I was about seven years old, we had acquired a telephone at home and there was always a big fight over who would answer the call. Imagine my good luck when I happened to be the closest to the telephone on October 31st, 1984 and very proudly picked up the phone. It was my grandmother in Bangalore yelling something about the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi being assassinated by her own Sikh bodyguards. She also yelled something about turning on the television, also newly purchased – talk about newly realized middle class aspirations. My aunt in the US had called and told her about the assassination, which she had heard through the BBC. Sadly, All India Radio and Doordarshan, most likely waiting for the higher-ups in the hierarchy to release orders from the shocked government, were mum until later that evening.
As the news of the assassination spread, every evening for the next few weeks, our living room would be packed with neighbours and their friends and family, with theirs and my family’s eyes glued to our black and white television set (the one with the wooden doors that could be opened and closed). Salma Sultan, with her single rose bud in her tight hair bun, shed a single tear when she read the news of the assassination that evening, dispelling annoying myths that she was actually an early robotic experiment conducted by scientifically-minded folks at Doordarshan.
Indira’s death perhaps did more to resuscitate the Congress Party than anything else. It also, more importantly, changed how one thought of television and women in television. That critical historical moment did two things: one, it helped resurrect Indira’s image as a martyr – a female subject who could be recuperated either as a Mother figure or as a political subject who could be aggressive, non-submissive, and agential (an enduring figure that continues to be resurrected, think Lalithaji!). Secondly, television was recognized as an extremely influential medium to mobilize political support. Images of Indira Gandhi, her funeral and her grieving family became a mainstay in the political advertisements that were instrumental in Indira’s successor – her son Rajiv Gandhi – coming to power. Not surprisingly, Rajiv recognized that power, pushing for expansion and investment in the television sector. What happened after that event is also significant, because we see how deeply entrenched state regulation was in the dissemination of information or ‘news.’
Being in the South of India in Hyderabad, we were completely disconnected from the planned and systematic persecution of Sikhs in Delhi. What we continued to be exposed to on television were images of a supposedly grieving nation, and it was through national television that a ‘national family’ was imaged, a cohesive unit that somehow was beyond and came before class, caste, and gender differences.
The events of 1984 remain, in the history of the country, somewhat of an academic stepchild. One acknowledges its pesky presence but never bestows upon it historical veracity or legitimacy. This sort of makes it really difficult for me, Swati Bandi – a mere student of documentary studies, from the South of India and astonishingly illiterate in the ground realities of 1984 – when I am called upon to introduce a fiction film that meshes popular memory and history to address that pesky issue of the Sikh massacres post Indira-assasination! Yes, I am talking about Shonali Bose’s 2004 film Amu, being screened at an International Women’s Film Festival in Buffalo, NY.
As so much has already been written about the film, I think, for this blog, I will extrapolate and talk about what really interests me – the marriage of documentary and fiction film aesthetics to talk about an event that is fraught with tensions inherent in the recounting of historical ‘fact’ as it intersects with popular memory. Truth be told, the film underwhelmed me. It was self-absorbed and except for certain powerful moments in the flashback scenes in the refugee camps in Delhi, I was vaguely dissatisfied throughout. Yes, vaguely, like there is nothing outwardly terrible about it. For instance, I could not point out one scene and say “see, this is why you disappoint me, you film.”
The story is unraveled as the protagonist Kaju, a recent UCLA (film?) grad, ‘goes back’ to Delhi to discover her roots. The story is documented through her trusty video camera. This narrative device, seen often in documentary films made by filmmakers in the diaspora who ‘go back,’ is employed quite unproblematically by Bose. Amu, along with her native boyfriend, are allowed easy access to ‘documentary subjects,’ who recount the ‘truth’ – helping her uncover not only her own story as an orphan whose parents were killed in the massacres of Sikhs in 1984 but also legitimize, through the documentary camera, that version of historical memory.
As I said before, I really would have to do much more research before I could talk about the horrible events of 1984 with any authority. Yet, since Bose does present Amu as the only film that addresses the anti-Sikh riots and argues, rightfully, for more attention to those events, it would have helped to move beyond certain narrational devices like forced moments between foreign-returned desis and natives, surficially addressing generation gaps, uneven accents and an exploitative ethnographic gaze.
This marriage between documentary film aesthetics and fiction film has huge implications for television. It is in this sector that one can move toward larger distribution of documentary films. NDTV already dedicates some hours towards screening documentary films. More exposure to the public can only help break the chains that bind the doc film genre in its ‘boring,’ ‘educational’ moulds. It is also in television that our notions of documentary ‘truth’ and our investment in the notion that the camera never lies can slowly be eroded (thankfully!). As the lines between fact and fiction blur (think TV news, for instance), documentary film can finally emerge as truly, wonderful entertainment.
Ok, I am dreaming but Indira Gandhi was on her way to film a documentary interview with Peter Ustinov when she was gunned down. Go figure.