Kamala Das is missing from veteran Malayalam filmmaker Kamal’s biopic Aami.
Described as a work of fiction and drawing from Das’s trailblazing autobiography Ente Katha (My Story), Aami presents a safe and sanitised account of a poet and author who spent a lifetime challenging conventions and stereotypes. Das’s bold prose and poetry and iconoclastic personality pose challenges to anybody attempting a definitive and simplistic reading of her actions. It is surprising, then, that the biopic – which has been blessed by the Das estate – attempts to present her story as a cause-and-effect progression.
Rather than a cradle-to-grave account (Das was born in 1934 and died in 2009), Kamal starts in the middle, when Das, sitting in a hospital ward, decides to write down some of her life’s experiences. We shuttle back and forth with her as she dives into her memories to unearth instances that left an indelible mark on her. The movie mixes the flashbacks with dramatisations of her fictional stories and poems. The account ends with Das’s conversion to Islam, after which she adopted the name Kamala Surayya.
Kamal casts three exceptional performers to portray the key stages of Das’s life: the child (Angelina Abraham), the teenager (Nilanjana) and the adult (Manju Warrier). The three actresses enliven the story as it enumerates in a scattershot fashion moments and events that influenced Das, including the duskiness of her skin tone, the decision of her clanswomen to donate their jewellery to Mahatma Gandhi, her questions about her caste.
The movie is especially prudish when it comes to sexual matters even though Das wasn’t in her memoir. Her horrifying first sexual encounter at the age of 15 with her 35-year-old husband lacks the anguish present on the page. Her tumultuous and complicated marriage with Madhava Das (Murali Gopy) is presented with little nuance. Her sexual awakening isn’t examined with complexity, and even her episodes of depression seem to emerge out of nowhere, thanks to the surface-level exploration.
How did Madhavikutty become Kamala Das the writer? Aami doesn’t adequately answer the question even though we see Kamala sitting with a pen and paper on many occasions. Kamal does deal tactfully with Das’s conversion to Islam – a decision that rankled then and continues to in the present – by offering valuable insights on faith and true meaning of godliness. Even in her conversion, Kamala Das seems to be seeking love. The movie gets at least this aspect right.