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.
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.
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.