Monday, October 20, 2008

Documentary fiction.

Amu: I've been watching the old people lately, thinking about how much trauma they must be carrying around inside them. Yesterday specifically, I was watching the old people at the Diwali celebration on Trafalgar Square, wishing I could overhear their thoughts just for a moment. If you're eighty years old, and you were born in the Panjab, you probably directly experienced Partition. Maybe you can remember it clearly, or maybe you've suppressed it, I don't know. You definitely remember the Emergency. If your family moved to Delhi after Partition, you're carrying around memories from the 1984 massacre of the Sikhs. Or if your family moved to Mumbai, you have the 1992-1993 riots in the back of your mind. Even if your family had already emigrated to the UK--thus explaining your presence at the Trafalgar Diwali celebration--you've probably got some family members who were directly affected, even if they weren't living in the metropolitan areas. And of course, if you're living in London, you probably aren't a stranger to anti-immigrant violence that in all likelihood was tuned to the pitch of "anti-Pakistani."

All of this is to say that there's a lot of violence to explore in the history of India and Pakistan, just as there's a lot of non-violence to explore in the history of those two nations. So, I understand the intentions behind a film like Amu, particularly when the Indian government does such a good job at denying that such events have happened, and that certain sections of the government in fact enabled them to happen. And it wasn't a bad film, it just wasn't a great film. I felt as if the screenwrite and the director couldn't decide whether they wanted to make a documentary, or a work of fiction, so they flopped back and forth between the two genres. That made for some really stilted dialogue. And the stilted dialogue reminded me that, oh, this is following a script, this isn't real, thoughts that kept me from being swept away into the story. I love Konkona Sen Sharma, but her American accent slipped one too many times. And I'm sorry, but no person of color who grew up in L.A. and is old enough to remember the 1992 uprising is ever going to be puzzled about riots and massacres. Maybe a white teenager might ask earnest (and stupid) questions about the police role in violence, but not someone who is supposed to have the background of Kaju.

This sounds like a negative review, but it's not. It's a worthwhile film, obviously. I think it wasn't meant for people who study the history of India for a career, but for those who have only heard whispers in the background of their lives about earlier troubles. It's a nice entry point into that history, and because it was done as a popular film, perhaps more people will hear about these important events. It's a film the creators can be proud of, and I think I would recommend it to the right people--not to a completely naive audience, but one that knows something about India, but might not have been able to figure out how to learn about this bit of the past.


Beth said...

Those were my problems with it, too. The idea that Kaju could be so dense about communal violence given her own American history was bizarre. I do think the movie was very well-intentioned, and I give it some points for that.

If you read the filmmaker's publicity material from the webside, you will learn that when this was screened in India the censor board made her omit bits of dialogue that talked about the government's role in the massacre. Instead of cutting those scenes, she chose just to mute the sound during those particular lines. And when the sound went off in the theaters, the audiences immediately knew what had happened. How effective!

Si said...

Yeah, I read about the censorship. I'm always torn--do good intentions trump bad screenwriting?