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.  

 

Comments

  1. 7

    says

    Thanks Maria for the interview. Sonali’s film conveys an important message: patriotism does not mean just loving one’s country, it means loving all of our people alike.

  2. 12

    Joseph Gonsalves says

    Hi Maria,
    Great interview as always. Simply put—’Amu’ is a significant film that deals w/very important issues and incidents about which Indians in generally are ill-informed for the most part.

    On a completely different note—I was in NYC recently and ran into the most amazing food-cart vendor I’ve ever been to.He claims to be only Dosa-cart in North America—-a slight strech perhaps but the food was beyond amazing.Check it out if you haven’t already:)Location and hours info incl(11am-5pm)

    http://porkchop-express.blogspot.com/2006/12/international-house-of-pancake.html

Trackbacks

  1. [...] The discussion around Shonali Bose’s film “Amu” reminded me of Amitav Ghosh’s remarkable essay “The Ghosts of Mrs Gandhi”: Nowhere else in the world did the year 1984 fulfill its apocalyptic portents as it did in India. Separatist violence in the Punjab, the military attack on the great Sikh temple of Amritsar; the assassination of the Prime Minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi; riots in several cities; the gas disaster in Bhopal – the events followed relentlessly on each other. There were days in 1984 when it took courage to open the New Delhi papers in the morning. [...]

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