Indian-born director Shonali Bose‘s Berlin and Toronto ’05 feature “Amu” is the story of Kaju, a twenty-one-year-old Indian American woman who returns to India to visit her family and discover the place where she was born. The film takes a dark turn as Kaju stumbles against secrets and lies from her past. A horrifying genocide that took place twenty years ago turns out to hold the key to her mysterious origins. The film received the FIPRESCI prize at the 2005 Bombay International Film Festival as well as two national awards of India for best English-language film and best director. The film opened May 25 at New York’s Cinema Village and will open in Edion, NJ, Los Angeles, and Irvine, CA on June 15.
Please introduce yourself…
I was born in Calcutta, India and did my undergraduate in History Honours in Delhi. I left India for the first time ever at the age of 21–being the first one in my family to come for graduate school to America. I was given a scholarship by Columbia University to do a Ph.D in Political Science. As soon as I landed in Manhattan I felt it was home. It is very much like Calcutta and Bombay where I grew up. Conversely it was very difficult to adapt to Los Angeles where I now live.
What were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker, did you go to film school?
I was an actor from childhood and was writing directing and starring in school and college productions and then some professional theater while in India. I loved watching films but had no interest in either acting in films or directing them. The turning point came at Columbia University.
Firstly as a stage actor, I found I had extremely limited choices and mostly dreadfully stereotypical roles. Secondly, I found that I did not have the passion for Political Science that I had for history. The approach to studying in the Third World was extremely conservative. Had I stayed in India I might have remained in academics. Thirdly, I took a class with Richard Pena (head of the Film Society of Lincoln Center)in the Film Department where we watched and analysed the Third Cinema–films from Africa, Latin America, Asia–these films inspired me and spoke to me deeply. I finished my Masters and worked at Manhattan Cable TV directing small videos on current issues and live TV shows. I absolutely loved it and decided to apply to Film School. I was lucky to get a scholarship to UCLA Film School to do my MFA in directing. Within one month of starting film school, I realized that I had found my calling.
How did the idea for your film come about?
My film is based on true stories that shook my world and me when I was in first year of college at the age of 19. For three days in the capital city of India where I was studying, a genocide was carried out by the Indian State–by politicians, police with the complicity of the administration and covered up later for over two decades by the judiciary. Men and boys of one particular community were hunted down by government led mobs and burnt alive after dousing their bodies in kerosene. I worked in the relief camps–set up by ordinary citizens–for many months and felt overwhelmed in trying to deal with the grief of the widows–the mothers, wives many of whom were raped. Their wails still ring in my ears.
Aside from working in the camps I co-wrote and directed a street play on the genocide which we performed all over the city, including market places, schools, colleges and the affected areas. Twenty years later, when I graduated from film school in a far away country–and was deciding what my first film should be about–it struck me that no one had made a film on this shocking incident which was still so alive as justice had still been denied to the victims.
As I was writing the script another such horrific genocide was organized in India, in 2002, against another community by another government. I ended the film with this event as the cycle of violence has continued in the present and will not stop until an example is made of the perpetrators.
Once I decided on the core story, which was a true one, I built around it with other themes which interested me. For instance I made one of the protagonists a girl who was American as she had lived in LA since the age of three. I was moved by the poignancy of the situation of second generation youth (of whatever national origin) who do face a crisis of belonging caught between two worlds and cultures.
Another core stem of the film is a close mother-daughter relationship which becomes turbulent because of secrets and lies. I was extremely close to my mother and lost her tragically soon after the ’84 carnage. In fact, this was the reason that I decided to leave India and come to America for graduate school.
I had never written a feature script before and felt that I would be most honest and true if I went as deep within myself as possible for the characters, the situations, the emotions. My history professor commented to the videographer who interviewed her for the “Making of Amu” that she was not surprised that not only was my first film on the 1984 carnage, but also about a mother-daughter relationship set in that context. When I was in college, I did not even dream I would become a film maker–but my film “Amu” was born at that time and for twenty years has been running in my veins.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making and securing distribution for the movie?
The biggest challenge has been raising financing for the film. No one wanted to touch it because of the theme. There were many false leads and it took three years to write the script and raise money for it. The seed money for the film came from my husband, a scientist at NASA who invented the technology that produced the world’s smallest camera–and current cellphone cameras.
In India the theatrical release of the film was held up by the official censor board, which asked me to remove five lines of dialogue all of which indicted the government. Instead of replacing those dialogues with acceptable lines I allowed the characters to go silent. This had a powerful impact in Indian theaters as a ripple would go through the audience, “censor censor…”
The censor board also gave it [the equivalent of] an NC 17 rating, stating as a reason that “why should young people know a history that is better buried and forgotten.” As a result of this rating, the film is banned from being shown on Indian television–even on private channels.
But after four months of holding the film up with these cuts etc. it was released in India in early 2005. It has taken an additional two years from that time to release the film in North America.
What are some of your all-time favorite films, and what are some of your recent favorite films?
“The Courage of the People,” “Blood of the Condor” – Jorge Sanjines
“Battle of Chile” – Patricio Guzman
“Memories of Underdevelopment” – Tomas Guiterrez Alea
“Amarcord,” “8 1/2” – Fellini
“A woman under the influence” – Cassavetes
“The Great Dictator” – Chaplin
“Battle of Algiers” – Pontecorvo
“The Apu Trilogy,” “The Big City” – Satyajit Ray
“The Milagro Beanfield War” – Redford
Recent: “The Namesake,” “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Babel,” “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Brokeback Mountain,” “Maria full of Grace,” “Far from Heaven,” “Motorcycle Diaries”
Also love “Bollywood” films. Recent favourites: “Omkara,” “Bunty aur Bublee”
What are your interests outside of film?
Activism. Feel passionately about injustice, exploitation. Issues of imperialism, war, attacks on immigrants, cruelty to children, discrimination on basis of race, gender, sexuality, class…
How do you define success as a filmmaker, and what are your personal goals as a filmmaker?
To move an audience, to make it think across all languages and cultures. That has been the biggest reward for “Amu”–the audience responses all over India, and in so many different countries (at festivals). The success is not the box office (dependent on marketing and not quality of film) nor which festivals or awards, but the honest reaction of audiences.
My personal goals as a filmmaker is to strive to make more “Amus”–films that I believe in, stories that are unknown and need to be told without compromise, without being dictated to by financiers or distributors. To have full artistic integrity and control as I did in “Amu,” and to be able to get this without the huge sacrifice and painful process of “Amu.” That’s the dream… to make the films one wants and always get backing both for it to be made and for it to be released in theaters. As a filmmaker, that is the ultimate destination for me… to be in wide release everywhere.