Bodies move to a beat as nightfall envelopes their soundless dance. Their movements are charged, unrestrained, yet trapped in a mute void. Against the dark silhouettes swaying to the beat, the screen on the wall projects Indian films.
Payal Kapadia’s poetic essay documentary A Night of Knowing Nothing (the film received the Cannes’ Golden Eye award for Best Documentary in 2021) opens with a delightful image of youths dancing together. The same youths then fill the streets in great numbers. The eerie silence that punctuates the images of youths gives in at last to clamorous protests and bursts of fervour that typify a student resistance movement that sprung up in the years of Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi‘s rule.
Personal and political
The film oscillates between the personal and the political, and the very fabric of a young life in India is perpetually explored and revealed through a juxtaposition of the two, where a seemingly undisturbed dormitory life is never too far from propulsive student protests that hit the streets as dusk sets in. And serenity found in idle chatter in dorm rooms, while collecting garments from a clothesline or amidst empty sunlit hallways – becomes all but precarious.
The documentary peels back the layers of India’s political milieu and its disastrous impact on its youths. From a strike at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) staged by students over the appointment of a right-wing hardliner and member of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, one of the two major political parties in India) as the institute’s chairman, to wider protests against policies of the Modi government, soaring university fees (a 300-percent hike in fees is mentioned in the film) and the systemic discrimination and marginalisation of the Bahujans and Dalits.
The documentary peels back the layers of India’s political milieu and its disastrous impact on its youths.
Evocative chronicles of a student life (beautifully shot and edited to give a grainy film look) are imbued with a sense of both timelessness and history unfolding in the moment, all seamlessly threaded together by a string of intimate (fictitious) letters discovered in an FTII dorm room, we are told, with correspondences used loosely as the film’s framing device. The hauntingly melancholic letter exchanges take place between the two film students – the young woman, known only by the initial L (read by Bhumisuta Das), and her estranged lover, a relationship with whom is stymied by casteism.
«Our memory cannot keep up with these times, it seems», L says in a letter. In an attempt not to forget the unfurling history, L (an editor) picks up newspaper clippings of significant events where her lover left off, all the while pondering on the transience of collective memory of brutal violence. Modi’s landslide win, the flogging of the young Dalit men in Una, and the Alwar mob lynching, which saw a group of cow vigilantes kill Pehlu Khan, a dairy farmer. A memory of violence seems ever more fleeting, with each image vanishing «as quickly and as horrifyingly» as it appeared. A distressing photo of the farmer begging for mercy was followed by an image of journalist and critic of right-wing Hindu extremism Gauri Lankesh who was shot dead in her house in Bangalore’s Rajarajeshwari Nagar. And then came to a harrowing photo of 8-year-old Muslim girl Asifa Bano who was gang raped and murdered near Kathua in Jammu and Kashmir.
In conjuring a portrait of student protest movements in Modi’s India, the documentary sparks intriguing debates about the purpose of university (and film school) in today’s times and the possibility of artistic and political freedom stalled by nationalist politics. When the student protest flared up at Kapadia’s alma mater (FTII) in 2015 in light of the surprise appointment of BJP member and TV actor turned politician Gajendra Chauhan as the institute’s new chairman (Chauhan’s most popular role was «a Hindu mythological character» in an ’80s soap opera), the students were at the frontline of the fight against the government’s «political appointments» of «RSS sympathisers» (those who are affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or RSS, the right-wing, Hindu nationalist organisation) to various public organisations, including the state-funded film school. The strike, which lasted some 139 days, was animated by the spirit of a larger struggle against the saffronisation of education. To some ‘RSS mouthpieces’, the protesting students were not a «national voice» but «anti-national» freeloaders who benefitted from tax-payer-funded subsidies and promoted an «anti-Hindu» agenda.
Beyond the political collage of India’s modern student protest, the film muses about the role of student politics and mobilisation as part of a process of ‘learning democracy’, as one succinctly put it, that is responding and engaging with conversations and policies in a nuanced and complex fashion. At one of the rallies, pressed up against a woman police officer, with just a uniform separating them, L weighs in on her views of those on the opposite side of the barricade, recalling a late-career poem of Italian filmmaker and writer Pier Paolo Pasolini after clashes of the student unrest of 1968. «I sympathised with the policemen», he wrote, «because [they] are sons of the poor.»