I had noticed the DVD of ‘Amu’ displayed at Habitat, the Mecca for the lovers of good cinema and music in Bangalore. But I gave it a miss every time, thinking sooner or later, I’ll catch it on television. It seemed to belong to a genre that is telecast repeatedly on film channels. I have watched Deepa Mehta’s ‘Earth’ twice on television in the past one year. Amu appeared to be similar.
Yesterday, while walking on Church Street I found myself in that DVD rental shop after months. I was looking for a particular Swedish movie they didn’t have and ended up borrowing four DVDs impulsively. One of them was Amu, the film on the Sikh massacre of 1984, following Indira Gandhi’s assassination. The film is directed by Shonali Bose who was 19 and studying in Delhi when the horror unfolded. She was living in a college hostel and went through the trauma of knowing that hundreds were being butchered in her neighbourhood and she was helpless to do anything about it.
I have never really understood why we term these shameful acts of violence riots. For me the connotations of a riot are that two equally powerful groups of individuals attack and destroy each other. This is not true in our country. Typically it is the majority that singles out the minority in a city to rape, murder and plnder with the active connivance of police and politicians. In some pockets the minorities retaliate but the scale of that is miniscule compared to what is happening to them elsewhere in the city.
Amu is a political film. It has Brinda Karat playing a crucial part in the film as a woman who adopts a little girl from a Sikh refugee camp. I am no fan of the Karats. They look too well heeled to be leftists to me. And Brinda Karat always gets my goat when she is on television talking in that shrill uppity voice of hers. But she endeared herself to me in this film. She is the director’s aunt and may have bagged the role solely on grounds of nepotism but she has justified her niece’s faith in her as an actor. Her care and concern for her adopted daughter is evident even in the scenes where she doesn’t have any lines.
Amu is played by Konkana Sen Sharma, an actor I am ambivalent about. I liked her very much in ‘Wake up Sid’ but disliked her interpretation of the south Indian wife in ‘Mr and Mrs Iyer.’ That Tamil accent she affected was extremely off putting although Konkana seems to be rather proud of the fact that she sounded exactly like a Mylapore housewife, whatever that means.
In Amu too, Konkana does this ABCD accent initially but decides to give it up somewhere in the middle. Apart from that jarring note, she’s very good in this one. She even underplays the confrontations and that is brilliant. It makes it that much more powerful. When she asks another actor in the film in a confused, matter of fact manner ‘Come on, you are saying 5000 people were killed in three days. That’s more than the 9/11 count and you mean to say the police didn’t do anything about it,’ it makes for one of the most compelling moments in an Indian film.
The massacre of the Sikhs in Delhi in 1984 is as shameful a chapter in the history of independent India as is the genocide of Muslims in Gujarat after the Godhra incident. In both cases, an entire community had to pay the price of a crime committed by one or two or a handful of miscreants. For the massacre of the Sikhs in 1984, the Congress politicians drew their daring from their leader Rajiv Gandhi whose reaction to the violence that followed his mother’s assassination was ‘If you chop off a giant tree, there are bound to be tremors.’ The rogue politicians of Delhi took that statement to be a battle cry against all Sikhs and engaged in the kind of senseless bloody orgy only politicians understand and unleash with the connivance of the uniformed men who are meant to protect the citizens of this country.
A film that depicts this reality was never in any danger of finding favour with the establishment and the predictable happened. Despite winning accolades in film festivals across the world, the censor board in India found a lot of faults with the work. The primary one being that the film depicted a shameful chapter from our history that all of us would much rather forget.
Is that correct? We may not want these wounds to fester but forgetting them or wiping them out, sounds like a very Nazi response to me. Like saying we will own and showcase everything that’s grand and beautiful in our country like the Taj Mahal or the 11% growth, but not these shameful episodes as we don’t want anyone to stop us from having another bloody orgy in our backyard the next time we feel like it.
What is interesting is the film was made in 2004 and was released in 2005 when Sharmila Tagore was the chairperson of the censor board. Three years later, Nandita Das’s ‘Firaaq’ came out, an equally powerful indictment of the Gujarat genocide and no one saw that as an unacceptable depiction of modern India. This whole mess has one message for me and it is that the Congress is as communal as the BJP and Sharmila Tagore who’s always trying to talk like an intellectual is a big fraud.
Next the Censor Board made the telecast of the film in India impossible by demanding that the film chop off any reference to the 1984 violence to get a U/A certification that’s mandatory for a film to be shown on television. Apparently films with an A certificate cannot be telecast. How can a film that’s all about a young woman coming of age in the context of her discovery that she was adopted not because her parents died in an epidemic but because they were victims of a state backed massacre not have any reference to the violence? The film makers gave up at this point of time and released the film on DVD. If you haven’t watched the film as yet, please head to the nearest store and borrow it...better still buy it. The film is by no means perfect and has the excessive earnestness many films by first timers have but it appeals to the heart. It’s the sort of film first timers should be encouraged to make. The funny thing is they also gave two national awards to the film but made sure it didn't reach too many people.
Shonali Bose also turned her screenplay into a novel and I plan to read it. However what surprises me that the media largely ignored the film and the book. But then the Indian media, especially the ones who work in English publications and channels have not grown up as yet. They only value the big brands or those who come hyped from the west. Since Amu adhered to neither of these types, they didn’t have much to say about it.
Bose didn’t have an easy time making the film either. The Indian production house that backed her initially, deserted her at the last minute. When she approached the American studios, they wanted it to be a story about an American girl. None of Bose’s reasoning that the film was about an American girl with Indian origins cut any ice with them. Maybe they felt if Anne Hathaway can’t be cast as the protagonist, the film wasn’t worth it. Finally she made the film from the money her husband who is a scientist at Nasa, had earned by getting a patent on the smallest camera he had invented.
Bedabrata Pain, Bose’s scientist husband has also made a film ‘Chittagong’ based on the Chittagong uprising. He had approached Jaya Bachchan and Abhishek Bachchan with the script and apparently Jaya Bachchan loved the script. The next thing we knew is that Ashutosh Gowariker, who had earlier made the historical ‘Jodha Akbar’ with Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, swung into action and made a film on the same subject with Abhishek Bachchan . He claimed he had based it on Manini Chatterjee’s book. Anurag Kashyap left a disgusted note on FB about how the Bachchans were influencing the distributors not to release Chittagong before Gowariker’s film, even though it had been completed earlier. I am sure you can put two and two together like I did and figure out what really happened behind scenes in this sorry mess.
Not that Gowariker’s film helped anyone including him. I can’t recall the film’s name but I know it sank like the Titanic and doomed the Junior Bachchan’s career forever. It flopped so badly that it has had a reverberating impact on every film Bachchan has come out with subsequently. They have all bombed. Now no producer is likely to invest money on either Bachchan or Gowariker unless Amitabh and Jaya Bachchan decide to fund the film from their personal wealth.
But all this must be of small consolation to Pain whose film is still stuck in the cans.