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The Children of 1984

Sudhanva Deshpande is an actor, director and playwright, and is a member of Jana Natya Manch, Delhi.

Frontline, Feb. 12, 2005

Photo: Sashi Kumar

Photo: Shonali Bose

The horrors of the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 are revisited in two recent feature films with pertinent questions about identities and memories.

Retaliation is spelt in blood. When Indira Gandhi was shot dead by her two Sikh bodyguards, thousands of Sikhs had to pay with their lives and property in the pogrom that followed over the next few days in Delhi. That was in November 1984. When 58 kar sevaks [volunteers] were burnt alive in the Sabarmati Express at Godhra on February 27, 2002, thousands of Muslims had to pay with their lives and property in the pogrom that followed over the next several weeks. Eighteen years had passed, but little had changed.

For 20 years, after the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, there has been a near-total silence in the field of arts around the events of that horrific November. To be sure, the artists Vivan Sundaram and Arpana Cour had done paintings in response to 1984, but those were exceptions. There has hardly been any representation of 1984 in poetry, fiction, drama, cinema, and even in the plastic arts. Indeed, there is very little visual documentation of the riots in terms of photographs and documentaries. The absence of documentaries is explained by the fact that video technology was quite expensive and cumbersome then, unlike today. The relative absence of photographs is more striking. The horrors of 1984 seemed to erupt suddenly, as if out of nowhere.

On the other hand, the pogrom of Gujarat in 2002 has been extensively documented in documentaries (Final Solution, Godhra Tak, Passengers, and so on) and photographs, and the artist community has also responded to the pogrom vigorously. In Hindi, for instance, there are over 100 poems written directly in response to the carnage, some of them superb and enduring works, and no doubt there is writing to match in other languages.

In theatre, more than half a dozen important plays mounted across the country responded to Gujarat riots in 2002.

In Kolkota, Suman Mukhopadhyay brought together several groups to produce Mephisto, a tale of an actor who sells his soul to the Nazis; Kaushik Sen did Dushman No.1, an adaptation of Brecht's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui; Usha Ganguly produced Kashinama, which showed the avarice and greed rampant in the holiest Hindu city of Banaras; in Delhi, Anuradha Kapur collaborated with Ein Lall on The Antigone Project, a reworking of Brecht's retelling of the Greek tragedy in the context of Gujarat; in Mumbai, Ashok Purang produced Bahut Raat Ho Chali Hai, the story of an ex-secular journalist and his artist ex-wife, under attack from the Hindutva hordes; Ramu Ramanathan wrote and directed Mahadevbhai, a one-person play that looks at the life of Gandhi's secretary; and Vikram Kapadia produced Black with Equal, a black comedy set in a Mumbai high rise.

All these are proscenium plays; in street theatre, literally scores of plays have been evolved around the events of Gujarat 2002. Even Mumbai cinema responded in its own oblique way to the horror of Gujarat (Frontline November 19, 2004).

After a silence of two decades, suddenly, there are two feature films about the horrors of 1984 - Sashi Kumar's Kaya Taran (Chrysalis) and Shonali Bose's Amu. There is more that is common about these two films, besides the subject matter and the timing. Both are debut films for their directors. Both directors are from professions that normally deal with facts, rather than fiction: Sashi Kumar is one of India's pioneering television journalists, while Shonali Bose is a documentary film-maker. Both directors are from communities that were not the victims of the 1984 riots: one is a Malayali and the other is a Bengali. Both were based in Delhi when the killings took place, but have subsequently relocated - Sashi Kumar moved to Chennai and Shonali Bose to the United States.

What is most striking, however, is that both films are about the children of 1984, who, in 2002, as Gujarat riots erupts, break the silence in their own lives about the trauma of 18 years before.

Based on writer N.S. Madhavan's Malayalam short story, When Big Trees Fall, the film Kaya Taran attempts to capture the essence of the Gujarat riots of 2002. At the press conference, addressed by survivors of Gujarat, there was a young reporter who was then sent to do a story on conversions. This takes him to Meerut convent for aged nuns. Bit by bit, the film also shows what happened here in 1984, when a Sikh woman and her eight-year-old son sought refuge as they ran from a violent mob. We learn, as the film goes on, that this child (the little Sikh lad) has grown up to become the young reporter.

As one minority community is under attack, it is given refuge by another minority community. What makes the situation moving is that those who give refuge are themselves 'weak' and vulnerable - old nuns, eight of them, one blind, another wheelchair-bound, another surviving on pills, and so on. These sequences, in the Meerut convent, are the soul of the film, excellently shot, tender and moving. The nuns are vulnerable, but resourceful. They manage to smuggle out the boy and his mother by using a simple trick. The boy is smuggled out in a coffin, but not before his hair is cut. This is the reason why the young reporter is not turbaned.

All eight nuns have performed like seasoned actors. The other remarkable performance is by Neelambari Bhattacharya as the young Sikh boy. Unlike most screen children, Neelambari is at ease in front of the camera and not at all precocious. Seema Biswas as the younger nun who looks after the old ones, is good as usual. She has the most expressive eyes, and knows how and when to use them. Angad Bedi as the reporter visiting his past is, however, below par. His awkwardness seems the awkwardness of an incompetent actor, rather than that of a character who has lived through a traumatic past.

The film has a restrained quality to it, it looks inward, and poses questions about identities. Particularly, it underlines the fragility of religious identities, both in times of stress as well as 'normality.'

While Kaya Taran begins with Gujarat, Amu ends with it. And while Kaya Taran approaches its theme from the side, as it were, and holds itself back emotionally, Amu confronts the 1984 riots frontally. It tells the story of Kaju, a non-resident Indian girl about 21 years old, who has been told that her mother, Keya, adopted her after her biological parents died in a malaria epidemic in a village in western Uttar Pradesh. Kaju is back in Delhi, and, in the company of boyfriend Kabir, discovers Delhi's teeming slums and Keya's lie about her past.

What Amu does is to focus on our collective amnesia about the events of November 1984. This is achievement enough, of course. But what the film does brilliantly is to bring out how the amnesia, though collective, is differentiated. All the characters in the film want to forget 1984, but for different reasons. The rich, because they do not care about 1984 or anything else; ruling politicians, because it was they who led the mobs; officials of the state, because of their complicity in the riots; the middle class, because it is neither killer nor victim; and the poor, because they are both killers and victims. Everyone holds a secret, a dark, terrible secret, and everyone prefers that it remain a secret.

It seems, even the Censor Board wants to remain silent. The film has been cleared with an A certificate, after some audio cuts. These cuts come in the scene where Kaju and Kabir meet a group of 1984 widows, who recount how ministers led rioters, while the police and the administration looked on. Rather than edit the scene out of the film, the director has chosen to retain it with the audio cuts. The result is that the now-silenced widows condemn the perpetrators of the killing with even more power and poignancy.

Amu has some outstanding performances. Konkona Sen Sharma as Kaju confirms her status as the best young actor in Indian cinema today. She is completely believable as the N.R.I. girl in search of her roots. One would think she has spent a lifetime in the U.S. She is also quite clearly a master at picking up accents in her award-winning performance in Mr. and Mrs. Iyer.

However, the truly outstanding performance in Amu is that by Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Brinda Karat as Keya. Television viewers know her as a person who is not only photogenic, but also strong, clear-headed, and articulate. In Amu, she brings all these qualities into her performance, and more. She is totally natural, passionate, sensitive and, as in the brief scene with her former lover Neel, subtle and nuanced. She gets a vulnerability in her portrayal of Keya that is actually quite rare, at any rate in Indian cinema: the vulnerability of an independent, strong woman.

The relationship between Keya and Kaju is superbly etched, and both actors complement each other perfectly. The support cast is also good. A few are experienced actors, like Yashpal Sharma (Govind), Luvleen Mishra (Govind's wife), Rajendra Gupta (K.K.), but for most it is their first screen appearance, and they are all first rate: Ankur Khanna as a surly, introverted Kabir, Aparna Roy as the grandmother and Choiti Ghosh as Kaju's cousin Tuki.

The early part of the film appears to meander a bit as it sets the context for what is to follow, but with Keya's return to India, it grips you totally. Director Shonali Bose builds up the suspense well, and then, as Kaju unravels one thread of the mystery after another, the film moves towards its denouement almost like a thriller. Bose has shot Delhi as few others have; the slum sequences, in particular, are absolutely authentic. She also shoots the riots very well - the violence is real without being voyeuristic, and the fear palpable. The sequences in Kaju's uncle's home capture the life of the probashi family just right.

Amu is an important film, perhaps the most important Indian film of recent years. It is that rare film which combines a strong political statement with a powerful and moving story. It is also not without humour, something one normally does not expect in a film of this kind. For a long time, Indian cinema - Hindi cinema at any rate - stayed away from our contemporary history. Now, with films like Amu, Kaya Taran and Anurag Kashyap's Black Friday, a staged documentary account of the Bombay blasts of 1993, there is a serious effort to engage with our times, in our times.

In Kaya Taran, in the end, the reporter reconciles himself to his past, regrows his hair, and puts on a patka [under-turban]. Since the film is really about identities, their fragility, and their visible markers, it is believed that it had to end with the boy facing up to his identity and accepting it. It is the way this is shown that makes one uncomfortable: in the Press Club, everything is treated with cynicism, the most weighty matters can become trivial. And that is exactly what happens with the born-again Sikh - his embracing his identity, with all its visual difference, seems facile rather than profound.

The question with Amu's resolution is somewhat different. As Kaju starts unravelling the mystery about her past, she is faced with a terrible possibility, which she eventually discovers is not true. In an otherwise deeply disturbing film, this resolution of Kaju's own search is strangely, irrationally comforting, even though what she discovers is tragic enough. Because the possibility it opens up is almost unimaginably terrifying to face up to - that her parent is a killer. What makes Amu truly frightening is the realisation that this could so easily be true.