By Kirk Honeycutt
"Amu," the first feature film by Shonali Bose, a UCLA film school grad and political activist, boldly rips away a tapestry of lies and cover-ups by successive Indian governments, which even today refuses to prosecute even one individual.
The heat of Bose's anger is tempered by a keen sense of drama and character as she uses a story set in present day to unravel the shameful truth. While receiving its first international exposure at the Berlinale, "Amu" has played in Indian theaters since Jan. 7, where it is attracting large crowds and controversy. The film certainly has the legs for wide travel and could penetrate many theatrical markets, including North America.
At the climax, the film does flash back to 1984 so that it may bear witness to genocidal fury not unlike that in the film "Hotel Rwanda." As a 19-year-old student in Delhi, Bose worked in the refugee camps where she heard the horror stories that form the basis of her screenplay. The script skillfully draws a viewer into this maelstrom of hatred using both the mystery story and budding romance between Amu and Kabir. It beautifully personalizes a social and political tragedy without resorting to the old Hollywood trick of thrusting a white journalist or tourist into foreign chaos.
"Amu" is less about finger-pointing than a plea for India to confront its past, to overthrow its official amnesia and deal with the cycles of sectarian violence that continue to haunt that country as witnessed by the 2002 uprising in Gujarat. (The film ends as those riots begin.) Bose is a fearless filmmaker who certainly knows how to tell an engrossing tale without compromising her political viewpoint.
All technical aspects to her modestly budgeted film are fine.
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“Children of a Pogrom”
By Sudhanva Deshpande
“What AMU does is to focus on our collective amnesia about the events of November 1984. This is achievement enough, of course. But what the film does brilliantly is to bring out how the amnesia, though collective, is differentiated. All the characters in the film want to forget 1984, but for different reasons - the rich because they don't care, about 1984 or anything else; ruling politicians, because they led the mobs; officials of the state, because of their own complicity in the riots; the middle class, because it is neither killer nor victim; and the poor, because they are both killers and victims.
Everyone holds a secret, a dark, terrible secret, and everyone prefers that it remain a secret.
Even, it seems, the Censor Board. For the film has been cleared with an 'Adults' certificate, and that too after some audio cuts. These cuts come in the scene where Kaju and Kabir meet a group of 1984 widows, who recount how ministers led rioters, while the police and the administration looked on benignly. Rather than edit the scene out of the film, the director has chosen to retain it with the audio cuts. The result is that the now silenced widows condemn the perpetrators of the killing with even more power and poignancy.
AMU has some outstanding performances. Konkona Sensharma as Kaju confirms her status as the best young actor in Indian cinema today. She is completely believable as the NRI girl in search of her roots. You would think she has spent a lifetime in the US. She is also quite clearly a master at picking up accents, as we saw in her award-winning performance in MR AND MRS IYER.
However, the truly outstanding performance in AMU is that by Communist Party of India (Marxist) activist Brinda Karat as Keya. Television viewers in India know her as a person who is not only photogenic, but also strong, clear-headed, and articulate. In AMU, she brings all these qualities into her performance, and more. She is totally natural, passionate, sensitive and, as in the brief scene with her former lover Neel, subtle and nuanced. She gets a vulnerability in her portrayal of Keya that is actually quite rare, at any rate in Indian cinema: the vulnerability of an independent, strong woman. The relationship between Keya and Kaju is superbly etched, and both actors complement each other perfectly.
The early part of the film appears to meander a bit as it sets the context for what is to follow, but with Keya's return to India, it grips you totally. Director Shonali Bose builds up the suspense well, and then, as Kaju unravels one thread of the mystery after another, the film moves towards its denouement almost like a thriller. Bose has shot Delhi as few others have; the slum sequences, in particular, are absolutely authentic. She also shoots the riots very well - the violence is real without being voyeuristic, and the fear palpable.
AMU is an important film, perhaps the most important Indian film of recent years. It is that rare film which combines a strong political statement with a powerful and moving story. It is also not without humour, something one normally does not expect in a film of this kind.”
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“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. As you watch a hapless Sikh being dragged off to be scalped, his cries of, “Maine ki kitha” (What did I do) ring in your recall of Kashmir, Gujarat and the Mandal riots. The innocent die….But Amu gives me hope. It has been made 20 years after the riots. Shonali Bose is the daughter of Midnight’s Children. What we (Midnight’s Children) did not do, this generation is doing. As we lament the future of India and despair looking at the Page 3 obscenities, take hope that there are those in this generation who will work in holding a mirror up to ourselves that forces us to take heed and change. And, Shonali Bose is not alone. Rabbi in his brilliant new CD album Jugni, holds the mirror up yet again. As in Amu, true art that gives a message but doesn’t jar because theh medium is so beautiful. The message this generation is giving: we feel the pain, we expose the suffering and it is because, O India, it is because we love thee.”
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
“If you need to feel good about Indian cinema, and even more about India, see Amu. If you need to relish good direction, skip the Karan Johars, Subhash Ghais, even Ashutosh Gowarikars, and settle with Shonali. She brings the Sikh slaughters closer home in a way that nine central governments and an equal number of inquiry commissions have failed to do. With a fearless anti-amnesia agenda, Shonali can terrify those who would lull the nation into complacent oblivion.”
Neera Kuckreja Sohoni, Journalist
Indian Express, Jan 12, 2005
Last week I saw Shonali Bose’s Amu. For those of you who haven’t seen it, you are missing a great film: handled with aplomb and sensitivity by a person who is not pretentious or pontificatory…
I thought the acting was excellent: everyone played his or her part with a sense of realism that is so hard to come by in Indian cinema today. The beauty about the film is that it also makes you question the status quo which we so easily surround ourselves with…
The film has a powerful script and the dialogue is eloquent and pithy. Coming from Kolkata as I do, the fact that many lines are spoken in Bengali was a refreshing change, not because of it being in Bengali but because the film captures the milieu of this middle class Bengali home in all its hues: something that perhaps I last saw in a Ray film. Shonali is obviously immensely talented, not because she has made a great film, but more importantly, because the film makes a statement without a moralistic preface as most of these films want to do.
…Amu doesn’t tell you to go back in time, it only acts as a catalyst for you to think. And in the kind of times we live in, perhaps it is a good idea to be part of a film that engages your mind. Which is what Amu is finally about. It helps you connect even if you are not of that vintage. It tells you about life even if you don’t believe that a riot will ever affect you. It helps you ponder without being instructive.
And more than anything else it is intrusive without being moralistic: hence it scores high and it is a film to cherish. God alone knows when the next Amu will come along.
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Asian Age - Kolkata
Suhel Seth, Journalist,
Asian Age, Jan 10, 2005.
Recreating a truly painful history
By Utpal Borpujari
Deccan Herald. Jan. 30, 2005.
….The film also effectively portrays how the administration kept silent, thanks to political interference even as the carnage went on for three days before the Army was allowed to step in.
But the film probably more effectively portrays, even more than the personal journey, the truth that the generation born after 1984 hardly knows about the gruesome tragedy. With a brilliant cameo by the talented Yashpal Sharma and an impressive screen debut by the All India Democratic Women’s Association president Brinda Karat (Bose is a niece of Karat) who looked the US-based adoptive mother of the protagonist to the T, ‘Amu’ is a small film- with a budget just about Rs three crore- with a big story to tell using the mother-daughter relationship as the vehicle. And it does its job quite effectively without playing to the gallery even once. ??The tension of the riot days, the madness that accompanied the pogrom and the tragedy that fell on Sikhs, all of it have been handled sensitively without missing out on the details. Done in sync sound, the film has captured the sights and sounds of Delhi quite well. The music too is an interesting mix of international and Indian sounds, with the Bengali version of Bhupen Hazarika’s immortal ‘O Ganga Tumi’ utilised most effectively to reflect the mood of the subject. Technically efficient, it is, however, the narrative that keeps the viewer glued to the screen. ?For the director, who started writing the film in 2000 and shot it in the early part of 2004 in a tight schedule of ten weeks, it was the fact that nobody has been punished for the crime that gave her the spark to tackle the subject.
And instead of a documentary, she decided to make a feature film this time, because, as she says, “Cinema has a huge, huge impact on people. If you just write an article people just read and forget. Why I chose narrative cinema and not documentary, though I love documentaries, is because it brings out human tragedy in an artistic and dramatic way, making viewers identify with the characters”. However, she is clear that a film cannot bring justice to those affected. “All it can do is to support the struggle for justice. Also, I wanted to bring out the fact that it is a problem for all Indians, not just those affected,” she says.
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Deccan Herald - Bangalore
Terror of 1984
By Alpana Chowdhury
Once in a very rare moon comes along a film like Shonali Bose’s Amu – hard-hitting, incisive and entertaining. Making a refreshing departure from the candyfloss, pop-patriotic films that are the flavour of the season, Amu projects an India that is warm, exotic and real. Through the travails of her protagonist, Amu, Bose uncovers the brutal acts unleashed on innocent Sikhs in 1984, post-Indira Gandhi’s assassination.
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Saturday, February 12, 2005
The best film I’ve seen in recent times, by a long shot, is Amu, the debut film of Shonali Bose. I won’t scatter superlatives on the film now, because I don’t think I’d be able to do it justice. But, briefly, let me comment on an actress and a scene.
I give nothing away by describing the last scene of Amu, so I will. It is a long shot of railway tracks in Delhi, with people walking here and there in the distance, among them Konkona’s character. Nothing happens at all in the scene, which lasts, by my recollection, for three or four minutes. Slowly, a train comes into the frame, winds its way across it, and goes off, as the inactivity on the frame continues.
So what’s the big deal about it? Well, in any other film, such a long scene, with nothing at all happening in it, would have made the crowds madly impatient. People would have hooted and jeered, talked among themselves, made weak jokes and laughed uproariously. Yet, at the end of Amu, for that entire stretch of time, there was utter silence in the crowd – such was the impact of that wonderful film. Instead of letting the audience get up and leave and forget about the film when it was over, Bose made them sit there, and think about it, and she allowed the emotions and thoughts that the film evoked to seep in. It was a courageous scene to include in a film, and it worked. Watch this lady.
And if you haven’t already, watch Amu.
Sometimes a smile is the best healing touch one can provide. "Amu" provides moments of joy even as it relives the nightmarish sorrow of one of our most shameful and brutal chapters in history.
“Bravo! This one’s a great debut by director Shonali Bose. First, because it’s about a topic that isn’t easy to deal with – too near to actually look back dispassionately. Second, because it is minus all frills and fuss. Third, because it strikes a chord, despite being serious in an age that serenades the silly…
If Konkona reworks her Mr and Mrs Iyer charm on you once more, it is Brinda Karat who makes you wanna say “Wah Comrade!” Her ease, grace and natural charm before the camera are crying out for more roles.”
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Times of India - Kolkata
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,