Onir?s I Am is an earnest but uneven exploration of identity and fear, woven through four inter-linked stories. The protagonist of each narrative is struggling to define who she or he is. So Megha, a Kashmiri Pundit, played by Juhi Chawla, returns to Srinagar after 20 years but is a stranger in her own home. Abhimanyu, a documentary filmmaker played by Sanjay Suri, was sexually abused by his step-father and is grappling with his sexual identity. Afia, a divorcee played by Nandita Das, decides to become a single mother using a sperm donor and in the last story, a gay man, played by Rahul Bose finds out exactly how vulnerable his sexuality makes him.
These narratives are urgent and important and largely missing from mainstream cinema. Onir and his co-producer Sanjay Suri raised the money for this film by crowd-sourcing, which is that they asked for donations on Facebook. It also helps that Onir, Bollywood?s only openly gay director, isn?t coy about portraying sexuality in film. The strongest and most insightful story here is the one featuring Bose as a brutalized gay man. Bose, his tormentor, a horrific cop played by Abhimanyu Singh, and his lover, played by Arjun Mathur are first-rate. The sense of fear and loathing is palpable. Megha?s story isn?t as forceful but it is a poignant portrait of the tragedy of Kashmir and the shattered lives of all those touched by conflict, whether Pundit or Muslim.
But despite the good intentions and solid performances, I Am works only in fits and spurts. The screenplay, co-written by Onir, Merle Kroeger and Urmi Juvekar, often feels clunky and unwieldy. There are flashbacks within flashbacks and songs, which only slow down the narrative. In the weakest stories ? Afia?s and Abhimanyu?s ? the dialogue is stilted and awkward. In places, the film seems to carry the burden of its issues on its sleeve. It?s leaden and even boring.
In I Am, the craft doesn?t match the courage, which is why I?m reaching out for the equally clunky rating of two and a three-quarter stars.