(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?