Friday, January 25, 2008

Amu

(Warning: there are some badly written sentences in here, but this movie was so hard to write about that after two hours I had to let go and press publish.)

As with Gandhi, My Father last week, I feel really bad saying anything unflattering about Amu. Its ultimate aims (as I interpret the film, these are to get viewers to question what they do and don't know about the 1984 Delhi riots - and why - and to turn that approach inward as well) are noble, the big and small parts of the story are tragic, and the acting is great (my favorites were Konkana Sen Sharma [no surprise], Brinda Karat, Yashpal Sharma, and Loveleen Mishra). There's an great, unnerving scene early on that nutshells the whole movie for me. While walking across some train tracks with new Delhi friends, Kaju (Konkana Sen Sharma) has a vision of a train hurtling by, and in between the cars she sees a woman on the other side of the train. (We learn more about her and the train yard later.)

I'd seen Amu a few months ago and not been able to process what I wanted to say about it, but I just watched it again, and this scene just reached up and smacked me in the face. I loved the imagery of the trains and their tracks. Trains are fast, powerful, rattling, lethal...all the things that the historical events were - and all the things that Kaju's emerging knowledge and discoveries are too. Yet trains also link us, bring us closer together, their tracks going forward but touching backwards too. Ultimately we hope that's what her new knowledge will do for her, to bring together her sense of self - and that the movie will do, too. Shake us up and bring us together.

But sometimes I felt like I was being read to out of a sixth grader's history textbook. Ignorance and stupidity are different, and it's a fine line between not having information and not having the ability to understand it. Both main character Kaju and the audience occasionally got treated as though we were the latter in each pair. Only occasionally, but that was too much for me. The example that struck me most is at a party at Khabir's home, when Kaju is asking various older-generation adults about the riots and says "I just have a simple question: why couldn't the police stop the riots for three days?" For a girl who grew up in Los Angeles and has already referenced its darker sides, it would be incredibly naive to think such a question is simple.

Additionally, the notion of Kaju's mom not being truthful with her about her history, at least at the level of a very basic sketch, seems belabored. I wish another route had been taken into the questions about the riots. Why not just have Kaju go to India in search of her roots already knowing the key bits of information? She could have done her documentary interviewing survivors and witnesses, unearthing the smaller stories that instead served as unbelievably serendipitous threads of research.

It's very hard to get my head around how educated 20somethings could be ignorant of such an important chunk of recent history - and, worse, that various power holders have been able to create and maintain this ignorance.* But the comments I've read on articles about this movie say that indeed some people are ignorant and that those who aren't hold that, in addition to engineering the riots in the first place, the government and police (and no doubt others) have perpetuated the crimes and the... anti-knowledge, let's call it. So troubling, horrifying. Also shocking is the treatment the film received from the censor board in India, which you can read in director/writer Shonali Bose's press materials. As Bose says, the official refusal to let characters implicate the government speaks volumes about the history in question.

Amu is interesting, distressing, and effective, even if it's a little clunky in parts. I mean it no disrespect, especially because it seems to be creating good conversation and getting people to ask questions and to think. That's what the well-lived life is all about, in my opinion.

You can read Filmiholic (also an interview with the director) and Ultrabrown for some more good discussions.

Watch Amu at Jaman.com


* On my travels around India I got to meet with many history teachers and some national-level curriculum staff, and I wish I had asked them about how schools treat this topic. Do they cover it at all?

5 comments:

Shweta Mehrotra Gahlawat said...

Nope- Indian history goody stop somewhere around the 70s- somewhere around the Indo-China and Indo-Pak wars, and thats it. I do not beleive the 80s are covered. (maybe they think its too recent??? And also, perhaps it helps hide the parts we are a bit afraid of showing...)

That said- thanks for linking my blog!

bollywoodfoodclub said...

Just saw the movie. One more reason why I love Konkona Sen Sharma! She was fantastic as a sheltered American, from her accent to her American-abroad confidence.

I'm not as disappointed as you about the 20-somethings not knowing history. If Kaju grew up in LA, she definitely would not have learned about it in her world history class. And her adopted mother would not have talked about it at all. As for Khabir...well, it's not exactly the kind of thing that's taught in schools, is it?

The scene at the party where she is questioning older adults is pretty authentic (cringe-worthy of course). I could totally imagine myself as a naive college student (or recently graduated) and asking the very same lame question. And worse, not understanding the answers given to me. It was asked in such an American way, too: "I just have a simple question." So forthright! It's the confidence of college and late-night discussions about life.

Seriously, though, it is very sobering to think that such an atrocious and recent event could be suppressed so well. The press materials from Shonali Bose are a good read.

Thanks for hipping me to the movie. I really enjoyed it!

yves said...

Hi Beth,
Hmm, yes, I feel a little like you about the rather didactic tone of some parts of the movie, but well, considering it has an unabashedly pedagogical stance (which you are quite aware of too), I had not thought it such a downside.
Here's my take:
http://www.letstalkaboutbollywood.com/article-13830789.html
Bye for now!
yves

Maruka said...

Hi Beth,

I saw this movie and loved it! I didn't have a problem with the question and the manner in which Kaju asked it. I found it to be authentic and what a young, idealistic, carefree, american would ask. I too was annoyed by Kaju's adoptive mom's resistance to provide the details of her adoption. However, given the circumstances Kaju's birth mom did not want her to know. I think that truth was too much for any person (young or old) to handle. I think her adoptive mom never would have told her the truth, but for the fact Kaju thought her father was the cab driver.

The only criticism I have with the movie was the actor who played Kabir. He did not seem very convincing, but he didn't really matter. Konkona carried this movie and she was enough. Amu is another one of her great performances.

Beth said...

Maruka - That's a good point about the truth being a huge thing to take on in this case. Usually I think telling people the truth is easier than creating and maintaining lies, but maybe not here.

Konkana was indeed awesome! The actor who played Kabir struck me as a little bit lethargic, but maybe he was supposed to be like that, the bored, pampered young man who needs something to shock him out of his comfort level? Which he gets, but then his demeanor doesn't seem to change as much as the information he's uncovering would suggest....