Often times, one gets tired of eagerly waiting for big-budget flicks that fail to deliver what their excessive promotion promises. For this reason, it’s an extremely rare and wonderful experience when you come across a film that you don’t know much about only to find out that you are in store for a masterpiece.
Such was the case recently when I happened to come across a DVD of Shonali Bose’s first feature film, Amu. Starring Konkona Sen Sharma, the film tells a daring tale of a forgotten part of Indian history–the riots of 1984 that left several Sikhs massacred. The film gained great exposure after being invited to countless film festivals including the Toronto International Film festival and the Berlin International Film Festival. For Shonali, it was a huge struggle to get the film released and even when she managed to get the finances, Amu faced several hurdles at the Indian Censor Board. Recently, Aamir Khan launched the DVD of the film after the Censor Board deemed the film unfit for Indian TV broadcast.
In an exclusive to BollySpice.com, we speak to this promising director about the difficult yet rewarding journey behind the making of a powerful film like Amu.
To begin with, what made you decide to make your first film on such a daring subject?
Simply because no one had made one yet, and it is a watershed event in our country. We (my husband and I – and he was extremely instrumental in the decision) felt that a narrative film was necessary to reach people who would otherwise not know or not be interested.
We have been actively organizing as activists on this and other issues right from ’84 and we knew the limitations of those avenues. We felt a feature film would transcend all these barriers and make ’84 known to everyone in India and the world.
I’m sure most would agree that you couldn’t have cast anyone better than Konkona Sen Sharma to play the lead. What was the casting process like?
To begin with we felt that it was very important to cast an Indian American actor for the role of Kaju – as she was an Indian American girl who had lived [in America] all her life here. Since this was to be an international film, we felt that an Indian actor would not be able to fool American audiences and that the walk or other small nuances would give her away and spoil the authenticity. So in fact, we auditioned 65 girls in new york and la in the search for Kaju. While there were many good actors, none really blew us away.
Meanwhile at the same time, this was around the summer of 2002, I had gone to meet Aparna Sen to ask her to play the role of the mother – Keya Roy. She said she was busy directing and then asked me who was playing the girl. I said I was auditioning girls abroad, and she said that her daughter Konkona would be very good. She had just pulled off Mrs. Iyer brilliantly (the film hadn’t been released yet). In my head I thought “oh no this is so embarrassing – she’s pushing her daughter on me!” Then, that December I was in India again and watched Mr. and Mrs. Iyer in Delhi’s PVR theater in Saket and called Aparna right from the parking lot and asked her to give Konkona the script.
Konkona loved the script and I asked her to come to Delhi to audition for it. As soon as I met her in person I knew she was Kaju.
We talked about her coming to the U.S. and staying with us to learn the American accent and stuff like that. It still took us a few weeks to be absolutely sure. She was dying to do the part, and I called her to congratulate her on receiving the national award for Mr. and Mrs. Iyer and then gave her the good news. She was thrilled. It was really a great decision and American audiences – including white Americans – have found her completely convincing as an American. That is the brilliance of Konkona’s acting
Did you ever expect Amu to go on to win so much praise at International film festivals like Toronto?
No. Well, it’s a daydream and fantasy that all filmmakers have! We write our Oscar speech and definitely dream about being feted at festivals!! I did start off thinking it would do well, as brilliant filmmaker colleagues and faculty at UCLA loved it so much. But then Sundance rejected it. This was the first and only film festival I applied to, and I did that as soon as the film finished – Sept. 2004 – for the Sundance festival of January 2005. In fact, I remember that when I was filling in the application I was reasonably confident it would get in. So it was extremely crushing when it was rejected. I was in India at the time. Fortunately, I was so busy preparing for the theatrical release, which was to start January 7, 2005, that I didn’t cry too much!
Then, at various press and other promo screenings in December in Bombay, the Cannes Film Festival, Berlin Film Festival and Rotterdam Film Festival (another top festival), [everyone] saw it, loved it and fought over it! We were in the unique position of choosing who we would say yes to, and we said yes to Berlin. Then at Berlin, the Toronto Film Festival selected it, and because of these two it was invited to all the other sixty odd festivals the film went to.
Berlin was breathtaking. Both my husband and I were there. We were extremely nervous as it was the first time the film would be seen by a foreign audience. It was in fact a German subtitled print and the theater seated 1000 people. It was packed. I remember the pin drop silence that there was [until] the end of the film. I could hear my heart hammering, and then we got a standing ovation. I don’t think even in my oldest fantasies that I used to dream up when I was desperately trying to raise money [that I] would get such an electrifying response, and that just got repeated in all festivals after that.
Making Amu was a hectic yet rewarding process for you. In addition to being a mother (which is quite a task itself!), you not only had to write the film but look for finances. Can you tell us about the experience of getting funding for such a film?
Nothing short of a nightmare! We thought it would be really easy to raise it from Sikh businessmen abroad, but this was not the case. It was a huge struggle and many, many closed doors before we found it. Even then it was touch and go and really only came through because we put in our own savings. My husband is one of the inventors of the world’s smallest camera, and he recieved a patent for that and that was the seed money. We found one very kind Sikh couple – Mr. and Mrs. Malik – who matched that, and then that helped us to find the rest of the money from other private investors.
But before we got to this point we had huge disappointments. For example, one production company in Bombay did a real dhoka with us and in the last minute, as we were casting, wrote an email and said that they would not be doing it. They said it was too controversial for them, and they wanted to make an Amitabh Bachchan film first and would make Amu in three years! In fact, that very night my children who I was crying to at bedtime gave me their pocket money and tooth fairy money. My youngest was only 4 at the time. That very night my husband got the royalty check in the mail.
Can you tell us about your first day of shooting? How was the experience for you?
Because I had both my children in film school, I never had an opportunity to work on a professional set when I graduated. They were just babies and it was enough to just take care of them! So on the first day of the shoot when i walked onto set and saw all these huge trucks and equipment and almost a hundred person crew I was awed, and I couldn’t believe it was all for my film. I realised that I had the least experience of anyone on that set. I was scared and also extremely excited and inspired. The first day went very well. In the beginning it was a challenge to prove to the crew that I knew exactly what I was doing. Being a woman, as well as an a first time director, that was natural. But I had a great technical crew and they understood very soon that I too fully understood my craft.
You have had to deal excessively with the Indian Censor Board for the film. When they proposed cutting out parts of Amu, how did this make you feel after having worked so hard to make the film in the first place?
Absolutely ENRAGED. I wanted to explode and I had to just politely argue with them. It is preposterous that our films should be censored. The government has no right to do this. Audiences are mature enough. All that they can advise really is what rating a film should get.
It was said that Anupam Kher was one person who supported your film at the Censor Board and lost his job for it. Is this what happened?
Definitely the film was cleared because he was the head of the censor board and liked and supported the film. However, he could have taken one step further and got the film cleared with a “U” certificate. This is what insiders have told me about the power of the censor board chief. I was grateful though that at least it got cleared and that was definitely thanks to him.
With regard to losing his job, I was watching NDTV and Rajdeep Sardesai was interviewing Anupam. He said on air that he had been fired for clearing a film on the ’84 riots. Actually, I think the changeover would have taken place anyway as government had changed from BJP to congress, and the censor board is always changed at this time (which is ridiculous)!
What do you have to say about the fact that the censor board also won’t allow the film to be shown on television unless you cut several vital scenes?
Beyond outrageous! There was a rule passed that “A” films cannot be shown on TV, and Anupam’s board had given Amu an “A”. In fact, him not giving us a “U” at the time really came back to bite us. By the way, the “A” was given because the board said “Young people should not watch a film on an issue that was better buried and forgotten” and not because there were sex scenes or nudity or bad language! Ironically, the film won the Teenage Choice Award in Italy, was selected by the AFI Film Festival as specially appropriate for high schoolers and was hailed by students and teachers alike – class 8 upwards in many schools in Delhi where we did private screenings. In fact, this is a film for young people which made the “A” cert and its subsequent ban from TV particularly pernicious.
So we resubmitted the film to the new censor board to get a “U”, and this was when they wanted 10 minutes of vital scenes, all to do with ’84, to be removed which we refuse to do.
You received immense support from the Indian film fraternity with several personalities including Aamir Khan, Vivek Oberoi and others having openly praised your film. How much do you think this support has helped Amu?
Well, Aamir just very kindly released the DVD for us, and that was a huge help. We had the entire press there at the event which we never would have had without him there. It didn’t help the theatrical release as I only put this together after it’s run in India. I think more than festivals this is what blew me away. The amazing response from the entire Hindi film industry. Amu certainly opened the doors for my next film with all levels of cast and crew.
It has been three years since the film released. Do you feel you have achieved your goal?
Yes. More than expected. Our goal was that it should be widely seen, discussed and the horror of ’84 experienced and felt by people who had no clue. We achieved that not only in India but abroad as well. There were unexpected fallouts as well. For instance in Canada, during the theatrical release there, many young people [including] Sikh Canadians came up to us and said that for the first time they felt connected with India and not alienated from it because they understood that it was not ordinary Hindus who attacked their families but the government. It is awful to live with hatred and communal poison, and that was cleared up by Amu for them.
Can you give us your interpretation of the final scene where we see a train slowly moving away? What kind of significance did you intend this scene to have?
I wanted that the audience have the space and time to reflect on everything they just saw and experienced. It’s a 4 minute long shot where very little is happening, and it is conducive to reflection. Symbolically, the train for me was about progress and moving forward. The tracks were intertwined just as the lives of the young people were intertwined; communities and histories are intertwined The red kite was the symbol of hope. The two young people get up from the spot where the riots had happened. They both had uncovered a huge history, and they move on together into the future. Having understood and accepted the past, they could now move freely into the future, and you see there two small figures walk down the railway line even after the train leaves.
What I love is that [after] every screening some member of the audience has had their own interpretation of this shot, and each one has been great. That’s the beauty of an open ending like this and why I wanted it. It allows the audience to engage and construct their own meaning instead of tying everything neatly in a bow and spoon feeding it to them. As a result, you leave the hall thinking, and that’s all one can hope for as a filmmaker – that you have forced your audience to think and reflect.
What was the most difficult scene to shoot?
The riot scene. The little girl was terrified by the screams and the fire, and we had to completely abort the whole day’s shoot, in spite of having burnt the auto rickshaw. We had to go back to shoot, and at the same time we had received a veiled threat from Jagdish Tytler, whose constituency we were shooting in, that we better stop making this film as a film on ’84 could not be made. We went back to shoot prepared to fight, and I arranged for the father of the child to dress as a rioter so that it encouraged her to run into the screaming mob!
What’s the most touching and memorable thing someone has said to you about Amu?
So so many people (including your comments), but the one which made me weep was at a screening for Sikhs in Toronto. [There was] an old woman sitting next to me in the dark theater and during the end credits I asked her how she liked it as I had made it. I was worried – as it was in english – but she held me wordlessly to her bosom and wept and wept and then said I had given back dignity, hope and courage to the Sikh community and faith. She had lost her brother in the riots. The way she was crying reminded me of countless widows I had comforted in the relief camp, and I started crying too.
Are there any filmmakers you feel inspired by?
Instead of filmmakers, I’d like to mention some of the top films [that] have inspired me. Pather Panchali (Satyajit Ray), The Wind That Shook the Barley (Ken Loach), Reds (Warren Beatty), Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo), Hour of the Furnaces (Fernando Solanas), Great Gictator (Charlie Chaplin), Amarcord (Federico Fellini), Meghe Dhaka Tara (Hrithik Ghatak), and Woman Under the Influence (John Cassavetes).
What do you think of Indian cinema today?
Jiving! It’s very exciting as there are so many new filmmakers, actors, producers. It feels that anything is possible. One can make really good cinema and actually get funding for it! And audiences are hungry for change too. In fact, it was a breeze to get funding for my next film.
My final question is one I have been dying to ask you ever since I saw Amu. When can we expect your next film and can you give us any more information about it?
Our next film is Chittagong. My husband Bedabrata Pain and I are co-directing it. We intend to start shooting in March 2009. We are in the process of casting right now. The film should be out by the end 2009 or early 2010! It’s about a powerful and inspiring uprising that took place against the British in 1930.
Ever since I saw Amu I’ve wanted to speak to Shonali about the film because it’s most certainly a film to be digested and discussed. This interview gave me immense insight into the preparation, filming and aftermath of Amu and I’m truly glad that Shonali agreed to speak with our site. If you haven’t seen the film, we urge you to get your hands on a copy of the DVD of Amu as soon as possible and support an extremely worthy film.