“The Way Forward is the Only Exit”: Payal Kapadia on A Night of Knowing Nothing
In 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi appointed Gajendra Chauhan, a B-list actor and member of the right-wing BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), as chairman of the Film and Television Institute of India. Recognizing this as yet another BJP maneuver to saffronize (rewrite with right-wing policies and Hindu-nationalist agendas) curriculums, students protested and struck. Police arrested and tortured such dissenters across national institutes; administrations hiked up entry exam fees and cut nonconforming students’ stipends. Persisting today, the BJP’s violent acts of suppression especially affect students of the Dalit caste. But film students across campuses (including the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute) continue to fight the censorship and distortion of their education and art.
In A Night of Knowing Nothing, Payal Kapadia combines footage of such students organizing and dancing, home videos and archival footage through the fictional storyline of an FTTI student. “Inside a cupboard in room S18 of a hostel in the Film & Television Institute of India,” the opening titles explain, “a box was found with several assorted items–newspaper cuttings, dried flowers, and memory cards. Amongst them were letters written by a student of the film school only named by the initial ‘L.’” Throughout the film, L narrates letters to her lover, who soon stops responding; she continues to write him anyway. Sometimes her words are diaristic, other times they’re meant for her silent lover, an idea of him, or someone or something else. This unrequited, inter-caste romance casts a sense of intense longing over the rest of the film. Kapadia talked with me about crafting L’s voice, sourcing sounds and images, imperfect memory during the filmmaking process and avoiding the trap of nostalgia.
Filmmaker: What is the source of the room tone that opens the film? Are there any particularly interesting room tone sources throughout?
Payal Kapadia: I am preoccupied with room tone as the inner sound of the film. Thank you for noticing it. It is sometimes a room tone recorded on digital recorders, sometimes a Nagra analog recording. As the entire sound design is non-diegetic, I wanted the room tone to be like a body that holds all the sounds together. It also sometimes gives the feeling of film being projected.
Filmmaker: Are the home videos and archival footage all sourced from filmmakers within your community?
Kapadia: The archival 8mm footage is from the family footage of Mr. Sumesh Sharma, shot by his grandfather. He had put all this footage online on Pad.ma, an artist-run online archive of found footage. Sumesh was kind enough to let us use the footage as we wished. The footage of some demonstrations was given to us by our friends. Many of them shot student protests all over the country and were kind enough to share their rushes.
Filmmaker: There is a lot of dancing in the film scored to silence or music that did not actually play in that moment. How would you articulate the effect of doing that here within the context of the film?
Kapadia: I was not interested in diegetic sound for this film. Our approach to sound was such that it does not illustrate the image but is juxtaposed to create a third meaning.
Filmmaker: You keep the images and soundtrack just out of sync or totally separate, I believe, only making exceptions for certain protest scenes.
Kapadia: I think it’s the same answer. The room tone, with the intricate sound design, was done to evoke a feeling rather than become an illustration of the image. The sound was always planned to be non-diegetic, becoming diegetic only in some instances. I did this in my earlier short documentary too, but wanted to experiment with the idea further in A Night of Knowing Nothing. It also helped because a lot of the recordings were done on the camera mic or a small external recorder. As the recording quality was so unprofessional, we had to find some way to deal with the sound.
Filmmaker: Do you feel the film is not traditionally nostalgic? Or is it nostalgic as the word is redefined in the film, which can account for hardship and the love, community, etc. that forms despite it?
Kapadia: I think nostalgia is always associated with something “good,” but the past isn’t actually so. We wanted to generate that feeling associated with nostalgia but for the times that we inhabit. I think we have a lot of affection for this time that we got to be with our friends, to form a community and a new family. But there was a lot of hardship too. I think many of us who studied at public universities in India owe them a lot for who we have become. Of course, there are contradictions here too, with a lot of problems within the community. And those have to be addressed.
Filmmaker: “I saw a figure crouching in the bushes…suddenly… [whispering] it started to move towards me and I realized it was her father!” I love how the horror is elevated through the narration.
Kapadia: This particular dream was narrated to me by my friend, filmmaker Mukul Haloi. It really stayed with me. He had said it to me in a very casual manner, but the thought of this father figure chasing him through the forest evoked somehow a sense of the state. We then worked on the text and re-recorded it to evoke a sense of fear. I think it brings up these questions about love and fear, as well as the fear of the patriarchal figure, very well.
Filmmaker: Was none of the imagery in the film premeditated? Did you not want to impose anything on how or what everyone filmed and retain the comfort of filming what is present and ubiquitous?
Kapadia: Some of the images were premeditated, especially things we shot on campus. However, it was not staged in the traditional sense. It was mostly about spending time with people on campus and seeing what they were doing on a day-to-day basis. Whether it was a friend taking an afternoon nap, or someone hanging their laundry up inside their bedroom because it was raining outside, these images already existed. But we shot them in a specific manner. The images of protest, of course, were not at all in our control, and many things we got as found footage, so there was no question of objectives. At one point though, when we knew where the film was heading, we did shoot more protests.
Filmmaker: How did images like the stars superimposed above the man sleeping come about?
Kapadia: That was one image that was constructed. Our friend Ritwik already had this moving star disco light in his room. We had spent time there, so we were aware of it and used it to make this image. The light was in his room and not superimposed.
Filmmaker: At one point in the film, L talks about how a director, whose film she is cutting, thinks she sees hidden patterns in the footage of his film that he can’t see. But, she says, in truth it’s something neither of them fully understand.
Kapadia: The film was made on the editing table. At the beginning of shooting, we didn’t really have a clear plan of what this film would be. Only when we started getting footage from friends did we start editing with a vague plan. But these lines are a bit of a tongue-in-cheek dig at our own editing process. In the context of the film narrative, the lines were written by Himanshu and myself, as we wanted to evoke that typical problem we had in film school: we sometimes made such obscure films that no one understood them. We were just taking a dig at this typical obscure film school film that we have all made at some point.
Filmmaker: Some filmmakers in the film shout the names of Eistenstein and Pudovkin. What about Soviet cinema resonates with these film collectives, and what other cinematic influences influenced not only their filmmaking but their means of protest, community, etc.?
Kapadia: Our film school was set up with the Soviet film school model in mind. We would also get prints of many of these films, including films from the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries. I think these films were very closely linked with our film learning process as well. We also studied cinematic form through these films. For example, we learned about montage through Eisenstein.
Filmmaker: Do you want to mention any artists, filmmakers, activists, communities or organizations that influence you and/or your work?
Kapadia: There are too many artists that influence me. Ritwik Ghatak, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Miguel Gomes, Ben Rivers, István Szabó, Chris Marker, John Berger, the Iranian poet Forugh Farrokhzad are just a few names that come to mind but there are many more.
Filmmaker: As the film encourages not shying away from hard truths or forgetting “fleeting violence,” how did you want to sensitively approach showing some of the police violence towards students?
Kapadia: Police violence is an underlying theme throughout the film. However, whenever I have been to protests, I am always concerned about the police as well, because they are really not paid well enough and also have a lot of hardship with long hours and not much support when it comes to healthcare or education. So, there are mixed feelings of fear and concern. I have tried to address this contradiction through the letter about Pasolini [which discusses this letter, in which he unexpectedly sides with police rather than student protesters].
A lot of this is part of our everyday life in India. There is hardly a day where such news will not be in a newspaper. For some fortunate like myself, they will remain newspaper articles, but for many people it is the reality of their everyday life. But in the film, we wanted to give a sense of the zeitgeist without getting into dates and times, as that can often be confusing.
Filmmaker: Have you received backlash from the government for making and releasing this film? If you cannot discuss this, I understand.
Kapadia: None yet. We do plan to show it in India later this year.
Filmmaker: What was your impetus for how and when to use color footage (mostly golds, reds, and greens)?
Kapadia: The color was dictated by the footage we found. It was an old 8mm archive and Ranbir and I were keen to keep its original colors intact.
Filmmaker: Why the sound of thunder and rain over those wide frames of the landscape?
Kapadia: The storm was coming. You hear it before you see it. And, from this point onwards, the sinister elements of the film start to penetrate the narrative.
Filmmaker: “…Each image vanished as quickly and horrifically as it happened. A fleeting memory of violence” Then there’s a line elsewhere about how memory is rewritten and called “history.” Can you talk about these lines from the narration?
Kapadia: These thoughts were often inspired by Milan Kundera’s lines “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” In our current political scenario, there is a desperate attempt to erase and rewrite history. Since the BJP has come into power, it has also worked hard at changing textbooks, building new monuments and, in some cases, literally re-writing history. These reflections are part of negotiating this situation.
Filmmaker: “I don’t understand how you could protest…but not stand up to the casteism of your parents.” I appreciated this part about people who are unafraid to confront their government but not their parents.
Kapadia: A significant impulse in this film was to talk about contradictions. We also wanted to be self-reflexive of our own movements, which have stemmed from protecting certain values while many of us have failed to do so when it’s come to discrimination in our daily lives, our families, our relationships. Political leaders don’t arise from thin air but are elected by us. If we don’t start the discourse at the fundamental level of our own families and peers, it seems futile to lament the rise of certain political figures in our countries.
Filmmaker: Can you talk about the choice to make L write to someone who eventually stops responding?
Kapadia: The main impulse was to start the film off as love letters that finally became diary entries. Also, it didn’t make any sense to give voice to a character who wasn’t very nice, no?
Filmmaker: What is the context of the shot of the woman staring into the camera as the narrator confesses her fear of the escalating situation?
Kapadia: Again, a lot of it is about dealing with found footage. This was a shot we took on the film school campus in totally another context. But while we were editing, we put the words over this image to see how it felt and it seemed OK. A lot of decisions are made on the basis of trials and experimentation! Sometimes things work, many times they fail. In fact, many sequences never made it into the film. Sometimes we joke that we could have made a whole other film with those!
Filmmaker: “Love, Peace, Music, Strike, Resistance, People, Cinema, Loneliness”: these written words in the film seem to resonate among my peers who have seen the film. Where are they from?
Kapadia: All the wall texts and graffiti were scribbled on the school walls during the strike. In fact, even the title A Night of Knowing Nothing was written by an unknown poet on the board outside the main theatre at the school. We stumbled upon it while shooting.
Filmmaker: “Time has put us in a certain place, we reacted, and that has gained us all the momentum.” Can you talk about this idea of prioritizing the present that the film school communities espouse?
Kapadia: We have a tendency to glorify the past when actually it is the past that has led us to the current circumstances. If the past was perfect, we would not be in this situation at all. Because we have not addressed the wrongs of the past, they have festered like rotting wounds into the current situation. The way forward is the only exit.
Filmmaker: I’m curious what you observed about your own memory during the making of your film. How much of the film from beginning to end could you grasp completely by memory? Is it possible, while editing a film, to be aware of the arrangement of every shot? If not, what do you make of that lack of complete comprehension?
Kapadia: I think this is particularly true for a film like this because the sequences don’t really follow a linear narrative. Even the recalling of some moments is jumping the “timeline,” going back and forth in time. There are times when I know the film entirely and others when I discover something new in it. I try not to watch it too many times, because I like seeing it again with fresh eyes as if it is something new. This film relies a lot on emotions and if I knew it so well, I would stop having any feelings towards it. I am not sure though… I think over time, I will not recall a lot of it in minute detail and rediscover it upon a rewatch.