The war and peace within
The trauma of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots was a bottled-up emotion for Shonali Bose. With her film Amu, which won the national award for Best English film and also the Gollapudi Srinivas Award for the Best Debut Director which she will be receiving today, she hoped to relax. But with the Nanavati Commission report she is not too sure
PAINFUL MEMORIESShonali Bose: `For me and my generation, the Delhi riots of 1984 made a strong impact on our minds. I've always felt an imperative need to talk of this buried story.' Photo: SAMPATH KUMAR G.P.
Amu, the Indian English feature film based on the 1984 Sikh genocide, saw a worldwide release in January this year, and earned the national award for Best Debut Director for Shonali Bose. Ironically, over 20 years after the gruesome anti-Sikh pogrom, 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 finds only a "probable" involvement of the perpetrators of violence.
Shonali Bose, who was a student of Miranda College during the heartless Delhi riots, couldn't rest till she got it out of her system to be able to "sleep peacefully". The film, for her, was an act of purgation. "The guilty are still roaming free. And the so many governments and courts haven't done a thing. This apathy, this total denial of justice is what I wanted to talk about," says Shonali, remembering how they were locked inside the high gates of their college during those horrific three days, playing cards on the lawn (almost surreal!), completely oblivious to what was happening outside. "It shattered me completely when I came out," she recalls with a shudder.
Shonali plunged into the relief operations and worked in several camps. But even after 20 traumatic years, she could still hear those pain-filled, mordant voices, "Saare shaamil thι. Police, neta... sab... ", resonating in her ears. She has vivid memories of listening and recording horror stories, soothing wailing widows, consoling terrified children, organising food, clothes, putting up anti-government street plays... "For me and my generation, the incident made a strong impact on our minds. I've always felt an imperative need to talk of this buried story," says the now U.S.-based Shonali Bose, who admits of her perpetual yearning to come back to tell the story of Amu.
Around 1987, Shonali left for the U.S. under tragic circumstances. Her mother died and she couldn't bear to be here bogged down by painful memories: of the Delhi riot and her mother's death. In Los Angeles, she became a part of Indian Progressive Study Group (IPSG), an activist group that took on issues pertaining to South Asia. "If it wasn't for the group, I couldn't have stayed back in the U.S.," says Shonali, who gave up her doctoral programme on the Naxalite movement in Telangana because she hated the politics in the academic circles in the U.S. Instead, she chose to do a six-week course on television and video, even as she was babysitting to fund her course.
Much later, after her marriage to Bedabrata Pain who was part of IPSG and a scientist at NASA, she got admission to the UCLA's School of theatre, film and television. All through the course and after that too, Shonali had just one burning desire: to make her film on the suppressed 1984 episode. This watershed moment in Indian history had formulated and shaped her political thinking.
Shonali wrote the story of Amu and began to approach people to fund her film. Both in India and in the U.S. none seemed interested. She knocked on every possible door, and they promptly shut it on her. "I had no hope. People were giving me all kinds of advice. Take a white actor, said Hollywood; put songs, said Bollywood; make it more overtly political, some others said... I almost gave up, disillusioned... " But she couldn't. The fire within her was burning so fiercely that it wasn't easy to put it out. "All the suffering in those relief camps kept coming back to me." She was haunted by the thousands who had lost homes, wives, husbands and children. So Shonali decided to keep the struggle on. "My children offered what they had saved. The older one had $10 and the younger one had one. But finally it was my husband, who got a cheque for $50,000 for inventing the world's smallest camera, who gave me the money. I embarked on my project."
When Shonali actually set out on this cathartic journey, she found to her surprise that there wasn't a single document, a single book, on the black episode of 1984, whereas there were any number on the assassination of Indira Gandhi. Memories had been deliberately suppressed.
A 43-day hectic schedule and that too in slums, was no mean task with a crew of over 100 people and mostly men. "If I hadn't been a mother of two sons, managing men would have probably been impossible. I was literally mothering and constantly telling them that I simply couldn't do without them." As one watches the moving film (screened by Collective Chaos in Bangalore earlier this week), it strikes as sheer serendipity that two films, Shonali Bose's Amu and Sashi Kumar's Kaya Tharan, with the same theme and from the perspective of the younger generation, got made at about the same time. But what is also common to both these films is that it is seen through the eyes of youngsters who are on a frenetic search for their roots.
Is it a post-globalisation phenomenon that one wants to belong to both worlds, one's own and the other? "I can see it happening all around me in the U.S. The youth have suddenly grown conscious of their identity. In fact, they see it as crucial to their existence. The protagonist, Kaju, was born because I empathise with this generation that is going through a crisis."
Nevertheless, Shonali wouldn't want to limit her film at just that. In fact, her multi-perspective film has three families from three different strata of society, strong feminist overtones with women guided by conviction like Keya (Brinda Karat, who in real life happens to be Shonali's aunt) and Kaju (Konkona Sen) even as it explores the mother-daughter relationship. "I have always wanted to make a film with strong women. I'm tired of seeing the way Indian women are represented in Hindi films." But tell her "aunty Meera", the voiceless bureaucrat's wife, is a stereotype and she says that she's seen too many of them. "They stay in the set-up, but show their disapproval by distancing themselves from their husbands."
"Amu is not just a film by me," says Shonali. "It is a collective-creative energy." However, Amu's birth has set her on a new path and she is determined to make more films. "I'm working on my next film, but I'm not sure it will happen," she says, clearly aware of ground realities. Unlike other serious filmmakers, Shonali doesn't wear the intellectual tag on her sleeve. In fact, she is perfectly okay admitting to the fact that she loves films such as Sholay and Amar, Akbar, Antony and at one point even nurtured dreams of being a teacher. Shonali has done her bit with Amu and has found her peace. But sadly, one can't say that of the riot victims whose wounds have been opened all over again.
`I've no answer'
EXTENDED ACTIVISMBrinda Karat and Konkona Sen in Amu. Brinda Karat, in this debut role, plays an activist.
It is sheer coincidence that there have been so many developments since this interview with Shonali Bose happened last Sunday. When this writer called Shonali to check how she felt about the whole thing, this is what she had to say: "I'm feeling absolutely outraged. Not that this came as a surprise, because there have been such white-washed reports earlier too. But then Nanavati commission has produced a ridiculously soft report after all these years. And this whole business of getting Tytler to resign... the point is not to get him out of the public eye. I think it is a failure of the entire system. We cannot lull ourself to believe that justice will be done some day. I feel it is time to have a different political mechanism at work. But I don't have the answer."
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