No Recourse but to the Nation: A Reading of Shonali Bose's Amu

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In critical discussions of Hindi cinema, the family is seen as the synecdochic version of the nation; as Sumita Chakravarty puts it, “the fiction film can only present fragments of the nation and project them as evidence of the whole. The story of a couple, family or group represents [. . .] the whole of which they constitute a part.” Shonali Bose’s 2005 film Amu challenges this truism as it demonstrates that certain fragments will never speak for the whole; disavowed by the nation, they effect a “return of the repressed” that calls attention to its incomplete and failed project of nation building. The fragments in question are the thousands of Sikhs who were massacred in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984. While the nation “forgot” this irruption of genocidal violence, the character of Amu, a young Indian American woman visiting the land of her birth in the quest to find the “real India,” is forced to confront it through uncanny encounters with the poor in the slums and alleyways of Delhi. As Amu pieces together the circumstances surrounding her adoption twenty years ago, she learns that her Sikh father was killed by Hindus with the complicity of both the police and politicians in the anti-Sikh riots, and her mother hanged herself in a refugee camp shortly afterwards. I argue that Amu provides an opportunity to read fragments differently and powerfully, not as the broken parts of an imagined whole but, rather, as an ethical demand by minorities that the nation account for their elision. The return that they require is not to some primordial, premodern space in which different realities co-existed harmoniously; it is to the modern liberal nation state itself, that which produced them as minorities and guaranteed their constitutional rights in the first place.


Presented at the South Asian Literary Association Annual Conference, Chicago, IL.