Payal Kapadia’s A Night of Knowing Nothing
Adopting the mode of docufiction, A Night of Knowing Nothing moves between vérité chronicle, imaginary narrative, and private archive.
A Night of Knowing Nothing
In the opening scene of Payal Kapadia’s Oeil d’or-winning documentary A Night of Knowing Nothing (2021), a group of students at the state-funded Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) dance exuberantly against the backdrop of a giant screen on which a film plays. Shot, as most of the film is, in black and white, the scene features young bodies vibing, cinema looming large, the future just out of frame—the jouissance is palpable. Set to a quiet voiceover by fictional FTII student, L, reading out a love letter, the asynchronous recitation makes the sequence almost unreal, as though it were a memory or a dream, the past and the future transforming the present as it unfolds.
Adopting the mode of docufiction, A Night of Knowing Nothing moves between vérité chronicle, imaginary narrative, and private archive to capture the stakes and spirit of the student protests that have dogged India since Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the ruling Hindu nationalist party, came to power in 2014. The film includes footage both found and made, interspersed with Hindi/Bangla letter readings and occasional drawings of L (a resident of FTII hostel room S18), and old, high-saturation color home videos belonging to the family of curator Sumesh Sharma (sourced from an online moving image archive called Pad.ma). This mix of techniques draws out the tension between collective history and the personal encounter with it, as an individual and as a member of society at a given point in time. The adaptation of existing film positions cinema itself as a form of remembrance, a critical companion of history that arrests its intensities.
Postcolonial India’s robust public university system was set up to provide free or heavily subsidised education for a largely poor population. Since the rise of the far right, this ambition has been undermined through various strategies such as the encouragement of privatised education and the weakening of state-funded academies through fee hikes, free rein to historical institutional oppression, as well as the appointment of party loyalists as university administrators. Protests, crackdowns by the police, and attacks by right-wing militants at public universities across many years of a majoritarian government (prominent among them the director’s alma mater, the Film and Television Institute of India, as well as Jawaharlal Nehru University, University of Hyderabad, Jamia Millia Islamia, and Aligarh Muslim University) become the backdrop against which A Night of Knowing Nothing distills the experience of being young in a time of fascism. The choice of a grainy, monochromatic palette mimicking celluloid is meant to express “nostalgia for the times we live in,” and the use of an encompassing non-diegetic sound design challenges the indexical relationship between reality and representation. The poetics of the public university campus, home video excerpts of a bygone sociality, and letters as a metaphorical framing device produce a texture that contextualises contemporary “found footage” of state violence and citizen resistance that is the staple of the political documentary.
The camera lingers on the edges and shadows of hostel façades and interiors, absorbing the desultoriness of campus life through evocative images—trees rustle outside a window, figures loll in bed, a cat prowls in a corridor. When a goldfish bowl refracts light against the wall behind it, it is almost an iteration of the film’s palette, emphasising the dusk preceding the titular night. These gossamer fragments of the Indian university experience are rescued from indulgence by scenes of students consuming news of a worsening political climate, organising against the government, and holding union meetings. The gauziness of early campus scenes is all the more poignant because of the devastation that becomes apparent as the film progresses—universities become sites of agitation, police brutality, and ruling party-backed violence. The word “campus” comes from the Latin for “field.” In A Night of Knowing Nothing, the campus is the field of vision and action from which the darkness of the Modi regime is sensed and navigated.
The sound design of the film makes haunting use of silence, allowing room tone, long pauses, and an atmospheric heaviness to bolster the impact of the fictional narrations, real speeches, and testimonies that accompany footage from protests and crackdowns. In the aftermath of University of Hyderabad student Rohith Vemula’s suicide in 2016, young protestors make art on the roads while a Bahujan student decries the Brahminical state’s efforts to exclude Dalit communities from education. During the protests against the unconstitutional Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in 2019–2020, a twenty-three-year-old Muslim student describes his ordeal of arrest and custody as the camera drifts across crowds of students sloganeering, chanting, and carrying banners condemning the government. Their accounts are all the more compelling for being disembodied, as though they could be any one amongst the fierce demonstrators putting their bodies on the line.
While on the surface the film’s compilation of found footage from protests brings it in conversation with political documentaries like Chris Marker’s Grin Without a Cat (1977), Harun Farocki and Andrei Ujică’s Videograms of a Revolution (1992), and, more recently, João Moreira Salles’s In the Intense Now (2017), A Night of Knowing Nothing subverts formal expectations of what chronicles of youth in revolt look like. The drama on the streets rages alongside private turmoils playing out in life. Infusing a contemporary canon of images of repression and defiance with an aesthetic of intimacy, Kapadia’s film is less interested in the analysis of nationwide student movements than in its eros. Evidence is almost a banal fetish at this point; what does fascism do to the quotidian business of life? For example, what does it reveal about the act of loving? In a caste-based and conservative society like India where love is controlled, litigated, and punished, its challenge to social and political tyranny is uniquely potent. It is intimately tied to the condition of youth, symptomized by rebellion, romance, and the possibility of forging relations outside feudal structures—precisely in public universities, for example.
The film’s epistolary punctuation emphasises the anguish, heartbreak, and social paradoxes that even serious youth rebellions must contend with: in one instance, L asks her upper-caste lover/addressee how he could stand with her against the government and yet be unable to withstand his own family’s disapproval for being in a relationship with a lower-caste woman. The promise of radical love seems as unlikely as the national utopia once dreamed of by Indians. Dreaming is a recurring motif in the film—characters dream of loving freely, of making films, of surviving state violence. In one particularly harrowing sequence, L narrates her nightmare as we see the infamous CCTV footage of the Delhi police’s invasion of the Jamia Millia Islamia library in December 2019. She recounts the horror of seeing all her friends disappearing one by one, the real friends of the director (thanked in the credits) giving way to names of the young Indian dissidents braving jail for their principles (Devangana Kalita, Natasha Narwal, and Safoora Zargar have since been released; Umar Khalid continues to be imprisoned).
The theme of friendship runs through the film’s body like a charge, from its dance party opening to its final moments (“For our friends.”—it concludes). The act of creating art itself, as in the case of filmmaking, is a communitarian exercise: this is emphasised by the fact that L’s letters contain reports of her work on her friends and classmates’ films. This aspect of A Night of Knowing Nothing, combined with the political angst, black-and-white moodiness, and use of the letter as a frame, recalls the spirit of Amma Ariyan (Report to Mother ) made by another FTII alumnus, John Abraham, as part of the Odessa Collective. Kapadia has talked about how A Night of Knowing Nothing came together with the help of her filmmaker friends who shared with her footage they shot of student protests in other cities.
For many Indian students, the fight to protect their alma maters and nation has taken up their youth. For viewers, like myself, who studied at the embattled universities during these turbulent years, recognising a familiar face or name or hearing a familiar voice in a movie brings little joy and is a reminder of what we have lost. This is the nostalgia for the present that has slipped away, the longing for our homes, be they our midcentury hostels, the company of our friends now in jail, or our commons now constantly surveilled and policed.
A Night of Knowing Nothing is an elegy for the civic life of the young. It is a life conducted in the roles of classmates, friends, comrades, allies, and fellow citizens of the republic during a period when the promise of a utopian future has perhaps been irreversibly broken. Or perhaps dawn is imminent. The Marxist Urdu poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz, whose verse electrified young Indians during the protests against the CAA, once wrote, “Long is the night of sorrow, but it is only the night.” Maybe, like the final frame of the film, we will dance again.