After Shonali Bose graduated from UCLA Film School and was ready to make her first feature film, there was no question in her mind that it would be about the travesty of 1984.
“The average person on the street still thinks of the 1984 riots as a Hindu–Sikh incident,” her husband Bedabrata (Bedo) Pain (pronounced “Pine”) told India Currents. “That is far from the truth. This was not sectarian violence between the communities but state-sponsored terrorism.” Amu is an attempt to bring the true story to the world community and to set the record straight.
Bose and Pain consider Amu their third child. “All the hard work, love, and sacrifice that goes into raising a child has gone into the making of Amu,” Bose shared with India Currents. Even though Bose wrote and directed the film, “Bedo’s involvement has been core to the film. He has been an equal partner in its conception and creation.”
Pain, a social activist who is appalled by the phenomenon of state-sponsored terrorism, has marked each anniversary of the 1984 genocide by staging plays, demonstrations, and distributing literature. “Amu is the only film to have depicted communal violence not as a fight between two communities, but as a violation of rights and an act of terrorism whose responsibility lies squarely with the Indian state,” he asserted.
Bose and Pain met while they were acting in a play called Before the Storm written by Pain and directed by Bose that was based on a real-life story of trade union activists incarcerated under the rubric of fighting terrorism. It was an extremely gutsy act given the climate of fear and suppression.
When Bose was ready with the script of Amu, together the couple started the onerous task of looking for financing. Every Indian production company they approached told them that a film on 1984 could never be released, that the theaters would be burnt down before anyone dared to screen it. The State had completely succeeded in making 1984 a taboo subject. Don’t ask. Don’t tell. Don’t show.
The couple got a lucky break when Pain, a NASA scientist, received a royalty check for inventing the digital imaging technology that ushered in the digital camera revolution. Even though it covered a miniscule fraction of their budget, it got them started. “It was not a pleasant task to go begging for money to private parties. We were an unknown entity, and non-Sikh to boot. People found it hard to part with their money even though they
encouraged us to go forward with the mission,” said Bose. Just like Kaju, the protagonist of Amu, Bose and Pain persevered and kept the end in mind through all the roadblocks they encountered.
The filming posed its own set of challenges.
Since Amu was shot on actual locations in New Delhi the cast and crew were made to sign documents stating that they would not disclose that the film was about 1984. The “riot” scenes were scheduled for the end of the shoot so that no one would know what the film was about.
By a strange quirk of fate the location that Bose chose to shoot this sequence happened to be the constituency of Jagdish Tytler—a minister well known for his involvement in the killings. A threatening message was sent to Bose that “a film on ’84 could not be made and she better stop or else …” Bose continued shooting, determined that they would walk over her dead body before they knocked down any sets.
The larger problem she faced while shooting the riots was the child actor who played Amu. The little girl totally
freaked out at the time of actual filming. “Rehearsals had been fine because they did not have the fire and the bloodcurdling yells of the mob,” said Bose. “Even though she knew it was make-believe, it was extremely scary for a 5-year-old.” One wonders how many children who were helpless spectators to the cold-blooded slaughter of their family are carrying the scars even today.
Part of the joy of filming Amu was working with a cast of real people for many of whom this was their first experience in front of the camera.
Brinda Karat, who plays Kaju’s mother, is Shonali Bose’s aunt who adopted her after her mother tragically passed away due to negligence on the part of a hospital. Bose carried the sorrow in her heart along with the rage of the injustice that the hospital was never held responsible. The mother-daughter relationship is an important thread in Amu. The scene where Kaju and Keya are holding each other tight in shared grief while the storm is raging outside was perhaps a catharsis that Bose sought for herself.
Bose turned 42 this year, the exact age that her mother passed away. The release of Amu in North American mainstream theaters after years of struggle is a tribute to the memory of her mother as well as a grim reminder
that the perpetrators of the heinous crimes of 1984 are still at large today.
“1984 was a watershed event in the subcontinent because it set a trend for large-scale massacres organized by the powers that be,” said Pain. “Had the main perpetrators of the Delhi carnage been brought to justice, India perhaps would not have been subjected to the repeated occurrence of official violence as was witnessed in Bombay in 1993 and Gujarat in 2002.” Bose and he are determined to continue their fight for justice. As the world awakens to the horrors of 1984, perhaps that day is not far.
Jessi Kaur (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a frequent speaker at inter-faith conferences and is passionate about bringing communal harmony in our diverse world.