I AM. Director: Onir. Players: Nandita Das, Juhi Chawla, Manisha Koirala, Rahul Bose, Purab Kohli, Sanjay Suri, Anurag Kashyap .Music: Amit Trivedi, Vivek Philip, Rajiv Bhalla. DVD Release in the United States.

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This is a world where silences speak loud and clear. Four loosely connected stories take us to Bombay, Bangalore, Kashmir, and Calcutta and give us a look into the lives of four Indians, each battling to exorcise inner demons and each engaged in a search for identity.

Onir’s I Am stands out for its compassion, whether it is the tale of a cheated wife, cutting her losses with a divorce and deciding to go for artificial insemination, or the tale of a displaced Kashmiri seeking to heal generational rifts. The movie, which could so easily have become maudlin or preachy, stays clear of expected pitfalls and focuses on controversial social issues in India. In the process, it manages to touch one’s heart.

What do a sperm donor and recipient talk about when they meet in the lobby of the laboratory? The weather … till the gutsy lady, Afia (Das) tells the uncomfortable young donor that he doesn’t have to speak unless he wants to.

Her friend, the displaced Kashmiri pandit, Megha (Chawla) goes home to sell her house. Her tale unfolds when she meets her Muslim childhood friend (Koirala).

The third story is that of Abhimanyu (Suri), a victim of child abuse, who finds himself unable to forgive his abuser even as the latter, now an ill old man, lies on his deathbed. The fourth tale is of Omar (Bose) who has to face humiliation at each step of his life because he is gay.

These mini plots touch on some of the major conflicts in Indian society today. Riveting performances by the leads as well as the ensemble cast make the movie a must-watch. While Das is fantastic as the cheated wife who decides to find her feet, Bose is superbly uninhibited. Chawla and Koirala are spell-binding, despite the fact that theirs is the least powerful of the stories here. Anurag Kashyap, the celebrated film-maker in his other avatar, excels as an actor in his role as a vile stepfather.

The songs serve only to break the flow of the narrative and slow down the already sedate pace of the film.

An interesting and well-publicized fact about the film is that Onir and Sanjay Suri raised money for it on social networking sites, which speak volumes about the faith Onir’s audience has for this gifted director who has also made the sensitiveMy Brother Nikhil. He works here with his favorites Chawla, Suri, and Kohli.

Not all the plots work equally well, but the movie should be applauded for its courage in tackling the subjects mainstream cinema either shies away from, or worse, makes a mockery of, especially in its treatment of homosexuality.

Definitely worth the multiplex ticket, though not for those looking for a popcorn experience.

EQ: A-

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