humans, consider only certain things to be expected. Sumon’s half-drunken answer to this makes Dilip rather uncomfortable. Sumon describes how the definition of normal is not universal at all. When Dilip calls them strange, if not abnormal, Sumon again states that “strange” is not enough.
Throughout the movie, we observe Sumon eating things that are unheard of in Guwahati and mainland India as well. From mentioning deer, elephant and monkey meat to eating bat and rabbit within the frames. And most importantly, we have Sumon’s flesh. The idea is as wild as it sounds, but somehow Hazarika makes it as beautiful as any luxury chef TV series. But cannibalism itself is an exciting concept. Claude Levi-Strauss, the famous anthropologist and structuralist, writes in his essay “We Are All Cannibals”:
Cannibalism in itself has no objective reality. It is an ethnocentric category: it exists only in the eyes of the societies that proscribe it. All flesh, whatever its provenance, is a cannibal food in Buddhism, which believes in the unity of life. (88)
Strauss’ analysis of cannibalism finds its roots in “civilised” societies like Europe. Thus, the idea of cannibalism is outlandish when one belongs to a culture where it does not exist at all. However, it gets multiple meanings when presented in a film. As Literature is considered a mirror of reality, we need to acknowledge the mirror part of it. Aamis does not condone cannibalism when shown on a screen but does a social commentary through it. Every dish Sumon presents to Nirmali is accompanied by classical music, with a deliberate ASMR trope. For Alicia Jacob and Dr Dishari Chattaraj (assistant professor), research scholars from Christ (deemed to be University), every dish is psychosexually motivated. For example, according to the authors, the first egg dish where Sumon’s flesh replaces the yolk translates to a sexual union as the egg represents the ovaries (6).
It is not unheard of for visual imagery to be beautiful but to make such an unconventional topic, dare I say, tasty, demands talent. Yet still, I want to focus on the human part of it. What does Sumon become or transcend when portrayed as a “food product”? Carson and colleagues write:
Despite their variations, cannibal films reflect the fact that food consumption in consumer society is fraught with uncertainties; people do not know what they are eating; they do not know where their food comes from or where their disposed food will go. The films capture and hold audience attention because their shared focus on humans as the food product implicates all the other foodways elements. (131-32).
Sumon’s characters or his obsession for Nirmali is just exaggerated with the depiction of cannibalism. As an audience of Aamis, I know how intricately the movie captures that attention. No detail is hidden from the audience, and the small pieces of human flesh glisten in the beaker.
The takeaway ...
Aamis, as a piece of cinema, presents multiple questions to us. Is it okay to eat mass-produced meat? Is it okay for Nirmali to adhere to the familial setup? Is it okay for Sumon to obsess over a woman much older than him? Is it okay to consume human flesh even as a language of love? Aamis also does not provide direct answers to any of them. The beauty of the movie is that, unlike narrative cinema that concretises interpretations, Aamis leaves so much gap for the audience to accept and reject practices. Within those gaps, this analysis resides. Within those gaps resides your reaction to this post.