[Tribeca Review] Aamis/Ravening

Repression and lust are on the menu today when a married pediatrician meets a younger PhD student in the small city of Guwahati, Assam in North Eastern India. Nirmali (Lima Das) spends her days in a circular rut of waking up, taking her son Piku to the bus for school, taking care of other people’s children as a pediatrician, going home, eating, sleeping. Rinse repeat. Her husband Dilip (Manash K Das) is a senior doctor who spends most of his time in the field, performing relief work in the surrounding small villages. Meanwhile, her friend Jumi (Neetali Das) is in a similarly loveless relationship…but she has her own man on the side to fulfill her sexual and intimate needs.

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Elsewhere in the city is Sumon (Arghadeep Baruah), a PhD student and research scholar at the Department of Anthropology, where he studies regional food habits. His days are seemingly just as circular, as he spends most of his time working on his research. But when a vegetarian friend decides to try meat for the first time, he becomes ravenous and eats to the point of being sick. Sumon runs to the closest doctor, which happens to be Nirmali and Dilip’s clinic and while Nirmali is a pediatrician, she takes pity and goes to check on the sick friend.

As Sumon walks Nirmali home, they start up a friendly conversation about meat and the oddities of how different regions place odd restrictions on different types of meat. About how most people eat completely processed meats and haven’t ever experienced the joy of eating freshly killed meats. Sumon tells her he belongs to a so-called Meat Club at university, where the members will order a live animal, slaughter it and cook it and prepare it themselves. The idea sparks something in Nirmali and when Sumon asks what he owes her for checking on his friend, she tells him to just bring a portion of what he makes next to the clinic.

This bizarre meet cute sparks a fairly platonic relationship between the two of them…well, platonic on the surface. They are perfectly friendly in person and nothing “inappropriate” happens when they go on lunch or dinner dates to try various restaurants that serve freshly prepared meat. But it’s not something Nirmali shares with her absent husband. It’s a secret. But underneath the surface-level friendship lies repressed feelings of longing.

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Sumon is obviously smitten by the beautiful and smart Nirmali. And Sumon represents something that Nirmali hasn’t experienced in a long time, as we see when her husband Dilip eventually does come home from the field. Dilip is an arrogant, selfish man whose conversation tends to constantly be centered around the amazing things he does in the field. He gets an almost godlike thrill from saving the rural, unclean areas from an assortment of diseases and he wants everyone to know it.

The contrasts between Sumon and Dilip are immediate and stark. Dilip is balding. Older. Soft. He keeps himself separated from the world, looking at it with a detached, clinical eye. Meanwhile, Sumon is young. Lithe. Hard. Vibrant. The way he interacts with food and eats it with his bare hands shows he is completely comfortable in the world and a part of it. There’s immediate attraction, even if Nirmali doesn’t want to admit it. But unlike her friend Jumi, Nirmali represses these feelings. And so meat becomes the object of her affection.

Writer/Director Bhaskar Hazarika and his cinematographer Riju Das have a way of filming food that brings to mind the tender and powerful way Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal showcased food. In Hazarika’s film, the act of eating feels incredibly intimate and sensual. The preparation becomes foreplay for unconsummated sexual pleasure. The delivery becomes flirtatious. The act of sharing becomes sex. The cutting. The staging. Furtive glances. A tongue lapping up an errant bit of sauce. It’s messy and sensual. It’s sex without physical contact.

Yes, food becomes a metaphor for forbidden love between the lovesick duo who are separated by marriage, age and, in some ways most importantly, class. Hazarika deftly and subtly calls attention to it in the way the two not-lovers live. Nirmali and Dilip has a luxurious life, complete with a waitstaff. Sumon, meanwhile, lives in a small, cramped and dirty apartment where he has a mosquito net to protect him as he sleeps.

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The first time we see Nirmali eat the meat that Sumon has prepared her, she picks at it with a spoon and fork and delicately eats it. She’s meek and polite, while Sumon digs in with his hands. But as their relationship blossoms, we see her interactions with food and the world change. Here is where the more horror-ish aspect of the movie comes into focus. After her husband returns, she has a typical dinner with him, but the meat in the fridge calls her. And so she ducks away and Dilip finds her kneeling in the dark kitchen, her form only illuminated by light from the fridge, as she uses her hands to tear ravenously into a chicken leg. It’s a marked change. Animalistic and ravenous, but also sensual.

Horror fans will kind of know where this is going because, even though I wouldn’t classify Aamis/Ravening as a horror film, it uses the trappings to great effect. Unable to consummate their love, the semi-lovers fall down a rabbit hole of exotic meat. So, instead of crossing marital taboos, it starts to cross food ones. Aamis never gets truly bloody (this isn’t Raw), it still goes in deeply upsetting directions. As the story moves into the third act, this repression causes these two individuals to act out in horrific ways. Here is where I think the film falters a bit. The escalation happens quickly and the ending feels a bit abrupt, the way it wraps so fast.

I’ve mentioned before how elastic the horror genre can be and how it can be used as a seasoning in other genres to explore themes that a traditional drama couldn’t. And while Aamis/Ravening is definitely horror-adjacent, the themes this dark romance explores and the boundaries it crosses are so disturbing. I really loved this movie.