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Amu: Discontent & Diaspora


The Telegraph, Calcutta, Oct. 24, 2005

Photo: (L to R) Mrinal Sen, Konkona Sen Sharma and Aparna Sen at the 'Amu' premiere in Calcutta

It is somewhat ironic that a film by a Bengali director should be chosen to mirror the collective angst of the Sikh psyche at a festival dedicated to exploring their identity and culture.

The Spinning Wheel Film Festival, which concluded in Toronto last week, opened with Shonali Bose and Bedabrata Bain's Amu, this year's National Award winner for Best English Language Feature Film. Amu, a young N.R.I., is on a visit to India to retrace her roots and coincidentally stumbles upon the horrors perpetrated upon the Sikhs during the riots following Indira Gandhi's assassination in 1984.

'Although our film has met with critical acclaim, this is the first time it is playing to a predominantly Sikh audience. This film is as much about a mother-daughter relationship (played sensitively by Brinda Karat and Konkona Sen Sharma) as the riots, but we will be happy if it can serve as a vehicle to atone for 1984,' said Shonali.

Spinning Wheel started in Toronto three years ago, but as festival chair Mandeep Singh Rayat said: 'It has already been held in New York and we have franchise requests from Birmingham and Los Angeles. Soon, perhaps, there will be one in India as well.'

The festival purportedly seeks to examine the crisis of identity amongst the Sikh diaspora, but it reflects the complex pulls and tugs of the Indian mosaic. Audience reaction suggested a sense of the issues at stake. Jasmine, born in the U.K., educated in America, on holiday in Toronto said she had been inspired to find out more about her roots and culture.

The choice of short films and features at Spinning Wheel ranged from the mediocre to the memorable. Ben Rekhi's Waterborne was a masterpiece on how human beings react when denied something they take for granted in their everyday lives: water, for instance. The plot unravels through the eyes of a Sikh store owner (Shabana Azmi) and her son (Ajay Naidu), two college students (John Gries and Chris Masterson), and a pair of National Guardsmen called out to patrol the frenzied city. Although the film is ready for release in the U.S., viewers in India will get to see it only if a distributor is found.

Some of the better documentaries in the festival included Ali Kazimi's Runaway Grooms, Richie Mehta's Amal, Valarie Kaur's Divided We Fall, and Hardeep Singh Kohli/Robert Sproul-Cran's incisive exploration of 'identity' in multicultural U.K., In Search of the Tartan Turban.

It's a pity that audiences at home are unlikely to see Runaway Grooms, which investigates the motives of confidence tricksters who have wrecked the lives of over 10,000 women in India - grooms using their N.R.I. status to extort large dowries from gullible families, only to leave their brides waiting haplessly for a visa that will never arrive.

In Divided We Fall, Valarie Kaur, a 20-year film student at Stanford, drives around America camera in hand documenting the racial hatred that erupted after 9/11. Through interviews with lawyers, activists, academics and the man-on-the-street, Kaur's candid-camera traces the history of racial ignorance and discrimination in the U.S., with the attacks on Sikhs (mistaken for 'Muslims' or 'Osama's turbaned men') as the focus.