Last night I went to the preview screening of the Toronto opening of Amu the Film. It was a treat because the director, Shonali Bose, and the producer were there for Q & A afterwards. It is actually a very clever political film because it is very strong and honest as a film and the politics are not at all contrived. The opposite is true, in fact: the politics are conveyed through a very human story that is also a very political story.
I won’t get into the plot or spoil it, since it is a suspense film and a detective story. But this is a good place to talk about the politics of this political film.
This is a detective story in which the detectives are a couple of youths. No state-sponsored police piecing together the story here, and that stands to reason, because it is the state that is the criminal. The political events the characters deal with, decades later, are the pogroms against Sikhs that took place in New Delhi in 1984 after the assassination of Indira Gandhi. The film is an indictment of the state, because the pogroms that occurred could not have occurred without the active organization of the state. Politicians provided electoral lists and organized mobs to pull Sikhs out of their homes and kill them. Police stood by or participated in the killing. And decades later there has been no justice. Instead, the killers and organizers walk in impunity, after thousands of people were killed.
Impunity, Bose understands, is a recipe for the repetition of atrocities. And a very similar pattern of state-organized terror and massacre occurred in Mumbai in 1992-1993 after activists from the Hindu right party destroyed the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya. The Mumbai riots altered the demography of the city and set the stage for bombings and brutal gang violence that continues today, and is documented remarkably in Suketu Mehta’s book on Mumbai, ‘Maximum City’.
It happened again in Gujarat in February 2002, just about five years ago now, starting with the burning of a train and culminating in a series of massacres of several thousand. One of the most searing political essays ever written is Arundhati Roy’s article on this Gujarat pogrom. Bose refers to this, again cleverly and subtly, in Amu.
Bose leaves no doubt that these events were not ‘communal riots’ between religious communities, but state-orchestrated terrorism serving very specific political agendas. She has another message as well, and that is a celebration of the courage of the people who resisted, who hid people from the killers, who risked their own lives to save others. This kind of courage was rampant in India in these moments, and Bose’s film celebrates some of those who showed it. Finally, by putting the film out there, Bose is making her own attempt to fight impunity, to prevent us from forgetting who committed these atrocities and who they served. India will continue to be distorted by this kind of violence until the truth, and justice, are served. Bose’s film is a step in that direction, and she has had no favours from the Indian authorities in taking that step. The censors cut parts of her film, and whether people see the film or not will depend on grassroots efforts. Watch it, get others to watch it, discuss it.