From 'crunchless' chips to just how loudly she can laugh, 2018 has already seen enough instances of the world trying to censor a woman for her thoughts, behaviour, and expression. Kamal's Aami, about a real life woman writer who broke through the shackles to articulate her innermost feelings and emotions, ought to have been inspiring, or at the very least, made us sit up with the raw intensity of its subject. The film does neither.
Ironically, we get a censored version of a woman who refused to censor herself. Nevertheless, it is difficult not to be drawn in by Aami, especially if you've read Kamala Das. The film opens with a middle-aged Kamala (Manju Warrier) at hospital. A bird flies in and dies, caught in the blades of the running fan. Kamala traces the blood splatter on the wall and begins to write.
It's a theatrical beginning that sets the tone for the rest of the film. What we see isn't Kamala Das, the person, but a construct who is always within an arty persona. We're told that she was a loving and affectionate mother, for instance, but beyond a couple of scenes when she is with her children, we don't see the relationships play out. Did they never get on her nerves? Did they never interfere with her writing? Did motherhood not influence her evolution as a writer? What did they think of her unconventional lifestyle? We're none the wiser.
Similarly, her conflicted marriage with Das (Murali Gopy) who was 20 years older to her, remains under-explored. Das was abusive, even exploitative. But Kamala didn't leave him until his death. It was a difficult relationship from which she sought refuge in her writing - but it was also one that fed her hunger for words. The plot, however, only skims the surface, with songs or the background score taking over. Each scene lasts for barely a few seconds before the story moves to another place or chapter, not allowing us the time to care about the characters.
Needless to say, Kamala's exploration of her sexuality is as sanitised as it can get. Tovino Thomas plays Lord Krishna, the ultimate lover who has been by Kamala's side from childhood, and it is with him that she discusses her intimate (still vanilla) thoughts. The other men are either never seen, or flit past without making any impression. It's not out of voyeuristic desire that I quibble - but it seems a pale and unsatisfying tribute to a colourful personality who broke the notion that women could only write about certain subjects (like her Gandhian mother Balamaniamma who wrote on socially relevant issues).
Once Kamal gets over his reluctance to confront Aami's sexuality, however, the film comes to life. The screenplay, which was rushing past thus far, slows down and Manju is given the opportunity at last to sink her teeth into the character. I was reminded of how parents fast-forward the raunchy bits in a DVD to get to the sober and more "acceptable" portions of a film when it's playing in the drawing room. Kamal is more comfortable when depicting scenes that show the political fall-out of Kamala's decision to convert to Islam or her fierce defence of her independence against those who wished to dictate terms to her.
The beautiful silk sarees and jewellery give Manju the Kamala look but the make-up is jarring in some scenes, especially under natural lighting. The film traverses across decades, from the 1930s to the new millennium. However, one doesn't quite get the sense of times changing - we only know it when one set of actors is replaced by another (Kamala gets three - one playing the young child, the other the adolescent, and Manju the adult).
I wish there had been more scenes like the one in which Kamala recounts to an enchanted Akbar Ali (Anoop Menon, who's stuck parroting profound lines) how she'd stymied a man who'd asked her nosey questions about a nude painting she'd done. Or when she loses money in an election and remarks wistfully that she could have at least bought a silk saree with the cash. These moments are too few and far between in Aami but they nevertheless leave you smiling, remembering the irrepressible and often cheeky writer.
Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Neither TNM nor any of its reviewers have any sort of business relationship with the film's producers or any other members of its cast and crew.