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How Payal Kapadia ‘found’ her documentary film which won the L’Oeil d’Or at Cannes

Filmmaker Payal Kapadia on her latest documentary, A Night of Knowing Nothing, which won the Golden Eye award at the recent 74th Cannes Film Festival, and longing for a different future

Written by Suanshu Khurana |
Updated: August 9, 2021 9:50:57 am
Payal KapadiaPayal Kapadia and Ranabir Das at Cannes (Photo: Guillaume Lutz)

There is something fundamentally democratic about correspondence through letters. The words from the other end are not just a window into the sender’s soul but also allow for journeys that the receiver had probably never been on before. Mumbai-based filmmaker Payal Kapadia uses the tenderness and vulnerability of the written word as the main filament of her latest film, A Night of Knowing Nothing. It’s a fleeting glimpse into the world of its anonymous protagonist, L, while cataloguing her love letters to her beloved. “An essay film that mixes reality and fiction”, according to Kapadia, the film does what moving images don’t do very often – uncover the state of a nation. In this case, the idea of being young in contemporary India.

The film, produced by Petit Chaos, a French production house, has won the prestigious Oeil d’or, e prix du documentaire (The Golden Eye, The Documentary Prize) at the recent 74th Cannes Film Festival, making Kapadia the first Indian to receive the honour since the award’s initiation six years ago. Kapadia’s film was up against Academy Award-winning English filmmaker Andrea Arnald’s Cow, American director Todd Haynes’ The Velvet Underground, Irish documentarian Mark Cousins’ The Storms of Jeremy Thomas, veteran Italian director and actor Marco Bellocchio’s Man Can Wait and US-based Indian filmmaker Rahul Jain’s Invisible Demons.

Afternoon Clouds Still from Afternoon Clouds

Kapadia places the love story in concomitance with the political matters of concern and contention. As it documents a relationship, the film archives contemporary realities of caste discrimination, communalism, subversion of freedom of speech and expression, censorship on political dissent, the use of nationalism to trample on constitutional loyalties, and right-wing nationalists holding sway – issues that have been significant to India and the world in the last decade. “We have started seeing politics as something separate from us, but that is not the case. A filmmaker’s political position shows clearly in her film. No one can shy away from that. Cinema is very transparent,” says Kapadia, 35, in an email interview from Paris, after winning the award.

A graduate from Pune’s Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Kapadia roped in Bhumisuta Das as the film’s narrator, a graduate from Delhi’s National School of Drama, whose voiceover takes one through the trials of L’s life. Kapadia was keen that the film should feel like a personal journal. Even as L, who is a student at FTII, talks of love, it’s not without the mention of caste since K’s parents won’t accept her, one from a lower caste. The shadowy realities of other incidents that affected campus life is where Kapadia trains her lens – be it of the Dalit scholar, of the University of Hyderabad, Rohith Vemula’s suicide in 2015, FTII protests in the same year, where the students refused to accept actor-turned-politician Gajendra Chauhan as their chairperson, the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) protests next year or those at other universities around the country.

Kapadia also shows us the unseen and unheard in all of this. She uses silence through much of the film even when there is fervent activity on screen. There are students dancing, fiery speeches, police manhandling, yet through all of it her monochrome shots, many from FTII, are merged with other “found footage” to evoke a sense of melancholy.

And What is the Summer Saying Still from And What is the Summer Saying

The film title too, she says, was “found”. Kapadia’s partner and the film’s cinematographer and editor Ranabir Das had clicked a few photos at the FTII campus, when the two were students there. On one of these shoot nights, he came across a poem on a wall, titled “A Night of Knowing Nothing”. The poet was unknown. “The line really resonated with us,” says Kapadia. “There is also a vulnerability that this title evoked. The film could be perceived as one long unpredictable night, where we are in the dark about what will happen next,” says Kapadia.

Ranabir and Kapadia shot stray conversations in 2016-17, but there was no holistic vision until 2019. The two then got more footage from FTII campus from filmmakers and friends Prateek Vats and Shubham apart from archival material from various sources and decided to bind these seemingly disconnected images through the letters. The two were inspired by filmmakers such as Chris Marker in Sans Soleil (1983) and Miguel Gomes in Redemption (2013), who use these hybrid formats in non-fiction. “The letters are fictional. We didn’t approach the film as a documentary nor as fiction but we used tools from reality and sometimes made up narratives to speak about our personal truth” says Kapadia, who adds that it is very liberating to free oneself from the confines of these definitions of documentary and fiction.

In 2015, months before Kapadia began to shoot A Night of Knowing Nothing, she was at the forefront of the infamous four-month protests at the FTII campus that were held against the appointment of Chauhan as the new chairperson of the institute. On August 5, 2015, the 68th day of the protest, while the students abandoned classes and made rousing speeches, Prashant Pathrabe, the then director of FTII issued a notice to the 2008 batch to vacate the hostel on the grounds of overstaying. An order of assessment of their film projects, which were mostly incomplete, was passed. Calling it “irrational and unjustified”, the students went to his office seeking answers. The students held Pathrabe captive and formed a human chain around the office. This was followed by a midnight crackdown by the police where five students were arrested. About 35 students were later named in the charge sheet. Kapadia was one of the 35 students. She was charged with disciplinary action, lost her scholarship and the opportunity to participate in the foreign exchange programme, alongside seven other students.

A Night of Knowing Nothing Still from A Night of Knowing Nothing

Filmmaker Vikas Urs, Kapadia’s batchmate at FTII, who was one of the five students arrested during the midnight crackdown, recalls those tough months. “It was a big ego issue for them (the government) and they came down on all of us heavily,” says Urs, “Everything that we anticipated then, has come true. Like a lot of us, and for Payal too, the film is the catharsis we all wanted. Her film is a double-edged sword because the institute uses it for branding, despite all they did to us. But you can’t stop the march of time,” says Urs, who adds that a lot of the students were shooting the protests at the time.

After her 13-minute short film Afternoon Clouds (2017), on an elderly lady and her domestic help, made it to the 70th Cannes International Festival in the competition category in 2017, FTII reversed its decision and decided to support Kapadia through a letter and travel expenses for the scholarship. The authorities observed that she had been “disciplined”.

Kapadia does not delve on the issue. The matter of the students and FTII is still going on in a Pune court and awaiting trial. But in an answer to another question about the film being a kind of intervention for the nation, she says, “We owe a lot to public education to make us the filmmakers we are… Universities are spaces of freedom. This is why we needed to make this film. As students who have been part of them, it is our responsibility to protect what they stand for so that the next generation can benefit,” says Kapadia.

Kapadia grew up in Mumbai and at Rishi Valley — a boarding school in Andhra Pradesh. Being the daughter of veteran artist Nalini Malani came as a “huge privilege”, says Kapadia, with a lot of opportunities to look at art and discuss it. Malani’s politically motivated works have had quite an impact on a young Kapadia. “My mother’s work reacts to the world in a way that is much more present and full of pain, but coming from a feminine space. I think this is something that has become deeply ingrained in me,” says Kapadia, who grew up watching a lot of “art house cinema”.

It’s at FTII that she met Ranabir. It was an age, he says, when they’d see families object to other castes or religions. Kapadia chose to use the device of a love story to tell of her love for India, with its many complications and layers. “Love is also political, no? Especially in our country, where falling in love comes with a great deal of social complications, which even lead to violence,” says Kapadia.

And thus, at the heart of the film is this turmoil and an intense sense of yearning – to be free, to be able to have the basic fundamental rights. “How do you create cinema otherwise,” says Urs. The concept of longing is something that Kapadia has always been fascinated by. “I don’t see it as just a yearning for a person but as a state of being. Maybe this yearning also can be translated to the desire for a certain kind of future or society that one sees as an ideal,” she says.

If Afternoon Clouds (2017), created without a digital camera and entirely on film, presents this idea through using artist Arpita Singh’s paintings, an experimental film, And What is the Summer Saying (2018), which made it to Berlinale’s Shorts Competition the same year, is a dream-like story of desire and longing, told through voices heard in a Maharashtrian village.

A Night of Knowing Nothing attempts to explore the same idea differently. It has the feeling of a home film, shot on a moving camera, and is perhaps inspired by her mother’s own work on photograms and 8mm and 16 mm films. Kapadia is currently working on her first feature film, which will be a co-production between France and India.

Will A Night of Knowing Nothing eventually see the light of the day in India? Kapadia is optimistic. She recalls one of her mother’s collaborations with former National School of Drama director Anuradha Kapoor in 1997. It was a performance based on German playwright Bertolt Brecht’s play, The Job. Malani had created the sets for the performance. A 12-year-old Kapadia sat in the audience and watched the last lines projected on the walls — “By the sweat of thy brow, thy shall fail to earn thy bread”.

“These words still ring in my body. I feel a sense of hopelessness that my parents’ generation failed to bring about an idea of India that was as inclusive as they had hoped. Perhaps the status quo was not challenged enough by them. So now we need to have greater accessibility in art practices for those who don’t read about discrimination in books but who face it in their daily lives,” she says.

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