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The dark heart of history: two South Asian films

Preti Taneja
30 March 2006

When governments and education systems fail to be honest about the past in all its painful detail, people must find their own way through their fragmented histories. But where can you start after secrets have been kept for decades?

Two films, one concerned with Sri Lanka's long civil war that began in 1983, and the other with the massacre of Sikhs in New Delhi in 1984, take on the task of talking about things society has preferred to keep silent about and which governments have colluded to forget.

No More Tears Sister: Anatomy of Hope and Betrayal and Amu screened at the 2006 London Human Rights Watch film festival.

For more HRW coverage see Rob Cawston on three Latin American films, State of Fear, The Dignity of the Nobodies and What is it Worth?, and a still from James Longley's film Iraq in Fragments as openDemocracy's "image of the week".

No More Tears Sister: Anatomy of Hope and Betrayal, and Amu attempt to take us to the unresolved heart of seismic events that happened decades ago, the aftershocks of which are still being felt today.

Two facts give these films power. First, for people from the two communities depicted in each film, the events portrayed are as real and as important today as they were when they happened. Second, much of today's global cinema audience knows little or nothing about the actual events, the films or the wider context in which they took place.

No More Tears Sister: a family tragedy of the Sri Lankan conflict

In No More Tears Sister, Canadian director Helene Klowdawsky tells the story of Sri Lankan human-rights activist and medical doctor Rajani Thiranagama, who was gunned down in 1989, aged 35. She uses traditional documentary techniques such as interviews with Thiranagama's family, but splices these with sepia-tinted reconstructions, scalpel-sharp photojournalism and archival footage from the early years of the brutal civil conflict that overtook the island.

Helene Klowdawsky's film also reveals her own journey of discovery. In exploring the role of women in ethnic nationalist conflicts, she was steered towards the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) organisation. She says: "When I learned that the founder of this organisation, Dr Rajani Thiranagama, was murdered for speaking unpalatable truths about political killings, I knew at once that I had found the subject of my film. Her life and assassination was a striking way to look at both state violence and militant reaction through a feminist lens."

No more tears sister
Still from No More Tears Sister

The film begins with Rajani getting ready for a dinner party the night she was killed. We see her working by lamplight at her desk in the medical faculty, a human skull sitting matter-of-factly on the table beside her. The first brutal scene of the film is her murder. The director softens and yet strengthens its impact with Thiranagama's sisters and daughters singing "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot", a cappella. The combination of music, reconstruction and direct comment emphasises the importance of human rights in the film, the sense of wider injustice and the still-raw personal loss.

Klowdawsky's technique conveys to the viewer a sense of experiencing the events at first hand. Her choice of still photographs by Dominic Sansoni and Stephen Champion captures the true horror of civil war – as if those burned figures are reaching out for eternity from the ground.

The film depicts Rajani as far more than a conventional "female" figure. Like her husband, she puts politics before family and personal safety. In celebrating her courage, Klodawsky allows Rajani to speak in her own voice through letters and diaries that present her own life in all its politically-driven clarity and emotional complexity.

The only jarring note in this film told "through a feminist lens" is the disembodied male voiceover. While delivered with elegance by Michael Ondaatje, the voice undermines what we see. When Rajani’s diaries are read, and when her sisters and husband speak – whether they can face the camera or not – we hear and feel a life. The narration of facts is reminiscent of the voice of a government announcer on a war-time propaganda newsreel, which films such as this hardwire us to treat with scepticism.

The assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards occurred in the aftermath of "Operation Blue Star", the military raid by the Indian army of the Golden Temple, one of the holiest Sikh shrines, in Amritsar in June 1984. It is estimated that over a 1000 people were killed.

Amu: India's past in the present

It is difficult not to have a similar sense of scepticism when watching Amu, despite the horror of the events the film depicts. Because the story is framed as a search for personal roots which then becomes a search for a wider truth, a lot rides on us being able to trust what we see and hear. In Amu, director Shonali Bose chooses the "based-on-a-true-story" approach to explore what really happened during the four-day long Sikh pogrom in New Delhi in November, 1984. In 2002 the main character, a twenty-four-year-old woman called Kaju, who was six during the violence and adopted after it, returns from Los Angeles to spend time with her adoptive family in India.

A series of fictional coincidences allow Kaju to hear the story of the Trilokpuri slum where she played as a child, and where Sikhs, including her birth father, were massacred. The world "knows" the massacres as spontaneous outbreaks of revenge for the killing of Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi on 31 October 1984 by two of her Sikh bodyguards. But for many people, including Bose and Bedabrata Pain, the producer of Amu, this received wisdom is one of the biggest myths saturating public consciousness today.

Bose uses flashback as well as the directness of two characters talking to each other to make this point. Some characters talk of how the government was fully aware of what was going on, and how rioters were armed with lists of Sikh families given to them by the government so they knew where to find their victims. It is when she tries to do both at the same time that the film loses its political charge.

A key flashback scene from the then three-year-old Kaju's point of view, that shows what happened to Kaju's father. In the blurred background, her birth mother pleads indifferent officials for help. Simultaneously we hear the story Kaju's birth mother told Keya, her adoptive mother, in the relief camps.

The two voices of the visual and the aural stories don't fuse: the scene highlights the difference between flashback and reconstruction in evoking memory, and here, the overlay of image and narrative means the scene doesn't have the explosive impact it should.

Shonali Bose describes her motivations for making Amu:
"We really felt that this story is not being made for the victims and the survivors who have been courageously carrying on the fight for 20 years. They don't need to be educated; they are the ones who are carrying on the battle. Their story needs to be taken outside. We felt a documentary would possibly draw activists and Sikhs, and people who know about the issue. We wanted to reach the widest audience possible. Therefore the story is crafted in a way like a mystery. So that it draws in anybody, who doesn't even have a relationship with 1984."

The contrast of rural and urban India, the mutual stereotypes both Kaju and her Indian counterparts overcome and the class differences that are so much harder to bear in India than they seem to be in Kaju’s America are well drawn by Bose. However in some cases they are worked through too conveniently – as they often are in feature films that take on so much.

Bose had firsthand experience of the pogrom (she was a student in Delhi in 1984 and worked in the relief camps that were set up by the people after the massacre). However, the way Bose uses fiction to tell the story leaves a vital sense of context unconveyed.

Kaju's companion on her journey into her past is Kabir, a young man from India's upper-middle-class elite whose friends say he knows Delhi better than anyone. Yet he seems ignorant of this major incident in the city's recent past. He is as shocked as Kaju when their search for her birth parents leads them to hear from a group of elderly women first hand what they experienced, and what they lost. It is no accident that this scene – one of the most powerful in the film – is the closest to documentary the film gets.

The Los Angeles-raised Kaju had no idea about her history because her birth mother's suicide-note begs her adoptive mother not to tell. Kabir's family has no such excuse. The Los Angeles-raised Kaju had no idea about her history because her birth mother's suicide-note begs her adoptive mother not to tell. Kabir's family has no such excuse. When he discovers what happened, and realises his family implicitly colluded with the government silence around the events, he can finally see that his father is not all-powerful. He decides to write a play about what he has learned instead of joining the family business.

The price of truth

Many viewers of this film are in the same situation as Kabir and Kaju: ignorant of their history in a way that denies them choice. Since governments, education systems and in some cases our own families do not tell stories of the terrible violence in Delhi or during Sri Lanka's "silent war", it provokes the question: how do we like our truth served up? Whether as documentary or fictional, each gives the same answer: as directly as possible, please.

Ultimately it is the sense of mystery shrouding the violent acts, coupled with the tantalising feeling of getting ever closer to truth that pulls the viewer through the films.

Both make the point that even today, nothing has changed – in Sri Lanka, Rajani’s murder remains unsolved and there have been no public protests since she died. In Amu a long slow dividing shot of a train sliding over its parallel tracks as a newsreader reports on the massacre of Muslims in Gujurat.

But while No More Tears Sister brings home that it is terror that has kept people silent for so long, in Amu Bose leaves out mention of how since 1984 there have been ten separate commissions into the violence and yet no one in government has been convicted. It is these details that remind us of the ongoing injustice that the culture of silence perpetrates – a global injustice as traumatic as the events themselves.

Rajani Thiranagama

Dr. Rajani Thiranagama (1954-1989)

Is gesture politics hindering progress against racism?

We have all seen a huge explosion around the debate on structural racism in recent weeks.

But that has been accompanied by corporate statements that many activists say are meaningless and will lead to little change.

How true is that? How can the movement against racism deliver long-lasting change instead?

Join us on Thursday 9 July at 5pm UK time/12pm EDT for a free live discussion.

Hear from:

Sayeeda Warsi Member of the House of Lords, pro-vice chancellor at Bolton University and author of ‘The Enemy Within: A Tale of Muslim Britain’.

Sunder Katwala Director of British Future, a think-tank on identity and integration

Other speakers to be confirmed.

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