Scripting conscience


UP AND AWAY Shonali feels `we need to go beyond the enforced passivity of democracy.'

UP AND AWAY Shonali feels `we need to go beyond the enforced passivity of democracy.'  

Shonali Bose has a fondness for "silver and glass." A look at the young filmmaker with her many tinkling silver bangles and danglers, the long, long sheet of hair, the vivid eyes and the huge bindhi set one thinking that `here is a seriously artistic person.'

And then when one realises this mum of two has made a searing, honest film about the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, Amu, which has been feted and felicitated world over including winning the National Award for best English film and the Gollapudi Srinivas Award for the Best Debut Director, one feels vindicated.

Shonali, however, does not seem to carry the ills of the world on her shoulder as she says with a laugh, "Bunty Aur Bubbly is my favourite film of 2005. I love Aamir Khan and do not miss any of his films. I have not seen The Rising and am looking forward to watching it. I am a little apprehensive about The Rising as 1857 is precious to me. It is the first War of Independence and one wonders how it has been treated."

Shonali, who was in town for the premier of Amu organised by Moving Images, "hates writing! It requires so much discipline and one needs to wrench it out of one's system. I wrote 20 drafts for Amu before I was satisfied. Directing is my first love. Unfortunately I have not found a script that excites me which is why I continue to write. I do not much care to produce either. The only plus point is one does not have to make any creative compromises."

Shonali was doing her first year of history at Miranda College when the anti-Sikh pogrom erupted in 1984. With the Head of the Department of history, Uma Chakravarty, Shonali worked in relief camps and collected data about the horrors of the time. She was all set to do her PhD and teach when she lost her mother. "The memories were too painful and so I left the country and went to Columbia University for a doctorate in Political Science."

Disillusioned with the politics in academics, Shonali gave up her doctoral work on the Naxalite movement in Telangana. She joined the Indian Progressive Study Group (IPSG), which is where she met her husband Bedabrata Pain. "He wrote a play on TADA which I directed. That is how we met, fell in love and got married. He is the financial, political, emotional soul of Amu."

"A producer backed out at the last minute and I was really distraught. My sons Ishaan (11) gave me his pocket money of $11 and the younger Vivan (7) gave me his tooth fairy money of $1. Bedabrata, who is a scientist with NASA had invented the smallest camera and that very same day got a mail offering $50,000 for it. There was no question of where the money would be going - straight into Amu!"

Shonali has kept her maiden name ("I would never change my name") and has also seen that the children have the names of both the parents.

"My in-laws are rather conservative and they did have a problem with that and also that I changed the spelling from Pain to Pyne, but otherwise they have been very supportive and even acted in the film."

After a tough five-year course in film making at the UCLA, Shonali who was "eight months pregnant with my younger boy" wanted to premier her thesis project Lifting the Veil in India on the 50th year of Indian independence in 1997.

"Even though my lawyer pleaded with me to go back and return after my son was born, I was adamant. After I returned to the States, it took me two years to adjust to motherhood and get back into writing."

On the choice of topic, Shonali says, "The two traumas - the personal one of losing my mother and the larger one, the riots, coalesced. I knew I just had to do this. I did not have a choice. The first film I did would have to be what I found the most difficult, the most painful, the mother-daughter relationship."

While Shonali wanted "fresh faces" and "auditioned 60 girls for the protagonist, Kaju's role, I was impressed with Konkona Sen in Mr. and Mrs. Iyer. Even then I was not very sure and I asked Konkona to come to Delhi for a screen test, which she very sportingly obliged and watching her, I knew I had found Kaju. About the inspired casting of Brinda Karat (who incidentally is Shonali's aunt), as Kaju's foster mother, Shonali says, "I knew she was good as we had worked together in plays."

The incendiary subject matter saw the film run into trouble with the censors.

"More than silencing the dialogue which goes `Saare shamil the. Police, neta, sab... , I was more upset with the `A' certificate and the reason for giving it - which was why should our young people find out about a history that is best left buried? The youth should not be alienated from their past. Anurag (Kashyap of Black Friday and Paanch fame) told me to contest the censor's cuts in court but I feel the silence speaks louder than words."

Shonali who says she is open to all genres is working on "two projects. One is set in the US where a the elder son in a family is drafted to fight the war in Iraq and the younger who is in middle school starts questioning the sense of it all. The other project I am working on is on the unknown voices of the freedom struggle. I tell the stories of four fictional characters from the north, south, east and west.

Shonali insists she is not "cynical about the people. It is not by accident that the protagonists of Amu are youngsters. The future is in their hands. I feel we need to go beyond the enforced passivity of democracy and the right to vote."

And the activist with a burning desire to right all wrongs shines through loud and clear through the silver and glass.