The year was 1984, when following the assassination of Indira Gandhi, the anti Sikh riots were started in the capital of the Indian country. Twenty three years after the massacre, Shonali Bose’s critically acclaimed film Amu, was released to retell the ghastly story of the Sikh community. The “engineered” carnage, that the bureaucracy, the authorities, the dignitaries, the politicians, the police - the entire state was a part of, had killed more than 5000 people from the community. The story opens with Kaju (Konkana Sen), a twenty one year old Indian-American
The year was 1984, when following the assassination of Indira Gandhi, the anti-Sikh riots were started in the capital of the Indian country. Twenty three years after the massacre, Shonali Bose’s critically acclaimed film Amu, was released to retell the ghastly story of the Sikh community. Only this time the facts weren’t buried. The “engineered” carnage that the bureaucracy, the authorities, the dignitaries, the politicians, the police - the entire state was a part of, had consumed more than 5000 people from the community. It was this disgraceful element of the Indian history that Bose, (who had been a part of the Sikh relief camps that were set up to rehabilitate the victims at that time) had to bring to the world. She made Amu, the only feature film made about the anti-Sikh riots “just to be able to sleep peacefully at night”, Shonali had said in an interview.
The story opens with Kaju (Konkana Sen), a twenty one year old Indian-American, who flies down from LA, to discover her roots in Delhi. Always equipped with her reliable video camera, Amu travels through the fields of rural India and the trails of modern Delhi captivated by everything Indian: the primordial monuments, the uproarious election campaigns, the traditional Indian jewelry, and her affectionate adoptive family. In the course of her revival spree Amu finds herself particularly drawn to the slums of the city – the deprived place she belonged to as a child, where her biological family was wiped out because of a malaria epidemic, before she was adopted. In an attempt to ascertain the history of her biological parents and childhood, she visits the slum often, and finds herself deluged with nightmarish memories that contradict the truths she has been acquainted with so far.
Her investigations are intensified with the help of Kabir (Ankur Khanna), who is initially cynical of Kaju’s “foreign” nosiness for everything Indian, but develops a sense of belonging to her cause. They fall in love, but keep the gratification of it for later. Their days are spent in unraveling Kaju’s past, until realities that are known to Kaju, those that her adoptive mother Keya Roy (Brinda Karat) had told her, become hazier and seem deceptive - all for a truth that lies in something deeply political. Kaju discovers that her family was one of the million to be annihilated during the anti Sikh riots that set off after Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. Her adoptive mother Keya, took her off the rehabilitation center, in which Kaju was left unaided.
Kaju must now come to terms with an identity she has never known before – Amu is her childhood name, as her life, before she had been adopted, would have it.
In Amu, the personal story collides pretty effectively with the political, and that’s how the film manages to sustain interest for most part. The central narrative, being dual dimensional with Amu’s childhood story on one side and the anti Sikh riots on the other, even though they’re interrelated, keeps you concerned, at the least. The subject matter is tremendously significant, but sometimes what you get is only an OK direction. Konkana Sen is an actor of substance, and that shows - even if her NRI accent wavers while she’s clad in tracks and a tee most of the time. But Brinda Karat (Shonali Bose’s real-life aunt and a leftist politician from India) and Ankur Khanna, both, who play significant roles in the film, are actors of drab mediocrity. Ms Bose might have “poured everything personal” into the film, including her beloved aunt for the role of Keya Roy as the vital adoptive mother, but the results of it, sometimes look daft. The particular scene in which Keya talks all friendly with Kaju, about her daughter’s fresh acquaintance with Kabir, gives the impression of the actor (Brinda Karat) looking out to the sets for directives on what to say or do next! But as a saving grace, Brinda Karat's beautiful face accentuates the screen and goes well with the parental role that she’s meant to depict. Paradoxically, the characters that are sidelined in the film, those who make for Kaju’s extended family and associates, are all very endearing. Her quiet and humored grandma, her loyal cousin sister, her real mother (who makes a brief appearance during a flashback scene), the slum dwellers – they all emerge as naturals! This factor, although a bit absurd accounts for a bulky portion of the film’s better moments.
Even though the film is strangely clumsy, the camera work is pretty decent if you consider this a first attempt. When Shonali set out to make this film that was close to her heart, she found to her surprise that there wasn't a single document or a single book, on the black episode of 1984. Ms Bose who came out to put to picture the hidden story, couldn’t find a producer for her objectionable film - “Why should young people know a history that is better buried and forgotten?” she was told. She finally made the film from a patent that her husband, a NASA scientist, received for inventing the world’s smallest camera. “I hated swallowing my pride and approaching people with the begging bowl. There’s a lot of rudeness and closed doors in the industry. I told myself that I wouldn’t stay in filmmaking if I had to do this again.” But Amu was about a cause that was bigger than her, and it is for this strength and insistence that her film won a National Award in India and gained worldwide recognition, from Berlin to Toronto.
Today, almost 25 years after the ghastly anti-Sikh killings, with nine enquiry commissions, three special courts, and nine governments, nothing has happened. After taking a good five years to submit its 339-page report, the Nanavati Commission (the commission appointed by the government to look into matters regarding the 1984 anti Sikh riots) finds only a "probable" involvement of the perpetrators of violence.
The story of justice being denied isn’t new to the Indian country, but every voice that questions, still counts. And Amu, despite its flawed execution, is a moving and persuasive testament to this hunger for justice.