Payal Kapadia’s documentary A Night of Knowing Nothing opens to an unusual aural-visual combination. More than a dozen people dance in a theatre, as an old Bollywood number cuts to ‘Chaiyya Chaiyya’. The contemplative voiceover — reading a series of letters written by a Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) student, “L”, to her boyfriend — starts with, “My love, how are you?”
This split continues to inform the documentary. The on-screen narrative is devoid of conventional characters, scenes, or plot. We get shots of the FTII campus, an old wedding footage, and scraps of text from L’s letters. Shot in black and white, the dim and grainy visuals don’t seem to represent things filmed – or seen – but remembered.
We feel a growing sense of slow ennui – a languid detachment. A woman looking outside the bathroom window, a melancholic Ghatak on an FTII wall, shots of people lying on bed. L talks about editing a complicated film featuring a woman going through an existential crisis. As she opens up – about her relationship, her vulnerability, her longings – the documentary finds a sly seductive style. The voiceover also describes a poignant film school romance: watching a movie together, kissing under the dim projector light, sharing childhood stories.
This surprising romantic quality extends to life itself. At one point, L talks about seeing a friend carrying a candle-lit cake on campus. The occasion? Madhubala’s birthday. Hearing this, she and her friends break into a song, “Pyaar kiya toh darna kya.” Besides capturing a distinct film school joy, this scene also dispels the misconception of Institute people as insufferable serious types who consume Eisenstein, Bergman, and Kiarostami for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It reminded me of a decade-old conversation where, sitting in front of the FTII canteen, two friends and I debated an ‘intellectual’ film question: “#TeamAamir or #TeamShahrukh?”
Screened alongside impressive Indian indies, in New York, from late September to early October — such as Pebbles, The Disciple, Gamak Ghar, among notable others, curated by the Museum of Modern Art – A Night of Knowing Nothing, the only documentary feature on the list, starts with a whisper but inches towards a scream. Because, as we soon find out, this relationship sours. A purportedly progressive man, railing against the authoritarian Union government, L’s boyfriend couldn’t defy his own parents, when they objected to her marginalised caste identity. Who was this guy? She wonders. She remembers their old times; they seem to mock her now. “I mistook your silence for understanding,” she says. “Maybe we never really understood each other.”
Confusion doubling up as betrayal is central to this movie because its other half, the main part, also unfolds like a rotten love story: L’s relationship with her country. It starts from the FTII campus itself – the first college to be attacked by the Narendra Modi government, when the students protested the appointment of a BJP loyalist, Gajendra Chauhan, as its chairman – compelling her to wonder, “Would it have been better had we not gone on a strike?”
The movie covers a series of student-led agitations, from Rohit Vemula’s suicide to anti-Citizenship Amendment (Act) protests. When L conveys her disappointments to her estranged boyfriend – “I’ll now write to someone who I think you could have been” – they seem to mirror her spiralling relationship with her own country.
As India changes, so does L. The arrests of three JNU students in 2016 shake her. Many scenes feature impassioned speeches, rip-roaring slogans, fiery marches. The film makes you feel the spirit of protest: the rippling solidarity, the steely nerve, the relentless vigour – drab life becoming an incendiary documentary. And then we hear this: “Dear, I’ve become a feverish prisoner of rhetoric. Listening to the speeches gives me a strange rush.” Revolution extrapolated in two simple lines: alluring, expansive, addictive.
L’s sharp and nuanced observations steer the documentary with a lot of poise. She says her parents would have objected, too, had she chosen a partner from a more marginalised caste – that, echoing the behavior of dominant caste students in school towards her, she used to treat the ‘lower’ caste students with similar disdain. She sees a female cop at a protest site and ponders the separation between barricades, thinking about Pier Paolo Pasolini supporting the police in a 1968 students’ strike because they were “children of the bourgeoise”.
As the film intensifies its political fire, it shows growing similarities between L and Kapadia. L keeps old newspaper clippings because “you don’t want to forget”. Kapadia capturing L’s journey, perhaps sharing that motivation, adds a meta layer to that exercise: a director immortalising the archives of a fellow film student archiving the disturbing moods of the country.
The movie is compelling, even profound at times, when seen through L. But when it settles into an ‘activist’ mode – via newspaper clippings, speeches, CCTV footage, chronicling popular political events (such as Gauri Lankesh’s murder, the Una lashings, the January 2020 JNU violence, and more) – it loses its potency. Besides regurgitating real-life events, they’ve a clichéd misty-eyed Left politics feel to them. A Kanhaiya Kumar speech is followed by the following text on screen: “Educate, Agitate, Organize – Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar.” This is too polished a film to become so blatantly instructional. And when L vanishes from the movie for some time, it suffers more.
Such straight-forward depictions needed supplemental materials – such as protestors’ or perpetrators’ voices – taking us beyond the newsreels. Kapadia corrects it once, and the result is stirring: A young Muslim student recounting his arrest by an Anti-Terrorism Squad, which blindfolded him, drove him to Lucknow, and jailed him for four months. “Were you tortured in custody?” He is asked. “There are some things I don’t want to tell,” he replies, “because they might scare the students.”
The movie returns to its dreamy state towards the end: the atmospheric visuals, the FTII campus, and the last batch of L’s letters. A student urges his peers to be nuanced; his speech is cross-cut with a few people dancing on campus. We watch the dance gain steam. We hear: “That’s the problem of our generation. I didn’t have anyone to look up to (…) Time has put us in a certain place, and we reacted in the way we could, and that has gained all the momentum.” Time has reached a full circle in the movie. Mirroring its first scene, more dancers have joined. They’re swaying, wiggling, head-banging. The night is young and so are its people – so is their revolution.
This article was first published on The Wire.