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Amu is the story of Kaju, a twenty-one-year-old Indian American woman who returns to India to visit her family and discover the place where she was born. The film takes a dark turn as Kaju stumbles against secrets and lies from her past. A horrifying genocide that took place twenty years ago turns out to hold the key to her mysterious origins. Written by
An important story, good lead performance; but film could be stronger
This clearly was a movie of passion for writer-director-producer Shonali Bose, a UCLA film school grad who wanted to tell a very important story about her homeland's history after she had some personal experience in the 1984 riots that followed the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
Bose wanted this film to appeal to audiences outside India - hence it is mostly in English - so she uses the plot device of a 21-year-old young Indian girl returning home from the U.S. for the first time. There, as she searches for her real parents, she finds out the ugly truth about her nation's recent history.
It's a brave, courageous attempt to reveal what happened in 1984, when several thousand Sikhs were massacred in what was a sanctioned move, if not a coordinated effort, by the government.
"Amu" takes a while to get going as we're introduced to the characters and the set up. It's fine, because the characters are engaging.
Konkona Sensharma is an absolute revelation. I realize that these days Aishwarya Rai gets much more coverage and publicity, but Sensharma is a much better actress, more convincing and gets thoroughly absorbed into her roles. As Kaju, Sensharma is utterly believable as a young woman who has spent most of her life in the United States. She has the mannerisms down, the accent's certainly not unbelievable and her emotions never ring false. I've now seen two films starring Sensharma - the other was "Mr. and Mrs. Iyer" (2002) directed by her mother, Aparna Sen - and she's been brilliant in both.
The film's shortcomings, however, are in the supporting players. Bose did a fine job in casting Sensharma. But as Kaju's love interest, she cast Ankur Khanna as Kabir. Khanna's problem is he never makes Kabir even remotely interesting. To say Kabir is wooden would be an understatement. The lines are delivered in monotone and there's barely any emotion in this performance. I couldn't believe that someone as vivacious and sprightly as Kaju would find Kabir attractive in the least. True, Kabir tries to be a sensitive young man trying to uncover the truth, but Khanna's so flat and dull that their budding romance is difficult to fathom. When Khanna works for some emotion, it seems very forced. There's little, if anything, natural about his performance.
Brinda Karat as Kaju's mother, Keya, is adequate - you can see her trying really hard to wring emotion out of her performance. The film's other fine performance comes from Yashpal Sharma as Gobind, a Hindu tea shop owner befriended by Kaju.
Bose uncovers her story well, adding a few surprises here and there. I realize why Bose used the device of having an Indian American going back to India. But I wondered if it was necessary. I would've preferred if the story had been about the riots; the mystery truly was superfluous. Then again, I also understand Bose's need to get this film distributed and seen in North America and the rest of the world - other than India, I mean - and adding a western touch to it was (unfortunately) probably unavoidable.
Bose certainly isn't lacking confidence in her story. There's one quiet moment between Kaju and Kabir where Bose allows the scene to unwind quietly, without any music. It's a fine moment, a poignant and strong one because of Bose's confidence. But just imagine how riveting and unforgettable that moment might have been with a better actor as Kabir. Having seen Rahul Bose and Sensharma have such tremendous chemistry in "Mr. and Mrs. Iyer," I can't help but think Rahul Bose would have been sensational as Kabir.
The flashback sequences are predictable only in that you know when they're about to be revealed. On the other hand, some of them are extremely painful to watch. Seeing a riot sequence replayed in never easy, but Bose brings out the humanity and the inhumanity out awfully well. And as anyone who's lived through riots would attest, they seem very real.
"Amu" is an important film that needed to be told. It gets a bit didactic occasionally. More subtlety would've helped. Some of the dialogue clearly needed to be tightened only because Bose serves up lines to only be transitions to more expositionary speeches. It's forgivable considering this is Bose's first narrative feature. But the lines seem too obvious and with a little bit of tweaking, this could have been a provocative masterpiece. Bose's a good director, but she needed someone to come in and strengthen the dialogue in this film.
If you're looking for some different fare, something other than Bollywood out of India, do yourself a favor and give "Amu" a chance. Bose shows a lot of promise and that's good not only for Asian cinema, but for film-making as a whole.
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