AMU. Director: Shonali Bose. Players: Konkona Sen Sharma, Brinda Karat, Ankur Khanna, Yashpal Sharma. Theatrical release.
Shonali Bose brings an amazing depth of feeling in an understated tone to her directorial debut, Amu, as she boldly tackles perhaps the most horrific chapter of recent Indian history that the Indian government has successfully swept under the rug—the organized massacre of thousands of innocent Sikhs in 1984 following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
Kaju, a 21-year-old Indian American (superbly played by Konkona Sen Sharma), comes to India to get to know the country of her birth but finds skeletons creeping out from her past. The facts related to the circumstances of her adoption are buried along with the truth about what happened in Delhi in 1984 and no one wants to dig up those ugly and painful memories. But Kaju is dogged in her determination to unravel the lies that have been told to protect her. She has been told that her parents were victims of a malaria outbreak but finds out that there were no records of any malaria epidemic at that time. What happened to her birth parents? Who were they? Why have their names been smudged from the adoption papers?
The story takes a while to build up, providing charming glimpses of Bengali life and culture while we wait for the dark events to unfold. Kaju is aided by Kabir (Ankur Khanna) who first mocks her desire to get to know the “real India” and is later attracted to her and joins her in her effort to dredge out the details of her past. The fact that Kabir, who has lived in India all his life, is totally unaware of the country’s carnage against its own people speaks volumes about the success with which that dark chapter of recent Indian history has been whitewashed.
Kaju’s mother Keya (exquisitely rendered by Brinda Karat, a well-known social activist in real life), makes a surprise visit and is dismayed to find her daughter piecing together the tragic details of what happened to her birth family. Keya’s concern for her child’s ability to face the truth are genuine as is her fear about how Kaju will be impacted by what subsequently happened to her birth mother. Will Kaju blame Keya for not being able to stem the tragedy as Keya blamed herself?
In spite of the dismal subject, Bose has created a movie that is gentle and sweet, astutely capturing moments of tenderness between Kaju and her mother. With stellar performances from the main cast, the only character that seems awkward and out of place is, Ankur Khanna’s Kabir.
What motivated Shonali Bose, who was a freshman in Delhi’s Miranda House in 1984, to make her first film on such a deeply disturbing subject? Bose told India Currents that it was precisely because it is a deeply disturbing subject that she could not get the memories out of her system. Right after the massacre, she visited the camps that had been put up for the widows of the victims and still remembers the heartrending wailing of the women whose families had been slaughtered in front of their eyes. How could such carnage take place in a civilized country? How can justice be denied even after two decades? These are questions that still haunt her.
Bose has made a powerful first film in the hope that the world community becomes aware of what happened in Delhi in 1984, the capital of the largest democracy of the world. “The younger generation of India does not know about this ugly incident, let alone the rest of the world,” she said.
The Indian censor board silenced the fictional widows in the movie that point to the ministers behind the riots but “sometimes silence speaks louder than words,” said Bose.
The last scene, where Kaju and Kabir walk away from a TV newsreader announcing riots in Gujarat, makes a sad commentary on business as usual in India where government-staged riots are a commonplace occurrence.
A Direction of One’s Own, profiles of Shonali Bose and Pratibha Parmar
Making Cinema Out of Jhal Muri, a profile of Mira Nair
Hollywood Meets Bollywood, a profile of Gurinder Chadha
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.