Indian horror films never used to make it to festivals and their fans seemed destined to be local. But a few hardy pioneers like director Bhaskar Hazarika have cleverly pushed the genre limits into art house territory. His first feature, the finely made and imaginatively conceived Kothanodi, was a collection of horrific folk tales centered on women. Ravening (Aamis) makes an intense follow-up in its exploration of female desires and appetites, though its realistic approach is quite disconcerting and the third act is guaranteed to turn many viewers into vegetarians. This cautionary tale about the horrible places amour fou can lead adventurously bowed in Tribeca’s international feature competition.
The film’s rawness — which can slip into simple disgust — comes from its lack of a nice distancing device, like the folk stories in Kothanodi or the supernatural elements in the scary Tumbbad, another notable horror film from India. There’s none of that in this modern romance between a 40-ish professional woman trapped in a dull marriage and a good-looking Ph.D student who is researching unusual food habits in northeast India. As their sexual attraction for each other gets sublimated into kinky meat-eating where each meal ups the ante, Hazarika’s screenplay generates some real psychological chills.
With all the vegetarians in India, this is likely to be a piquant premise from the outset. Considering that Hindus don’t eat cows and for Muslims pigs are taboo, these are the only two meats never mentioned in the recipes; earthworms and bat meat, yes, but beef and pork, never. The action is set in the charming town of Guwahati in Assam, where life is apparently as leisurely paced as the screenplay and a little dull. Nirmali (played by the noted Sattriya dancer Lima Das in her acting debut) casually meets Sumon (Arghadeep Baruah) one day when the boy’s veggie roommate gets indigestion after gorging on goat meat, and the boy summons his neighborhood doctor (she’s actually a pediatrician.) He mentions he’s a member of the university Meat Club, a collective in which students buy, butcher and cook their own animals to ensure hygiene and the best taste possible. She agrees to sample their next meal.
The easy-going Sumon is so smitten with the lovely older woman that he doesn’t see what a Pandora’s box he’s opening. He starts cooking tidbits for her and bringing them over in a yellow lunchbox. Like a pusher getting someone to try heroin, Sumon starts “feeding” Nirmali, and her appreciative-to-ecstatic reactions stoke his inner fire and her inner addiction. Because she feels guilty about being married (her husband is conveniently never at home) and a mother, no sex is allowed, not even hand-holding. The sensual component of eating supposedly makes up for their never getting physical.
A ghoulish progression leads from one delicacy to another, while all sorts of warning bells start ringing. It soon becomes apparent where all this is leading, but not how it will be done. Sumon involves his best buddy, the vet Elias (Sagar Saurabh), in his shocking fantasies, until Elias blurts out what the audience has long felt: “What sick shit are you and that doctor into?” But Nirmali’s animal-like cravings are too far gone. Her green eyes glitter with cat-people hunger and Sumon loses all restraint. The well-cast actors have a perverse chemistry onscreen, and Lima Das’ fearlessness adds another dimension to her character.
The conclusion is marred by the banality of punishment meted out all around, including to Nirmali’s sexually liberated (and married) friend Jumi (Neetali Das). One would have liked the story to end on some unexpected note of unfettered imagination in keeping with the defiant spirit of what has gone before. The moralistic ending really takes it down a notch.
It should be noted that all the flesh consumed in the film has been carefully and lovingly prepared in savory recipes full of imagination that would make a good show in a Japanese culinary cinema entry. Tech work is always efficient and Quan Bay’s musical score is impishly cheerful, as though the horror was all good, clean fun.
Production companies: Signum Productions, Metanormal in association with Wishberry Films
Cast: Lima Das, Arghadeep Baruah, Neetali Das, Sagar Saurabh, Manash K. Das, Momee Borah, Chandan Bhuyan, Samarjyoti Sarkar, Utkal Hazowari
Director-screenwriter: Bhaskar Hazarika
Producers: Poonam Deol, Shyam Bora, Anshulika Dubey, Priyanka Agarwal
Director of photography: Riju Das
Production designer: Manas Barua
Costume designer: Meher Ahmed
Editor: Shweta Rai Chamling
Music: Quan Bay
Casting: Ronald Hussain
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (International Narrative Competition)