Indian-born, U.S.-based documentary filmmaker Shonali Bose's fiction debut wraps a history of the 1984 Delhi riots into the story of an American-raised college graduate who returns to her South Asian roots and is shocked by what she finds.
Kaju Roy (Konkona Sen Sharma) was adopted and raised by her single mother, lawyer Keya (Bose's aunt, political activist Brinda Karat), in Los Angeles. But she's always been curious about her birth parents, and about India, so after graduation she pays an extended visit to her mother's family. Her video camera always in hand, she sets about documenting the sights and sounds of the land where she was born but of which she has no memories. Her grandmother indulges her and her slightly younger cousin, Tuki (Chaiti Ghosh), by introducing Kaju to Tuki's college classmates. One of them, Kabir (Ankur Khanna), reluctantly agrees to escort her around Delhi Kaju's overprotective family won't hear of her wandering around by herself and though Kabir mocks her as a pampered tourist whose naive ideas about "the real India" were formed by movies and fashion magazines, he clearly has a little crush on the headstrong American. Kaju goes to Delhi to see the university her mother attended, but she's drawn to its slums, and with Kabir's help quickly discovers that what little her mother revealed about her past is a lie: Kaju's parents didn't die in a malaria outbreak in a small rural settlement. Her roots lie in the Delhi slums, and it becomes increasingly apparent that her story is deeply connected to the riots that followed Indira Ghandi's 1984 assassination by her Sikh bodyguards. Over the course of three bloody days more than 5,000 Sikhs were murdered in retaliation, and Kaju begins to suspect that her father may have been one of the never-prosecuted killers.
Bose's intentions are impeccable and her film is clearly a labor of love: She was a college student in Delhi during the riots, and the brutality of the Hindus who turned on their Sikh neighbors coupled with the involvement of government officials and the deliberate indifference of the police who allowed arsonists and murderers free rein left a lasting impression. Bose's decision to make a fiction film rather than a documentary was fueled by the desire to reach a broad commercial audience, and while Kaju's voyage of horrified discovery is undermined by uneven performances, preachy digressions and a handful of clunky scenes, it's nonetheless compelling on a personal level. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh