A dreamlike documentary that magnifies the personal until it reveals a lucid political collage, Payal Kapadia’s feature debut “A Night of Knowing Nothing” is composed of archival footage, student chronicles of contemporary protests, and letters whispered aloud to an absent lover. Co-written by Kapadia and Himanshu Prajapati, its fictitious framing device — a box discovered in a room at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), containing lost film reels and a diary written by a student known only as “L” — creates several floating layers of dramatic reality, which gently fall atop each other to create a vivid portrait of revolt and oppression, love and pain, and philosophical thought threatened by nationalist agenda.
The central thesis of this New York Film Festival Currents selection can be boiled down to a single question: What is the purpose of a university in modern India? However, its approach to this seemingly simple idea is boldly multifaceted, from its ghostly depiction of young love that blossoms in the absence of parents (and curdles when they re-enter the picture), to its exploration of the modern Indian film school — using decades-old student reels to create an artistic continuum — to the vital role of the student protest within India’s political milieu, and its self-reflexive goal of using socialized education to level the playing field.
Kapadia’s vivid tapestry begins with the magnificently charged image of young adults dancing in silence — like the technical experiments of novice film students, much of the digital footage, edited to closely resemble 8mm and 16mm black-and-white film stock, arrives sound-less and in 4:3 — as widescreen cinematic classics are projected against a far wall and across their moving bodies. The film’s only score in this moment is L’s secret journal (read in a shaky voice by Bhumisuta Das), which speaks of a fellow student with whom she fell in love, a boy named “K.” This combination of lively image and mournful narration imbues the camera’s fly-on-the-wall perspective with a sense of melancholy. As life unfolds with verve and passion, the spectral narrator, L, exists at a remove, as if she were both present amidst the frolic, and distant from it, her heartbreak leaving her unable to get involved.
This sets the stage for the way “A Night of Knowing Nothing” hyper-focuses on the intimate, until it cracks it open from within and lures forth desires that clash, inevitably and unavoidably, with broader political forces that seep into the fabric of young Indian life. L’s romantic abandonment is slowly revealed to have ugly, caste-centric dimensions, which the film carefully peels back as it begins to inject its visual fabric — of everyday student life captured on what appears to be celluloid — with news footage of real events, like FTII’s student strike after the appointment of a new Hindu nationalist chairman. Using this event as a platform, the film pulls back even further, to reveal the wider world of Indian student protests against the Modi government, its discrimination against Muslims, the treatment of “lower” Dalit and Bahujan castes, and cruel hikes in university fees, which seek to re-fashion higher education as a realm of the already wealthy.
The film often uses sound to implore the imagination and to make the viewer project themselves into the students’ spaces and experiences, whether by contrasting images of police violence and youth in revolt with devastating silence or by filling the airwaves with lively chatter when the frame features only the emptiness of mess halls and university corridors. It also oscillates between the propulsive sounds of protests songs and an unsettling musical score, which, in tandem with its haunting narration, creates an atmosphere of soulful echoes similar to other recent pieces of innovative docu-fiction that have found their way to NYFF, like Minh Quý Truong’s “The Tree House,” about Indigenous Vietnamese tribes filmed by a fictitious Martian filmmaker, and Suneil Sanzgiri’s “Letter From Your Far-Off Country,” which also uses letters to explore Indian protests and the modern lineage of anti-caste social reformer B.R. Ambedkar. The students’ Ambedkarite and Leninist politics form a winding aural and narrative landscape, and when the film broadens in scope to capture their revolts, it becomes incredibly riveting.
However, behind the curtain of these political ideologies, it finds a unique vulnerability whenever it slows down to capture individual stories, whether of real students (many of them Muslim or Dalit) under the thumb of a fascist Hindutva government or of L, whose soft voice betrays a defeatist exhaustion. Rousing moments abound whenever students bellow from makeshift pulpits, but the film never shies away from the ceaseless, devastating personal impact of India’s political climate. Its collection of student footage helps establish what’s at stake in subtle and surprising fashion, between sunlight illuminating a dormitory on a mundane morning — an unremarkable normalcy that soon feels threatened — and the gentle nudity of a girl lying in wait for someone unseen. This level of artistry directly evokes L’s story, and indirectly comments on the value of the film itself, and of FTII films in general. Even such a tasteful and thoughtful image would be considered too provocative for the censorious Modi regime.
Kapadia graduated from FTII several years ago, but “A Night of Knowing Nothing” is, in many ways, one of the best student films ever assembled. While shot digitally, it’s indistinguishable from film. The raw and unpolished nature of the footage — its amateur-ness, so to speak, born ironically of expert impersonation — imbues the film with a sense of history unfolding in the moment, as if untouched celluloid were being beamed to us directly from a 16mm camera in the mid-2010s, removing a layer of artifice in order to circumvent time itself. During close-ups of various protesters, a tactile gate weave (the mechanical wobble of film stock being pulled through a camera) makes events feel more volatile and unpredictable. The enormously high contrast of some of the images turns people into stark silhouettes — into shapes and ideas as they move rhythmically through the unfurling of history and a painful love story.
“A Night of Knowing Nothing” screened at the 2021 New York Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.