Watched a preview of Amu at the Habitat; this is Shonali Bose’s soon-to-be-released film about a young, US-based Indian girl coming to Delhi for the first time in 18 years and realising that the death/disappearance of her real parents was tied up with the 1984 anti-Sikh riots following Indira Gandhi’s assassination.
For the first 15-20 minutes I was convinced it was going to be a disappointment. The flaws were there for all to see: a few cliches about the "real India", a couple of stiff performances, a slightly theatrical set-up, some prettification of riot violence. But the film got better and more engrossing as it went along.
Something else I thought was iffy - though other friends at the screening disagreed - was Konkana Sensharma’s brave but misguided attempt at an American accent. Now Sensharma is a fine actress but I almost wish she and the director had decided to compromise on authenticity by avoiding the accent altogether. Not that it’s bad, it’s just very uneven - sometimes there, sometimes not -- and the bigger problem is that when her character speaks Hindi or Bengali she promptly lapses into a completely Indian voice, which is jarring if you’ve just about managed to convince yourself that it’s an NRI girl up there on the screen.
But even this was a minor fault. An unconvincing accent will at most times ruin a performance, but the young actress rose above it as the movie went on, so that after a point, it was possible to ignore the way she was speaking and focus instead on the character’s other nuances. She has to be one of the most interesting performers around and I think her career will bear watching.
Bose has an assured yet unpretentious style, and that’s sorely needed today, when so many directors in non-mainstream Indian cinema are preoccupied with being clever and tricksy. I liked the subtle use of trains as a motif, for chook-chooks have had an interesting role to play in the context of the "many Indias". At most times, they are the threads that bind the country, enabling people of one region/community to travel to another. But at times of communal violence they have carried some horrific associations - one thinks of the corpse-laden ghost bogies of the post-Partition riots and the moving deathtraps of Godhra.
Even when Bose over-simplifies, it doesn’t seem too preachy or forced. In the last scene, for instance, the Konkana character has achieved closure; she’s mourned for her parents, come to term with their deaths, and she’s walking away near the train tracks with her boyfriend when we hear an NDTV report in the background about the torching of kar sevaks in a train in Gujarat -- the prelude to the Godhra riots. But the simplistic (though not irrelevant) message about the cycle of communal violence isn’t thrown into our faces. Instead, the director gives us a long shot of children playing near the tracks as adults mill around the TV set and tension builds in the air - thus making a quiet point about the legacy we’re bequeathing our children. (Incidentally, some of the most striking visuals in the film are shots of the faces of terrified children seeing things they should never have had to.)
P. S. I was only seven in 1984, not old enough to fully grasp what was happening or to be traumatised by the fact that the "Singh" nameplate on the gate of our Panchshila house had to be removed for a few days (in fact, I don’t think I knew about that till later); or to understand the implications of the stories that men riding two-wheelers were stopped in the Delhi streets and had their helmets removed to check if they wore turbans. My strongest memory is that of our class 2 teacher Mrs Gidwani walking into the classroom all shaken up, waving her arms about like a bird in a cartoon, repeating "she’s been shot". I didn’t even know she was talking about Indira Gandhi until later, on the way home in the school van, and then some silly conductor was trying to reassure the children by saying "she’s only got a stomach ache, she’ll be okay" or something such.
P.P.S. One of the points the director makes is that the Sikh-stalking during those few days in 1984 hasn’t been adequately represented in literature or film - partly because many people in high places were complicit. Some lines of dialogue have been censored from the film in India - mainly where characters bemoan the apathy of powerful ministers. The print telecast at the IHC was the original international print without any cuts but with the "offending" dialogues blanked out, which meant that in the middle of an intense onscreen discussion, the characters would suddenly turn into Marcel Marceaus for a few seconds. It was very funny and very frightening.