India’s literary iconoclast Kamala Surayya is an irresistible biopic subject with her eventful checkered life.
While her every written word was devoured by bibliophiles, her tabloid-fodder relationships, the way she embraced her sexuality and fiercely guarded her life choices (including a religious conversion) kept a nation hooked.
Surayya — born Kamala Das, and called Aami by her family — was that proverbial tease who managed to keep her fans perennially second-guessing her. The adjective ‘complex’ is an understatement when it came to describing a towering personality like Surayya, who died in 2009. So bringing the bilingual author’s 75 years of existence that gained momentum in the post-partition India to the big screen in Aami isn’t child’s play.
Director Kamal and consummate actress Manju Warrier try their hand at encapsulating the award-wining author and poet’s turbulent life in three hours.
It’s a long film, but don’t let its length deter you from giving this biopic a fair chance. Warrier, before the curtains came up, implored her fans in the UAE to watch her latest film with an open mind — and we obliged.
Warrier is in control of her role and it’s a sheer delight to watch her transform into the mercurial author Aami.
Aami opens on a strong note as we are transported to Surayya’s childhood in her ancestral home in Kerala. Steeped in patriarchy and traditions, the chapter on her youth, played aptly by teenager Neelanjana, is splendidly captured. It is nostalgia-filled, realistically represented and forms the spine of the film as we get a peek into the reality that Surayya was born into.
She was a child bride and your heart goes out to her as she paints a coltish portrait of a 15-year-old learning to grapple with her new, aged partner. Actor Murali Gopy is in top form here as her happily unaware, misogynistic husband K. Madhav Das.
In less than 30 minutes, we get a strong sense of Surayya’s dynamics with her clinical but cerebral set of parents and the circumstances that shaped her adult life.
Warrier enters the frame much later, but seamlessly takes on the role of a woman on the cusp of a quarter-life crisis. The actress is in total command here. Surayya isn’t an easy woman to play, but Warrier make her eccentricities alluring and charming. The only time where she seems out of depth is while showcasing Surayya’s brazen nature and her liberal stand towards love or fidelity.
There’s a cloying contrivance to her act when she acts coy. Another blip is that the multiple men that saunter into Surayya’s life aren’t particularly memorable. Barring her husband and the Hindu deity Krishna, played handsomely by Tovino Thomas, the rest of them seem like something Tinder, the dating site, would throw up on a bad day.
Actor Anoop Menon as Surayya’s poetry-spewing lover during her post-widow phase isn’t wholly convincing.
The part in which she has a brief dalliance with an Italian millionaire is unintentionally funny. You get the distinct impression that the makers chickened out and resorted to this cliche of making a biopic that just glorifies its subject, while shamelessly glossing over their idol’s flaws.
Having said that, writer and director Kamal has done a neat job of showcasing the evolving dynamics between Surayya and her husband. The shift in power (initially Das called the shots, but over the years his wife became the deciding force in their relationship) is subtly but strongly represented. Surayya’s flights of fantasy with her imaginary lover Krishna overstays its welcome.
The movie works in parts, but is eventually anticlimactic as a whole. We wish her contradictions were given more screen time.
But don’t hesitate to give this film a shot. Powered by collective superlative acting, Aami has its flaws, but paints a compelling portrait of an idol with feet of clay.
Cast: Manju Warrier, Murali Gopy, Anoop Menon.
Stars: 3 out of 5.