It is supremely hard to make a first feature film. First and foremost because one doesn’t know if one really can till one does! Secondly because no one else believes that one can either! On top of that if the film is on a highly political and sensitive subject then heaven help you. One production company said they wouldn’t touch Amu with a barge pole. But in spite of the insurmountable obstacles I had to make Amu and no other film. That was the script which tumbled out of me and I had to be true to it without compromising on its creative or political content. The making was hard and exciting. To shoot sync sound in crowded marketplaces and real locations, to work with non actors and children, to stay on time and budget. Being the producer, director and writer was heady and liberating as well as trying and traumatic. More than Film School one of the skills which stood me through this ordeal of fire was motherhood! Amu is my first film - but my third child. Why I gave birth to her is a little bit captured in the article below.
I was in first year college studying History in Miranda House, Delhi University when it happened. The massacre of thousands of Sikhs following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in November 1984. We were locked into the hostel for 3 days while the killing carried on outside. It was surreal as we were sitting on the beautiful green peaceful lawn – in the midst of terrible violence outside. In the common room many girls were glued to the non stop coverage of mourners around Mrs Gandhi’s body. Not a word, not a hint of the brutal carnage taking place. There was one public telephone and a long line of girls snaked around it – and through that one connection with the world stories filtered in. My journalist aunt described the horror she witnessed as a Sikh was being burnt alive and the policeman was standing there doing nothing and would not listen to her.
Rumours also filtered in: the water had been poisoned by the Sikhs – girls came out of the mess and started throwing up. Mass hysteria started to build up that the Khalsa College boys might attack. No understanding as to who the victims and targets were. After 3 days the gates were opened for us and the army was brought into the city – it had been stationed outside all along – to “return order” and stop the “rioting”.
The History Department organized a relief work organization and that was my first exposure to one of the world’s most terrible human tragedies. First I discovered from victims that they were only alive because of their Hindu neighbors - giving lie to the newspaper reports which were now full of communal reporting. There were mohalla defence committees which had formed all over the city. Second I learnt about how organized the killings had been. High ranking Ministers using electoral rolls to mark Sikh houses, the distribution of kerosene, police giving protection to Congress goons who were brought in truckloads shouting khoon ka badla khoon se lenge….story after story of the same pattern of killing – sons, fathers and husbands beaten with sticks, turbans pulled off and then burnt alive. I wrote postcards from wailing women to their relatives in Punjab. I felt helpless at their enormous grief. There was a burning rage within all of us for justice.
In 1987 in my final year of college, due to a personal tragedy, I left India and came to America as a graduate student. There I got involved with an Indian organization, spearheaded by my future husband, that organized around the issues of the denial of rights. The state terrorism unleashed in 1984 was a subject we particularly felt strongly about and kept alive. Because “1984” was a watershed in the Indian polity. Many years later, after graduating from film school when I was ready to write my first feature film we knew that this was the story I had to write, the film I had to make and show, to a world that didn’t know the suppressed history of that genocide. And Amu was born. It was a Herculean effort because no one was willing to support it and writing it was itself a searing task. But we struggled on empowered by the courage of the fighting widows.
I can still hear their angry voices from the relief camp echoing across the years: “Minister hee to thhe. Unhee ke shaye pe sab hua” (It was a Minister. It was all done at his direction). “Saare shamil thhe… police, afsar, sarkar, neta, saare” (They were all involved … the police, the bureaucracy, the government, the politicians – all). If I ever had doubts that a cover-up of history had taken place, they were set to rest when the Censor Board removed these two lines of dialogue along with other politically motivated cuts and gave the film an “A” certificate, because “why bring up a history which is best buried and forgotten?” I accepted the cuts and thought it an even more powerful indictment for audiences to see the widows silently moving their lips. Silenced, even after twenty years…
As I write this piece – twenty one years later – the latest Commission of enquiry – Nanavati – has come out with yet another whitewashed report letting of the guilty. Justice has been denied to the victims of ’84 yet again – in spite of 9 enquiry commissions and
11 changes of government. Every organ of the state stands indicted in this latest travesty. I am traveling around the country screening Amu and this is the question that members of my audience including myself keep asking: is it not time that we rethink the political mechanisms and system that exist which can create such a carnage and then fail to resolve it? As the cycle of violence continues can we afford to lull ourselves into believing that the system of governance handed down by our imperial rulers can provide security and protection to the people of our country? This is the question Amu leaves the young protagonists – Kaju and Kabir – with as they walk down a railway track into the future and that I hope we can all think about.
(Amu released theatrically on January 7 in India and ran houseful for over two months in various cities. It won great popular and critical acclaim amongst audiences, the press and the film industry. The Hollywood Reporter wrote “Bose is a fearless film maker who certainly knows how to tell an engrossing tale without compromising her political viewpoint....a political inquiry worthy of a young Costa Gavras.”Amu won the FIPRESCI Critics Award, the Gollapudi Srinivasa Award for Best Debut Filmmaker and the National Award for Best English Film. It was selected by many international film festivals and had its world premier in Berlin 2005 and North American premiere in Toronto 2005. It is now awaiting its world theatrical release.After finishing the film Shonali also wrote Amu as a novel which was published by Penguin and is available in bookstores in India.)
QUOTES AND REVIEW EXCERPTS :
“An extremely significant film for India…every character richly etched…unbelievable first film…it is truly cinema.” Shyam Benegal, Film Maker
“Where have you been hiding?…a brave and challenging film…simply wonderful.” Mrinal Sen, Filmmaker
“A very bold and moving film…great performances especially from Brinda Karat and Konkona Sensharma.” Aamir Khan, Actor
“Bravo! A remarkable debut.” (31/2 stars) Nikhat Kazmi, Times of India Film Critic
“Amu is a big little film to fill you with hope at the movies…haunting, nagging and unforgettable it ventures into a critical slice of Indian history and manages to create cinema that is immensely watchable. Amu is a must see if Indian cinema is to grow.” Subhash K. Jha, Film Critic
“The brilliance of Amu’s incandescence is in that although a political film, you watch it in complete unawareness of that fact. Successful against falling into any cliche traps, it communicates the abomination of the ’84 anti-Sikh riots without sentimentality.” Madhu Trehan, Journalist Indian Express, Jan 15, 2005
“And now at last comes Shonali Bose’s Amu. With a slow, quiet and innocuous beginning it works up at the end without making a loud noise to the most powerful indictment of the massacre of Sikhs in that black year and the way justice has been dragging its feet over 20 long years.
…What impresses one about Amu is its genuine reality undertones. People speak in English and Bengali as middle class Bengali families tend to do. Others speak in Hindi. The household sets, the people in the family – from the totally credible grandmother to others – seem real.”
Amita Malik, Author Hindustan Times, Jan. 13, 2005
“In the middle of this terrible natural disaster my mind has gone back to an equally terrible manmade disaster because of a film called Amu. On my first night back in Mumbai I went to the premier of this film and although a political column is not usually the place for film reviews this film is so political, so powerful and so moving that it finds place here this week.
It is also the bravest political film by an Indian director in years because it deals with a subject that most Indians have dared not even squeak of except to whisper that it is best forgotten: the anti Sikh pogrom that followed the assassination of Indira Gandhi.
…The past alas does not go away and we will be forced to repeat its mistakes unless we confront them. This is what Shonali brings out brilliantly in this her first film that starts off with deceptive softness and leaves you reeling by the end. What is remarkable about her handling of the subject is that, unlike most films with a message, there is not a hint of polemics or propaganda in Amu only a deeply moving, human story that reminds us that as long as justice is not done India will never escape its periodic descent into barbarism and savagery.”
Tavleen Singh, Journalist Afternoon, Jan. 6, 2005
“Shonali Bose’s Amu is one of the most significant films to come out of India in years. Rarely have we seen a recent Indian film that is so daring, weaving in big political, feminist themes with such sophistication. Yet it is a film that we will long remember precisely because all of these are subsumed under a moving, emotional mother-daughter tale. It is told with an integrity that shoots straight through the heart… The screenplay is outstanding. You sense that its integrity comes from experience, not mere research. In fact, the director was an activist working in the post-riots relief camps. As for the acting, Konkona Sensharma and Brinda Karat are superb, but so too are many smaller characters, including Ankur Khanna, Yashpal Sharma, Loveleen Mishra and the granny. Non-actors Brinda Karat and the granny fortify its authenticity.” Meenakhshi Shedde, Film critic The Hindu, Jan 6, 2005