or filmmaker Shonali Bose, the personal and the political violently collided while she was a 19-year-old at Delhi University. The year was 1984, and following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, a surge of gruesome, “engineered” violence permeated the capital, unjustly targeting the city’s Sikh community. Bose’s incipient activism propelled her to become involved with the Sikh rehabilitation camps, an effort spearheaded by locals to offer relief to the victims of violence. It was this experience that formed the hazy beginnings of Amu, a critically acclaimed film that has won a National Award in India and has gained worldwide recognition, from Berlin to Toronto. The film chronicles a young Indian American woman’s journey to rediscover her roots, but takes a darker turn when she realizes that her childhood may be entangled with the horrific ’84 riots.
When Bose claims that she’s “poured everything personal,” into Amu, she isn’t kidding. One of the film’s main characters is played by Bose’s beloved aunt—a first time actor—Brinda Karat, and the core story is based on the true account of her English professor from college. Not to mention the seed money for Amu‘s pre-production, which was acquired from a patent that Bose’s husband, Bedabrata Pain, a NASA scientist, received for inventing the world’s smallest camera.
Nirali spoke to Bose about her tumultuous journey toward Amu, the film’s international impact and her future filmmaking forecast.
What’s your personal connection to Amu?
My involvement with the rehabilitation efforts, following the ’84 riots, was instant. A lot of people from Delhi reacted that way—ordinary people had to come to the rescue. The first day I went [to the camps] I was really nervous, because it’s not like I’d ever done such a thing in my life. I remember wondering how they [the Sikh community] were going to react to us. Was there going to be hostility? But there was bonding and love between the survivors and the volunteers.
Amu: A Review
The celebrated author and activist Arundhati Roy once claimed there is no such thing as a single story—there are only ways of seeing. Roy may as well have been describing Amu, director Shonali Bose’s fierce debut film, an unflinching glimpse at a young woman’s search for the truth about her turbulent past. For 21-year-old Kaju Roy (Konkona Sensharma), an Indian American raised in Los Angeles, a trip to New Delhi seems the ideal way to reconnect with her relatives and rediscover her roots. When touring the local slums, however, Kaju battles with haunting bouts of deja vu, triggering a determined investigation of her adoption, much against the wishes of her adopted mother. Sensharma’s courageous performance, Bose’s documentary-inspired storytelling skills and the breathtaking canvas of a metropolis, teetering between tradition and modernity, all fuel the valiant spirit of this award-winning film.
In college, though, we were hearing some terrible rumors. For the three days that the riots took place, we were locked in our hostels. On day two, we heard a rumor that Sikhs had poisoned our water supply, and some of the girls started throwing up. But I knew we had nothing to fear, and we eventually found out that these rumors were planted by the government.
Because Amu tackles such a politically sensitive subject, was it difficult to find financing for the film?
We had an Indian company backing the project, but they pulled out last minute. We had about $50,000 from my husband’s patent—not nearly enough—but marched ahead acting as though we had the money anyway. When I approached American production companies, they insisted that the protagonist be “American.” I was confused, because our protagonist, Kaju (Konkona Sensharma) is a 21-year-old Indian American but she’s brown. Their reaction was so revealing. There were so many false promises. 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 me.
Amu‘s release in Toronto was the outcome of efforts by working class Canadians. I held a radiothon where Sikh taxi drivers called in pledges of $50-$100. They hadn’t even seen the film but they were committed to opening it. When it did open there, earlier this year, it found huge success amongst young Sikh Canadians.
How did you prepare Konkona Sensharma for her role? She plays Kaju, the film’s Indian American protagonist, but she had never lived in the U.S. prior to Amu.
I had auditioned about 50 Indian American actors for the part of Kaju, but nobody had the depth and gravitas that Konkona did. To prepare for Kaju, I had her come and live with me and my family in Los Angeles for about two weeks. We would do a lot of “mother daughter” things, because her character in the film has a very strong relationship with her adopted mother, Keya, a character who is based on me. Sometimes, she’d get tired and say, “Let’s just be Shonali and Konkona today!”
We’d go out to lunch, hang out at the UCLA cafes because that’s where Kaju studied. Konkona’s a fantastic observer. For me, as a writer, to do the backstory like that was a very energizing experience. We took her to Skid Row, in downtown LA, where there is a large population of homeless people. It was necessary for her to see this because Kaju is a very political person, and Konkona’s not necessarily like that. We had accent training every day, and I gave her these tapes that she listened to on the set. We even took hip-hop dance classes!
What is the significance of releasing Amu now, 23 years after the Delhi riots?
The issues explored in Amu are very much alive—there are still Sikh widows waiting to be rehabilitated in Delhi and it remains a question of justice. We’ve all heard about the war in Iraq, and the genocide in Rwanda, but what about the carnage that took place in the capital city of India? And the fact that it was carried out by the government—those who had the mandate to protect us. Communal violence still takes place in India, and when it does, you hear it was one community pegged against the other, when the real problem is the violation of rights, urging communities to come together.
What’s next on your filmmaking agenda?
We were coming back from watching a Bollywood film and my husband remarked how annoying it was that women were always secondary characters when it came to portraying India’s struggle for independence. He mentioned that even though women were at the forefront of the struggle, global audiences were always given a very male oriented view. He started talking about a 16-year-old, Preetilatha, who had started an armed struggle during the times of the British Empire. So my next film is going to be about the “Preetilathas” of India and it’s called Chittagong: Strike One.
Amu begins its U.S. theatrical release on May 25, 2007, at NYC’s Cinema Village and ImaginAsian. The film will open on June 15 in LA at the Laemmle Music Hall and Fallbrook, as well as in Irvine, California, at the Edwards Westpark 8. The film also opens in Huntington, New York, at the Cinema Arts Centre and in Edison, New Jersey, at Movie City in early June. Additional cities will be announced. See the Web site for details.