Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 11, 2007


Filed under: Film,india — louisproyect @ 6:41 pm

Last night I attended a press screening for “Amu,” Indian-American director Shonali Bose’s deeply affecting film about the slaughter of Sikhs in 1984. Scheduled for release on May 25th in New York and on June 15th in Los Angeles, it tells the story of Kaju (Konkona Sensharma), a young UCLA graduate, who while visiting relatives in Delhi learns that she is the sole survivor of a Sikh family that died in the riots that followed the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards.

Over the course of three days, at least 5000 Sikhs were slaughtered in an act of “retribution” that is reminiscent of Rwanda or Darfur. The film’s executive producer is Bose’s husband Bedabrata Pain, an acclaimed NASA scientist who has campaigned around the issue of justice for the Sikhs for a number of years. In some ways, the film suggests the 1985 “The Official Story,” an Argentine film about an adopted girl who learns that her true parents were victims of the “dirty war.”

“Amu” begins on a light, even comic note as Kaju hangs out with family and friends who are bemused by her efforts to discover the “real India” in a fashion that suggests E.M. Forster’s “Passage to India”. Kabir (Ankur Khanna), a student about her age, keeps teasing her about her infatuation with Delhi slum life, an indication that she is romanticizing poverty. That does not prevent him from serving as her constant guide, since it soon becomes very obvious that he is attracted to her despite what he perceives as misbegotten Orientalist attitudes. For his part, Kabir is the quintessential upwardly mobile Indian youth who aspires to get an MBA and work in his father’s bank.

While the two are walking along the railway tracks in a Delhi slum that was a center of Sikh life in 1984, Kaju is stopped cold by a déjà vu experience. Not only has she been there, something terrible has happened there and it involved her.

Part of her mission in Delhi is to learn a little bit more about her past. She was told that her parents were from a nearby village that suffered through a malaria outbreak when she was a baby. After her parents died, she was put up for adoption. At a lavish luncheon at Kabir’s opulent home, she learns from his father that no such outbreak ever occurred. The news shocks her. Has somebody been lying to her?

Kaju demands the truth from her mother

A few days later, she decides to rifle through her dead grandfather’s trunk since she understands that her adoption papers are there. She discovers a document that establisher her birth in Delhi, not the nearby village. Furthermore, the names of her original parents have been smudged out. This only makes her more determined to discover the truth about her origins.

Her quest to discover the truth begins to unnerve her adoptive mother, who has joined her from Los Angeles. She is especially troubled by Kaju’s insistence on tracking down leads in a Delhi slum that abuts the railway station where she had the chilling déjà vu experience. She is afraid for her safety as well as worried that Kaju might discover the truth, namely that she was the sole survivor of the 1984 riots. In the climax of the film, mother and daughter sit in a car in a pouring rain while the entire bloody episode is recreated in a flashback. It is among the most emotionally draining moments in film that I have experienced this year.

I cannot recommend “Amu” highly enough. Not only is it an excellent introduction to the terrible events of 1984, it is first-class film-making. As a premiere feature film, “Amu” demonstrates enormous story-telling (Bose wrote the script as well) and directorial skills. Shonali Bose was a 19 year old student in New Delhi when Indira Gandhi was assassinated. She eventually came to the U.S. and completed a PhD in political science at Columbia University. As should be obvious from this, she brings a superior intelligence to the movie-making discipline.

Against the advice of “movie people” who urged something more marketable like a “Bollywood” musical or romance, she decided to tackle the Sikh massacres. Indian producers warned her that if such a film were ever made, the theaters would be burned down. After she finally persuaded a group of producers that it was a worthwhile project, they backed down at the last minute. When her husband received a huge royalty check from NASA for inventing the world’s smallest camera shortly afterwards, he informed her that funding would now finally be available even though it was only a tenth of what would eventually be required.

In the director’s statement in the press notes, Bose explains what motivated her to make “Amu”:

Such a history cannot be buried and forgotten. Young people cannot make their future or understand their present without knowing the past. Today, twenty-two years after an elected government massacred its own people in full view of the world, no one has been punished. And as a result, the cycle of violence has continued against other communities. What kind of political system is this in which those in power can get away with such crimes again and again? This is the question Amu leaves the young protagonists with as they walk down a railway track into the future. This is why I made Amu. So that people all over the world will ask the question.

Funding for the film eventually came from all sorts of sources, including a Toronto radio-thon where Sikh taxi drivers called in pledges of $50 and $100. There is widespread knowledge in the Sikh community about the film. Last night when I entered my lobby, I spotted a Sikh resident in my building who I had seen before. He owns a nearby car service, a business that the Sikhs specialize in. I told him about how great the film was and to look for it when it opened this month. He shook my hand and said, “Thank you, my brother.”

The Sikh victims of the 1984 atrocities have never received justice. The last governmental commission did little except make vague references to official participation and approval in the pogroms. A couple of politicians and cops were called culpable but the entire establishment went scot-free. With such a refusal to accept guilt, it is not surprising that the Indian government has made every effort to block the production and distribution of “Amu”. When Anupam Kher–a well-known Bollywood actor and head of the Indian Censor Board–approved the film, he was immediately fired.

Although it was obviously impossible to provide documentary-type historical background in a film such as this, it would certainly move some to find out more about the Sikh question. Beyond their obvious appearance (beard, turban and ceremonial dagger), their beliefs and history are probably something of a mystery to the average Westerner, myself included. Of more interest, however, is what socio-economic factors could have led to the violence dramatized in the film. As is so often the case with even the best such movies that dramatize ethnic cleansing or genocide, the material conditions that led to such inhumanity goes by the wayside.

For very useful historical background on the Sikhs, I would recommend a Znet article that was prompted by the release of “Amu”. The authors state:

Despite the fact that the conventional political history of India emphasized its communal and factional nature, the relationship between the Sikh and Hindu communities remains largely unattended. Often communalism in Indian history is referred as the tension between Hindu and Muslim communities alone. Inevitably, this convention ignored the complex relationships between different communities in India, while also obscuring the similarities between religious discord and conflict along other social divides. The silencing of 1984 follows this tradition. Amu opens up avenues to reexamine this history and suggests that the 1984 carnage was not merely a communal event. Though the Punjab crisis has its roots before India’s partition in 1947, this event added to the conditions that would eventually lead to the events of 1984. As a consequence of partition, Sikhs who were before scattered across what is now Pakistani and Indian Punjab were unwillingly forced to migrate into the eastern third of historic Punjab. During the years that followed, the government failed to meet the demands of Punjab to have more autonomous control over its resources.This is related to problems in how the Indian Constitution organizes the relationship between individual provinces and the central government through federalism. On November 1 1966, as a result of the Punjabi Subah movement, a separate state for Punjabi speaking people was created.

This movement was led by the Akali Dal, a regional Punjabi political party.Due to growing unease around State control of Punjabi resources, and desires for greater Sikh visibility within the context of growing Hindu influence over Indian political culture, the non-violent militant Akali Dal movement formulated the 1973 Anandpur Sahib Resolution that demanded such things as greater allocation of water for irrigation, recognition of Amritsar as a holy city, release of political prisoners who were thought to be terrorists, and generally more provincial control of resources.

In January 1980, national parliamentary elections brought Indira Gandhi back into power. In February 1980, President’s Rule was declared by Gandhi in Punjab and eight other states, which dissolved these states’ legislatures and forced new elections.This led to increased politicization of segments of Punjabi society and increased interest in re-emphasizing the demands made by the Akali Dal in the 1970’s. In 1981, the Akali Dal submitted a list of 45 grievances and demands to the Indian government. Indira Gandhi’s Congress party was threatened by the popularity of the Akali Dal and initiated strategic alliances with the more radical and militant Sikh leader Jarnail Singh Bindhranwale.This relationship fell apart when Bindranwale’s faction became increasingly militant in their demands.The Bhindranwale supporters became known for their demands for a Khalistan, a separate Sikh state.

On June 5th, 1984, the Indian army began an extensive military invasion in Punjab centred around the Golden Temple.The stated rationale for this action was an attempt to specifically capture Bhindranwale and his supporters who were residing inside at that time. Simultaneous actions were taken throughout Punjab, including the military occupation of various gurdwaras, extensive curfews and a total censorship of the press. Due to this censorship, casualties are difficult to estimate thoughnumbers range from one thousand to eight thousand deaths in the Golden Temple complex alone. This operation was not an isolated event but continued to impact daily life for Punjabis afterwards through daily dawn-to-dusk curfews, censorship and dissolution of Punjabi state legislative authority.On October 31st, 1984, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two Sikh bodyguards.

Violence, that was clearly supported and facilitated by state officials’ action and inaction, broke out in Delhi immediately thereafter. The media decontextualized Gandhi’s assassination, constructing it as a communal event -a Hindu prime minister being brutally murdered by Sikh fanatics. Though its irresponsible actions influenced the violence, the media did not orchestrate the carnage. National and local government administrators and elected officials were either directly involved or implicated in the violence. For example, Congress administrators recruited hoodlums from villages outside of Delhi to carry out systematic looting, killing and raping of Sikh residents.Congress officials and police were seen supervising the atrocities, providing kerosene to the perpetrators and identifying Sikh homes and shops. For three days, the government did nothing to stop the bloodbath. Estimates of the killings range from three thousand to more than twenty thousand.

Amu website (includes scheduling info for cities other than NY and LA)


  1. I am a survivor of Delhi 84. Of 11 of us in one Sikh home, all but three were murdered.

    I have had 22 2/3 years to think about it, and I still don’t know what would constitute ‘justice.’ Nothing could, of course, compensate for the deaths of my husband, three children, two brothers and the others. But the heart and the intellect alike cry out for something to be done. I guess the execution of Mr. Tytler – after a fair trial, of course – would be a start.

    I have received emails from my blog from young Indians who only were only vaguely aware that’ some sardars were killed.’ My God!! Perhaps this film will help. Who knows.

    Mr. Proyect, if this subject really is of interest, please visit our blog, written by two of us survivors. Our stories are in there. Ours is not the only or best source of information; we make no claims of objectivity and some of our religious sensibilities will, no doubt, offend your Marxist sensibilities, lol.


    Mai, Suni and Vini (Dharma Kaur Khalsa)

    Comment by Mai — May 11, 2007 @ 8:05 pm

  2. […] A Review Published by bhupinder May 11th, 2007 in Human Rights, Justice and Cinema. Louis Proyect reviews Amu, the fim made on the anti- Sikh pogrom of […]

    Pingback by Amu: A Review at Blogbharti — May 11, 2007 @ 11:11 pm

  3. […] Louis Proyect for another post on the film and the anit-Sikh […]

    Pingback by Shashwati’s Blog » Blog Archive » Amu — May 26, 2007 @ 3:03 pm

  4. […] Louis Proyect for another post on the film and the anti-Sikh […]

    Pingback by Shashwati’s Blog » Blog Archive » Amu — May 26, 2007 @ 3:04 pm

  5. I was among the first few people in the Sikh community to read the screenplay, and the first scene alone was enough to satisy me that this was superior and intuitive craftsmanship. I have not only encouraged Shonali, but also urged her not to change a single scene at anyone’s bidding, and to follow the writer’s instinct.
    I too was in India when the riots took place, although in a small town near Delhi. The horror and fear that we all endured is as pungent to our senses today as it was then.The movie keeps to a disciplined mode of storytelling, but the stench of terror that thousands felt then always lurks in the background.

    Comment by Rajleen — June 14, 2007 @ 5:34 pm

  6. Download “A Passage to India” Novel

    The e-book version of E.M. Forster’s novel “A Passage to India” on which David Lean based his movie of the same name.

    Download from any of the following links;

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    Comment by aamaz — November 24, 2007 @ 6:28 am

  7. […] a year ago I reviewed “Amu“, a very fine film by an Indian-American graduate of Columbia University. So when I received […]

    Pingback by Vanaja « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — May 28, 2008 @ 6:30 pm

  8. […] which takes up the question of the anti-Sikh pogroms of 1984. Like the main character in “Amu“, the three children in “Slumdog Millionaire” also lost their parents as a result […]

    Pingback by Slumdog Millionaire « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — November 22, 2008 @ 10:44 pm

  9. […] would certainly apply to Slumdog Millionaire as well. By comparison, Amu is far more politically incisive-a function no doubt of the radical politics of the husband and […]

    Pingback by A second look at “Slumdog Millionaire” « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — February 24, 2009 @ 7:08 pm

  10. […] would certainly apply to Slumdog Millionaire as well. By comparison, Amu is far more politically incisive-a function no doubt of the radical politics of the husband and […]

    Pingback by Proyect: A Second Look at Slumdog Millionaire « Kasama — March 1, 2009 @ 3:35 pm

  11. […] would certainly apply to Slumdog Millionaire as well. By comparison, Amu is far more politically incisive-a function no doubt of the radical politics of the husband and […]

    Pingback by A Second Look at “Slumdog Millionaire” | The Activist — March 3, 2009 @ 3:52 am

  12. […] would certainly apply to Slumdog Millionaire as well. By comparison, Amu is far more politically incisive-a function no doubt of the radical politics of the husband and […]

    Pingback by Thoughts on Slumdog Millionaire « Frontlines of Revolutionary Struggle — March 31, 2010 @ 5:37 am

  13. […] meaning for me since my old friend Bedabrato Pain, whose wife Shonali Bose directed “Amu“, screened his newly completed film “Chittagong” at NYU a couple of months ago. […]

    Pingback by Iron Crows « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — August 26, 2011 @ 5:32 pm

  14. […] imposing men with their turbans and beards. But in May of that year, I saw a film titled “Amu”, directed by Shonali Bose, that was a dramatization of what amounted to genocide in India in […]

    Pingback by The Sikh struggle through the prism of film « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — December 3, 2011 @ 8:14 pm

  15. […] met Bedabrata (his friends call him Bedo) after he read my review of “Amu” and figured out that he, his wife, and I were coming from the same place […]

    Pingback by Chittagong « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — May 19, 2012 @ 8:20 pm

  16. […] met Bedabrata (his friends call him Bedo) in 2007 after he read my review of “Amu”, a powerful narrative film about the anti-Sikh pogroms in 1984 directed by Shonali Bose that he […]

    Pingback by Chittagong « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — May 22, 2012 @ 3:59 pm

  17. […] met Bedabrata (his friends call him Bedo) in 2007 after he read my review of “Amu”, a powerful narrative film about the anti-Sikh pogroms in 1984 directed by Shonali Bose that he […]

    Pingback by Chittagong: A Review « Bargad… बरगद… — May 24, 2012 @ 11:06 am

  18. […] seeing “Amu” six years ago, the narrative film based on the 1984 Sikh massacres in India, I have made a point […]

    Pingback by Bhaag, Milkha, Bhaag; Breakaway | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — July 13, 2013 @ 8:30 pm

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