Gautaman Bhaskaran
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Shonali Bose: Amu remembers riots

Twenty years later, the wounds of the anti-Sikh riots seem fresh, and the Nanavathi Commission probing the killings in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination has just submitted its report. “And the guilty are yet to be booked”, says filmmaker Shonali Bose. She was recently in Chennai to receive the Gollapudi Srinivas National Award (August 12, 2005) for her first feature, “Amu”, which focuses on the 1984 riots.

Amu, played rather disappointingly by Konkana Sen-Sharma (the contrast is apparent after her superb portrayal of a Tamil Brahmin in Aparna Sen’s “Mr and Mrs Iyer”) arrives in New Delhi from Los Angeles only to stumble upon a tragic truth.

Bose takes a long time before she leads her viewer to the point: the preamble is irritating, with often unnecessary diversions into Amu’s (also called Kaju) adopted Bengali family. Her tryst with a poor slum-dweller and his wife/children lends itself to exasperation, and one cannot but feel that Bose is touristy and uncomfortable with Indian situations and nuances: she lives in the U.S., but has that yearning (what else) to return to her roots as she tells me during a lively interview in a Chennai hotel room.

However, for Bose, the 1984 tragedy is more than a mere blip of curiosity. “I was studying at New Delhi’s Miranda House. For three days (November 1-3, 1984), we were shut inside our hostel, and we knew nothing. Yes, we had a vague feeling the India’s capital city was on fire, and gruesome events were taking place while we sat amid the sylvan surroundings of our college lawns”.

After the Army was called in and the murder and mayhem were stopped, the girls of Miranda House – Shonali included – organised relief camps, and that is where she got the first pages of her movie script. But before the images finally took shape, Bose had been to America’s Columbia University where she did a doctorate. “But the atmosphere in academics – political science - was terrible. I could not take the attitude to the Third World. So I did a six-week course in film and video at the New York University”.

She had found her passion, which cruised her through a movie school, and eventually led her to directing plays, and later cinema.

After her graduation, Bose says that the first idea which came to her was the anti-Sikh riots. “At that point, nobody had thought of making a film on this subject (Shashi Kumar’s work, also on the same theme, “Kaya Taran”, came much later, she explains), and there was not much literature on it. I felt that this story must be told in a narrative form so that it can reach a wider audience. I began pre-production in December 2003 and finished the movie by July 2004. We wanted to release ‘ Amu’ on November 1, 2004, which was the 20th anniversary of the riots. But it was held up by the Censors, who okayed it three months later with six cuts”.

Some references to police officers and ministers were scissored, but “the worst thing that could have happened to my film was the adult certification. This at once made it out bounds for a large number of people.”

“Amu” had its world premier at Berlin last February, and Bose says that it will be screened at Toronto’s competition section – for the first and second movies of a director- this September. Toronto is a big market.

“Cannes also wanted ‘Amu’, but I chose Berlin, because I felt that the French Riviera had become too Hollywoody. Also, I felt that a small film like mine would get lost at Cannes”, avers Bose.

One is not sure about the response that “Amu” got at Berlin. But the movie’s strength clearly lies in the novelty of the subject, though we now have “Kaya Taran” as well. This work is far more empowering than “Amu”, because “Kaya Taran” is based on a brilliant short story by renowned Malayalam writer N.S. Madhavan, and Shashi Kumar’s maiden directorial touch seems controlled enough to guide the work towards greater satisfaction.

There is another aspect about “Amu”, which needs highlighting: Brinda Karat’s extremely convincing portrayal as Konkana’s screen mother. In a sea of mediocre acting, Karat’s performance packs power into a story that Bose says, “really happened”.

Finally, the riots and the horrific events must  have a left a deep impression on Bose’s psyche, so deep that it lasted a decade and a half after 1984. I only wish that “Amu’s” images had been as haunting. Instead, what one sees is a string of fleeting visuals that does not seem to leave behind much of an impact.

(This story appeared in The Hindu dated August 26 2005)

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