Interview: Shonali Bose on the making of Amu

shonali%20bose%20and%20camera%202 Interview: Shonali Bose on the making of Amu

I know you ran into opposition and difficulties when the film was finished, but during the creative process early on, when you’d discuss the project with people did you get comments like “Why bring this up now?   Drop it.” and if so, was that a common reaction, or the exception?

It was definitely a common reaction and was very shocking for me. In fact a well known producer from India who is also Sikh – completely crushed me by saying that it could not be made.  

Given how the adoptive parent-child relationship is such a major focus of the film, I was wondering if you’ve gotten a lot of feedback either from individuals who are adopted or who have adopted, or from any adoption organizations?

Actually only from individuals. And those individuals have been deeply and profoundly affected by the film. Interestingly, you are the first person in three years of talking about the film who has even brought up this subject with me – either from journalists or audience. It was an important theme for me. I met and spoke with quite a few adopted children and their adoptive parents and in all the cases at a certain age there is a burning desire on the part of the children to know who their birth parents were.
How did you manage to fit in the writing, in between taking care of your children?   Do you have a set time of day, or you just do it when and where you can?

I love you for asking me this. Again the only person. Being a fulltime mother with small children and making Amu at the same time has been excruciatingly difficult. Motherhood – specially living in America while all my family are in India – is hard enough as a fulltime occupation. The same can be said of filmmaking. The combination is lethal and not recommended!

To come back to your specific question of writing: I started when the little one was 2. He just started preschool. So I had a small window of 3 hours in the morning and then again late at night when they were both asleep. Its really hard to do both morning and night – but I had no choice. Nor did I have the luxury of writing when I felt inspired or when something came to me.

But I also tried to incorporate some of my creative process with the children. So for instance for a long time bed time stories were Kaju “back stories” – stories of when she was little and had to adapt to America at the age of 3 and how her mother had to deal with her trauma and then little naughty and loving things she would do. And these were great as providing the essential history that I believe each character should have in a script to be fully fleshed out.

Were there any other times during the making of the film when you were threatened, beyond that incident early one when shooting the riot scene?   Even after that incident, how did you decide to continue filming there and then?  

Being threatened by the politician was the least of all my problems while shooting Amu. For instance even on that day – the larger problem was working with the child – which is a later question of yours – so I will get to it there. But I had already anticipated threats and thought through how to best avoid such situations. Which is why we kept the riot scene for the end of the shoot and shot it in a very minimalist way. Also why we made the film secretly and required that all actors and crew sign secrecy clauses and not talk to the press. When I heard about the threat I immediately called some friends   – young strong men – who lived and worked in one of the slums we shot the film in (for Gobind’s house) – and asked them to come to the set and be prepared for trouble or attacks. I knew the police would not help us and there was no way I was going to let my set be attacked without a fight!

What would your response be to Americans  who will see the film in the US over the next few weeks who might exit the theater saying something like “Communal riots in ’84, the Gujurat riots, the Bombay riots and the bombings; India sure is one violent country”?     And to anyone  who’ll throw the Deepa Mehta critique at you of  ”She has to make a film that depicts India in a bad light so people in the West can feel good about their lives”?

I would feel pity for them that they [1] did not understand the film and [2] lived in denial of the reality of what their own country was doing. To expand – I have in fact often faced this criticism as I have been an activist in the US for many years. It has been said that since we live abroad we should show India only in a good light. In my opinion – Amu shows India in a very good light. Because it breaks the myth and lies that are spread by world media and others that communal violence in India takes place because people hate each other and there are so many religions and then they kill each other. Objectively if this were the case why is there not a riot every day in India? The fact is that it is always organized. And Amu brings this fact out strongly.

It is the only Indian film on the subject of communal violence which says that people are not to blame – but the government, the police, the bureaucracy”¦It brings out how positive people are by risking their lives in hiding each other. For instance in the train scene – (based on a true story) – the same students who said disparaging remarks against the Sikhs hid their Sikh copassengers from the mob. Keya Roy was heroic in her work in the relief camps – again based on the hundreds of Delhi – ites who stepped up to bat when the government didn’t bother with any relief work for the thousands of victims.
The violence – and the badness – comes from the government, from those in power. Just as this country has perhaps the most violent state power in the world. Not only against countries it goes against – such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Cuba, Panama, El Salvador”¦.(how can anyone feel good about their government when they have a Guantanamo Bay on their hands). But also within th ecountry – black and Latino youth are beaten up and shot by the police – periodically. Illegal immigrants are treated worse than slaves, political activists face severe detention and death row is filled with people who do not really have a case against them but they are black.

Governments cannot define a country. Patriotism actually means – love for ones people. And Amu brings out my love for my people and my right to raise my voice against that power which rules falsely in our name.

Will your aunt, Brinda Karat, do any more films now that she’s dipped her toes in the waters?

Maybe my next one – as its also something she cares and relates to – a revolutionary armed uprising against the British in which young women played a key role. The Indian film industry was disappointed to find out that she had not switched careers!
In terms of simple process or mechanics, how do you prepare and coach the young girl who played young Amrit/Amu for the riot scene so that she will look authentic, without traumatizing her?   And all those scenes on the train tracks… how do you do that in Delhi?   Do you get a ton of permits and paperwork and stop everything to shoot, or is it more a commando-style operation (like the one at the market with real people in the background doing their shopping)?   How long did it take to do those shots?

It was extremely difficult to get Amu to perform at key moments. In fact – the whole day of shooting the riots literally went up in flames along with our precious auto rickshaw – as she was too terrified to go near the mob and would just come down the stairs and run straight to one side – far away from them. I needed her to enter the mob as she is supposed to see her father burning. This was also the day of the threat. We had to give up that day and then organize everything to reshoot – with the added tension of an attack.

I got the brilliant idea of getting Amu’s real father to take the day off and come to the shoot and dressed him as a rioter and put him in the center of the mob. The mother was besides me near the camera. Now I told her that she had to go find her dad touch his hand and then come running out to her mom. So we got that sequence of. But then when we needed her close up crying looking out of the window at the riot – she would keep laughing. Similarly at the train track to call her mother. So I took her real mother aside and told her that we would have to go through the pretence that the mother was leaving the set and going home and that Amu would be with us and dropped later. Now although the child had become comfortable with us – as every mother knows on the first day that they have to actually leave their child at pre school – the tears just start. So we enacted this drama and when her mother disappeared from sight she started bawling. But since it was just a quick shot – and my DP was very good – I only inflicted a few minutes of trauma on her – after which she was reunited with her mother and given many chocolates!

We didn’t have money for “moving trains” – so we had to find out the timetable and position our actors along the tracks and wait for the actual train to come. It was very hard as it was a complicated shot (seeing the mother across the track). So we had to wait for several trains and keep the actors energy and performance up in between and also look out for cops at the same time as it was commando style!

With the last shot of the film – it’s a special story. We didn’t have money for a moving train. So it was just a shot going from the TV over the whole space where the riots had taken place etc. there had been a train parked on the track for months – of pre production and the whole week that we shot in that location. Suddenly on our third take I heard a whistle and the train was moving down the track. I quickly ran and stood in front of the track with my hands folded while they reloaded the camera and got everyone in position. The engine driver was honking and cursing. I moved back and he kept chugging and we got the dream shot. Luckily there were no technical snags as the train would not have returned!

In terms of time – for instance the scene in the crowded market place between mother and daughter – took about 6 hours. The train shots took around the same amount of time.

Who has signed on for your next project so far?   When does shooting start and when do you hope to release it?   Will you do like you did with Amu and also release a book?

I have only just given the draft to two of the top producers in India. So it’s too early to say when I will shoot. Given that I need some big stars it will likely be 2008. Many actors have expressed interest in my next script and some know the story and want to be certain characters. Vivek Oberoi is one such person. But I haven’t signed anyone as yet.  

shonali%20bose%20expressive%20hands%202 Interview: Shonali Bose on the making of Amu  


konkona%20mirror%202 Amu  

Within the space of 10 months only we have seen three good movies with Konkona Sensharma in prominent roles.   Last year, she did an excellent turn in Omkara, two weeks ago she was the intelligent thirtysomething daring to take a chance and follow her heart in Metro, and now, on May 25th audiences in the U.S. will have a chance to see her shine in the lead role as Amu.   Shonali Bose’s award-winning debut film finally reaches our shores this week, after a January release and many political struggles in India.

Ms. Bose, the writer, director and producer, was only 19 and studying in Delhi when the 1984 assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards resulted in a backlash of riots and anti-Sikh attacks.   Those killings and her subsequent work in relief camps left an impression on her that stayed with her in the decades that followed and is one of the twin stories that run through Amu.

At one level, Amu is about the summer trip to Delhi by the film’s namesake, an adopted California-raised Indian girl, who stays with her family and explores the city, hoping to learn something about her real parents and her past before being adopted by the political activist and lawyer, Keya (played by real-life activist and Shonali Bose’s aunt, Brinda Karat, in her film debut).   Just around the time that Amu (Konkona Sensharma) starts to realize that something doesn’t fit correctly with the details her mother has provided her, she also learns for the first time of the anti-Sikh riots of 1984.   Bose weaves the two stories in such a way that that approach, meet and crisscross each other like the railroad tracks that feature so prominently throughout the movie.

3%20generations%202 Amu

The lead women in the film are wonderful, both Sensharma and Karat.   Konkona’s beauty is inextricably tied to her intelligence and the no-nonsense way she carries herself, something that has come through in each of her four films that I’ve seen so far.   And yet here, she is also able to portray the vulnerability of a young woman unsure of her past and her roots, and struggling in the dark to piece together the puzzle.  

Brinda Karat seems so natural in her role that it doesn’t look as if she’s acting at all.   Add this to the wonders that Bose manages on a small budget, and the film almost feels like a documentary or very well produced home movie of Amu’s trip.       The family home in Delhi seems like an actual apartment and not a flash, phony movie set, from the wooden cupboards and college trunk, to the uncle out smoking on the balcony after dinner.

brinda%20karat%20as%20keya%202 Amu

Bose’s economy carries over to two wrenching scenes that could have been exploited for sensational gore and overwrought emotion, but were not.   One is a scene on a train, just after word of Indira Gandhi’s death starts to spread.   There is a Sikh man in a compartment who is told by his fellow non-Sikh travelers to cut his hair to escape attack, and the scene is paced and edited to create an awful feeling of dread and panic, but without overt excess.  

The other one is the riot scene, which, as you will see here in an interview with Shonali Bose in the next day, was not an easy one to film at all, for several reasons, yet she manages to do it so that we experience the grief and the terror, without being subjected to gratuitous blood and burning flesh.

After the film was made, Bose ran into a serious of difficulties in its release, which she details in the press kit:

As the producer of Amu – it didn’t end for me with picture lock. In India the Censor Board took three months to clear the film. If I ever had any doubts that a cover-up of history had taken place, they were set to rest when the Censors informed me that I would have to change five crucial lines of dialogue into something “acceptable.” They were all lines that dealt with the complicity of the government and state in the violence. Instead of changing and redubbing the lines I decided to mute the sound instead. In Indian theaters – where the film ran to packed houses – audiences watched the actors playing the Sikh widows silently mouth their indictment of the state. And a whisper, “censor, censor” would go through the theater as audiences realized what had happened. Far more pernicious than these cuts was the Censor Board verdict that the film would have an “A” (NC 17) certificate. I asked them why, as there was no sex and violence in the film. They replied –   “Why should young people know a history that is better buried and forgotten?”

Such a history cannot be buried and forgotten. Young people cannot make their future or understand their present without knowing the past. Today, twenty-two years after an elected government massacred its own people in full view of the world, no one has been punished. And as a result, the cycle of violence has continued against other communities. What kind of political system is this in which those in power can get away with such crimes again and again? This is the question Amu leaves the young protagonists with as they walk down a railway track into the future. This is why I made Amu. So that people all over the world will ask the question.

See it or skip it:   See it!   There’s almost no singing or dancing in this film,  not the fluffy, filmi kind, but it’s an admirable debut for Shonali Bose and a wonderful vehicle for both Konkona Sensharma and Brinda Karat.   It will be interesting to see her next, bigger budgeted film: Chittagong: Strike One.

SRK: King of Bollywood

 SRK%20chopra SRK: King of Bollywood

Having barreled through the waiting-for-Bachchan tale by Jessica Hines, I’ve just  picked up film journalist Anupama Chopra’s soon-to-be released King of Bollywood: Shah Rukh Khan and the Seductive World of Indian Cinema.

Chopra has written about the film industry for India Today for over a decade, and also writes for The New York Times and hosts a weekly programme on NDTV called Picture This.   Her mother wrote screenplays for the film industry in Bombay, and it seems like none of the three siblings  could escape the siren call of the biz: sister Tanuja Chandra is a filmmaker, brother Vikram Chandra (whose mahanovel Sacred Games will keep me entertained for a while still) has also done his filmi duty as co-author of Mission Kashmir.   Oh yes, and not that I think a woman is uniquely defined by her husband, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the “Chopra” part of her name comes as the result of having tied the knot with Srinagar’s native son, filmmaker Vidhu Vinod Chopra.

In the book, while Chopra examines  Khan’s career and rise in the film industry, she also uses the subject as a springboard to take a wider look at the business as a whole.   Previously, she has written about Sholay and DDLJ.

You can pre-order the book on Amazon right now, for delivery on August 27 August 2.

Watch here for more on both the book and Anupama Chopra over the summer.


Metro%20poster%202 Metro

(don’t know why the “Life in a …” was tacked on to the original title…)

By way of what is the longest opening credit sequence I think I’ve ever seen, Anurag Basu introduces the various couples and triangles of his Bombay-based film: Shilpa Shetty and KayKay Menon, unhappily married to each other, Konkona Sensharma and Irrfan Khan both seeking The One over, Sharman Joshi with a crush on Kangana Ranaut, who’s actually involved with KayKay, Shiney Ahuja as the divorced actor drawn to Shilpa, and finally, Dharmendra as a man returned from the US to die, and hoping to rekindle Nafisa Ali’s love for him, 40 years later.  

Woven into the opening scenes, as the credits appear, Pritam and his two bandmates sing, placed before us, like characters in the movie.   Initially, it was a cute, surprising  twist.   After the third or fourth appearance (on a motorcycle with a sidecar??) it became rather grating.

shilpa%20kaykay Metro

Shilpa and KayKay have a lovely apartment, a cute daughter and constant fights, except when their friends are over for numerous dinners, unwittingly co-opted to act as a buffer between spouses.   Surprise, surprise, the hardcharging KayKay, manager at a call center, falls into a no-strings affair with the younger,  lissome Kangana, while his underling Sharman Joshi pines for her and leases out his flat as a short-stay motel to various married men from work who are conducting affairs.   This is illustrated somewhat humorously like an old game of Mousetrap when one man’s wish to reschedule his time slot sets off a series of calls around the office, as couple after couple juggle dates.  

Shilpa meets Shiney Ahuja at a bus stop and, stung by KayKay’s neglect, falls for him.   The brief first scene where they travel together on a packed train to Andheri, and the aborted love scene later, both crackle with heat and sensuality, all done with near misses and grazes.

shilpa%20shiney Metro

A less dark and sad pairing is that of Konkona and Irrfan.   She is her usual bright-eyed smart girl self, in this case, just turned 30 and wary she’ll ruin her life by ending up with the wrong man (amen to that), whereas Irrfan is a more practical guy, confident that love will follow after he finds a nice girl with a good figure who likes him back.   Konkona gives an earthy, thoughtful performance, and Irrfan’s delivery and manner lend his not-quite-confirmed-bachelor an offbeat quality  that sets him apart  from other actors in a more typical romantic lead.

irrfan%20konkona Metro

The most idealized couple, and sweetest, was the Dharmendra-Nafisa pairing.   I adore Anurag Basu for including this story, with the couple reuniting and enjoying love, yes, even physical love, at their age.   The 70+ Punjabi hunk (who Jaya Bachchan recently revealed on KWK she thought had “a body like a Greek god”), looking very hip in jeans, with auburn highlights in his thick, wavy hair, was just amazing to behold, given that we don’t see him on screen hardly ever any more.   And Nafisa was a perfect complement with her warm smile, cool blue eyes and white hair, and  a series of pastel cotton saris.

The entire look of the film is pleasing to the eye.   Apartments, even those belonging to up and comers, are like those on Friends, likely way beyond what their occupants’ salaries would really buy in this metropolis, and beautifully appointed to boot.  

Everyone’s clothes (save a few missteps by Irrfan’s character, and those khaki safari photographer vests Shiney sports) are quite lovely, though I could have done with a few less pairs of fashion-forward specs on so many characters, and even Pritam.   (Next time I watch this movie, I must pay more attention at the end for a special “eyeglass frame” sponsorship”¦)

This Bombay is a cosmetically pretty city, even during the monsoon, and  there’s never a hint of brown murky water welling up on the streets, rather, it’s always crystalline and looks not the least bit warm.  

The music is ok, though without a real show-stopper among the five or so songs.   The repeated reappearance of Pritam and Co. served to break up the suspension of disbelief, or the fourth wall, adding a jarring reminder with each apparition  that we are indeed watching a movie and those three guys are doing commentary to us on it.

One bothersome detail: the subtitles are spotty, sometimes with only fragments of sentences appearing onscreen, sometime with long absences.   For such a glossy film, just over two hours, and likely intended to appeal to the NRI and possibly also to the foreign audience, that was a glaring neglect of attention to an important detail.

See it or skip it:   See it.   Metro is an interesting next step in the recent trajectory of urban-focused, mall-and-metroplex Bombay films like Bluffmaster and Taxi No 9211.   Also,  post-KANK, it treads on interesting relationship territory.  

Plus, can you ever get enough of Konkona or Irrfan?   (Stay tuned for an upcoming review of Ms. Sensharma’s Amu, and an interview with filmmaker Shonali Bose.)