Novice filmmakers usually make that first movie either because they're filled with passion for the art form, or because they have a story they're burning to tell. Writer-director Shonali Bose appears to be in the latter camp. An Indian-born activist who went to UCLA film school in her early 30s—while raising two kids, no less—Bose dedicates her debut feature Amu to the 1984 massacre of the Sikhs in Delhi, in the wake of the assassination of Indira Gandhi. Bose was 19 at the time, and volunteered in the relief camps, where she heard harrowing personal anecdotes from the survivors.
But Amu doesn't exactly share those stories. Instead, Bose begins in the present day, as peppy Indian-American grad student Konkona Sensharma returns to the country she left as an orphan child, now intending to reconnect with her roots. She quickly develops a crush on local university student Ankur Khanna, who's working on a paper about '84. With his help, she learns about her own family's connection to the massacre. But first, Bose spends about half of the film's running time showing Sensharma flitting about the country like a dim tourist, unintentionally insulting the natives with her teenage enthusiasm and the patronizing nature of her personal journey.
Amu's dialogue is its weakest aspect, as Sensharma giggles with her adopted cousins about Khanna (sample exchange: "I think he likes you!" "Whatever.") and bickers with her new boyfriend about how he keeps judging her quest. The flat, pat talk is symptomatic of Amu's overriding problem: It has no sense of personal style. Bose does a lot with her low budget in terms of making the film look slick and professional, but frankly, a story based on such painful events doesn't need the distancing filter of a naïve heroine, and it definitely doesn't need prestige-picture sheen. Not every first-timer can be Orson Welles, but Bose should at least have something to say that's uniquely hers, and not phrased in such an overly familiar way.