by Dianne Lawrence
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In this ambitious first feature film by director Shonali Bose, Kajori Roy (Konkona Sensharma) plays a 21-year-old east Indian woman who has lived in America since her adoption at the age of three. After her graduation from UCLA she decides to go back to the town where she was born and visit with her relatives. Told that her parents had died in a horrible plague, she slowly discovers that her past isn’t what she was led to believe it was. Her determined investigation slowly reveals the truth of her own history, one that is tragically tied up with a shameful and appalling episode in India’s history.
In 1984, when director Shonali Bose was 19 years old, the Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, was assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards. This caused extensive rioting in Delhi and resulted in the deaths of thousands of Sikhs, including children, who were pulled from their homes and workplaces and executed in the streets. Bose worked in the relief camps and one of her jobs was to write down the horror stories on the postcards being sent from the widows to their relatives. It was clear that the Indian Government had been complicit; an issue never fully addressed by the Indian Government or the culture…until this film. Ms. Bose left India and came to America to study but gave up an academic path to pursue filmmaking, knowing that one day she would tell this story. The Indian Government was not happy with the film and the Censor Board insisted that she remove five lines of dialogue that clearly implicated the government. Instead Bose lowered the sound so the characters mouthed the words. The audience knew what was happening. The Censor Board gave it the equivalent of a NC-17 rating. When asked why, since it contained no sex or explicit violence, they replied “Why should young people know a history that is better buried and forgotten?” While shooting the riot scene some toughs showed up with a message from their boss, a well known politician who had been involved in organizing the killings. “A film on the ‘84 riots cannot be made. Shut down immediately.” Bose protested that she was an American making a film about a love story, she knew nothing about any riots. She quickly wrapped up and within a week she was back in LA with her negative.
The film starts off slowly as we are introduced to a typical Indian household, street life and student life all seen through the eyes of a native who is also a tourist in her hometown. Most of the first half of the film is uneventful and focused primarily on leading the story up to the event. Kajori hooks up with a sullen young student Kabir (Ankur Khanna) who has contempt for what he considers her naïve desire to “discover” India. Her mother makes an unexpected appearance. Kajori eventually gets over his attitude and helps her investigate the clues to the strange memories she is having as she walks with him through the strangely familiar streets. The family becomes concerned over Kajori’s wanderings and questions. As the truth of her history and the events of ‘84 are slowly revealed, Bose’s direction and storytelling become riveting and the film comes to emotional, compelling life. She is able to skillfully pull us into the horror, outrage and heartbreak of the event, leaving us in shock and left to wonder why a country that has all the pretensions of being a modern, free and democratic model, continues to refuse to investigate the riots of ‘84.
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