Thursday, December 23, 2004

Amu, and the 1984 riots

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.


  1. Brudder, can you use 'actor' instead of 'actress'? I know you like 'ye olde style" but remenber what the good lord, Robert Z said about changing times, etc.
    Pity KSS messed up the accent. I thought she carried off the Tamil accent in "Mr & Mrs Iyer" pretty well (though I'm not a Tamil and so wouldn't be too sure).
    Re censorship: after the economy it's time for culture to be freed from the sarkari babus. Who the fuck is the govt to decide what I see/hear. Problem is not just the govt but also the moral police (aka Sena, Jamaat). When can we have some sense in the world [pl to add quote from Shaw's "St Joan"].

  2. Amitav Ghosh has a particularly incisive piece on the 1984 riots. It appears in The Imam and the Indian, I think. Its amazing how much he manages to cover in one essay. You've probably seen it, but for others who haven't.

  3. Actually, I haven't read that essay. But will now, thanks. Last seen, that book was somewhere in the north-western corner of my room, doing time with much else that Still Has To Be Read. will try to locate it.

  4. I was also seven (or was it six-and-a-half) in 1984 and though I haven't seen Amu, I distinctly remember that day. I was at boarding school, DPS RK Puram, and around lunch time the buses came back with all their windows shattered. We knew what had happened but had no clue that behidn those fortified walls, buses were beign stoned and pelted. The next thing we knew, all the senior boys were running across the lawns with hose pipes (this was apparently in preparation if the school was burnt by inflamed mobs). Utterly scared, a group of us actually put our important belongings in small bags (almost tied it in a cloth and attached it to a stick as in the cartoons), and went to our teacher and told her we were running away. Imagine telling someone you are going to run away... I can't remember what happened in the follwing days but that day is etched in my memory.

  5. KSS launching into a bong accent while speaking bong isnlt all that odd. I heard a us born and resident boy of about 16 perform in chembur last year - aditya prakash i think..and he SANG carnatic music with absolutely no accent but when he spoke , the american twang came thru...
    maybe some linguist could explain ?


  6. i am not a linguist but ive noticed this accent difference a few times. while studying in ahmedabad in a campus with people from all across the country there was a classmate who was from baruch, but originally from the west godavari district in AP. when he spoke telugu, he had an accent which was straight out of WG. it might have something to do with the fact that, the only telugu he spoke was at home and his parents being the first generation out of the village retained a very strong accent. his hindi and english were quite like what most of us spoke though. but his telugu was something odd in the whole package.

    my parents had moved to hyderabad from krishna drstrict and their telugu lost a bit of the edge in the accent in a more cosmopolitan place. in fact the telugu i speak has two components, one that i use at home which is closer to the accent in krishna district and the one i used to speak with my friends which had a distinct telangana accent(hyderabad being a part of telangana and having a distint influence of it on the street language)

    accents tell stories alright, but sometimes they have a far deeper level which somehow is not obvious enough on first hearing.

    i havent seen the movie, so do not know if this amatuer 'theory' will hold any merit.

  7. Hi Jai,

    I'm Malayalee, but grew up in Bombay. The only Malayalam I spoke was at home, and with relatives, most of whom were either in Kerala, or the first generation out of it. I speak Malayalam with a distinct Trichur raaga, and I speak Hindi like a typical Bombayite.

    I think a first-generation NRI who speaks his/her native language is likely to retain a very strong native accent in that language even if his/her English is completely American/English, since it would primarily have been used at home.