A Night of Knowing Nothing is a thought-provoking chronicle of what was and what could have been. Payal Kapadia’s latest project begins at the Film and Television Institute of India, travels outwards and loops back to the Pune institute, mapping a journey of youthful idealism congealing into nightmarish reality.

This journey is reflected in the film’s formal approach, with poetic impressions of campus life giving way to the brittle texture of the activist documentary. The reverie, marked by camaraderie and hope, is harshly interrupted by an external event that portends trouble not just for the FTII students but also their peers across the country.

The absorbing film was shot over over a five-year period, beginning in 2015, when FTII students erupted in anger over the appointment of television actor Gajendra Chauhan as the chairperson of the prestigious school.

The agitation was followed by movements at the Hyderabad Central University after the suicide of Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula and protests at the Jawaharlal Nehru University and Jamia Millia Islamia colleges in Delhi over the proposed Citizenship Amendment Act.

The film captures the revolutionary ferment at the colleges as well as the deceptive lull before the storm at FTII. A fictional character known only as “L” writes letters to her lover. L’s voiceover (provided by actor Bhumisuta Das) links philosophical musings with later footage of rallies, speeches and CCTV images of students being manhandled by the police.

Two films compete for attention: one about dreams and another about the waking state.

A Night of Knowing Nothing has been doing the rounds of film festivals since its premiere at Cannes in 2021. Kapadia won the Oeil d’or (Golden Eye) award for best documentary at the reputed festival.

A Night of Knowing Nothing (2021). Courtesy Petit Chaos/Another Birth/Region Nouvelle-Aquitaine

The feature-length production marks both a continuation and departure for 36-year-old Kapadia. Her short films The Last Mango Before the Monsoon, Afternoon Clouds and And What is the Summer Saying were in the zone of fictive experimental cinema.

A Night of Knowing Nothing, which uses recorded and pre-existing footage of the student protests, has a greater bent towards documentary. Might Kapadia have looked back on her student days differently if Chauhan had never been appointed as FTII chairperson?

“Strangely enough, the initial idea for the film was not centred on protest,” Kapadia told Scroll.in. “We had started with interviews with people on campus. These interviews were mostly about personal anxieties about what students might be worried about when they finished their studies or the troubles they were facing in their personal relationships. Pressure from their families to marry within their community was a central theme that continued as it does for many young people in our country. Then slowly, the protests began to creep in.”

Worlds collided but intersected too, Kapadia added – a film that had the quality of a audiovisual collage adapted its form to match the language of agitation.

“We were thinking about the juxtaposition of this youthful life, personal problems and suddenly, amongst all this, the idea and necessity of resistance,” Kapadia said. “They seemed to be two very different streams of thought but we felt that juxtaposing them together would perhaps lead to another way of thinking about this time. But as time progressed and we began to think more about what was going on, it made us realise that the root of the malaise that is growing in our society today was not in political discourse but was somewhere in the privacy of our homes and the intimacy of our relationships. Were these two spaces that seemed to be different, actually not closely linked?”

A Night of Knowing Nothing (2021). Courtesy Petit Chaos/Another Birth/Region Nouvelle-Aquitaine

The interweaving of themes and narrative approaches makes the film hard to classify. A Night of Knowing Nothing is likely to be described as “hybrid”, with a mesh of observed moments, home video footage, staged scenes and Kapadia’s signature flourish – drawn figures projected onto moving images.

“Perhaps the word documentary is loaded with the responsibility of some kind of truth or objectivity,” Kapadia pointed out. “This, as we know from the history of non-fiction cinema, is a fallacy. From the very advent of documentary, scenes have been shot or recreated from the perspective of the filmmaker. In that sense, perhaps these definitions were more limiting than anything else. I like to call this film a hybrid non-fiction. The idea of a fluid form is exciting for me.”

The film has been beautifully shot by Ranabir Das in wispy black-and-white with bursts of saturated colour (Das also serves as editor). Monochrome often signifies a past that has vanished and can never be reclaimed – nostalgia tinged with poignancy.

In A Night of Knowing Nothing, the black-and-white passages point to the importance of remembering both the loveliness and the horror – students dancing away to a Hindi film song or hanging out in a contemplative state in their dormitories, and students taking on the might of a government bent on silencing the country’s sonic youth.

“Black and white does evoke a sense of nostalgia, and nostalgia is usually connected to something good,” Kapadia pointed out. “But in the film, we are not really yearning for the past, or claiming that the past was better. We wanted to create this feeling for the times that we have lived through which although difficult have given us a hope in the collective of people coming together for what they believe in.”

Quoting Milan Kundera’s observation “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting”, Kapadia added, “We wanted the film to have a feeling of timelessness. Almost like the viewer is in the future, and looking back at this time. Maybe it is easier to gain perspective when one looks back at the past.”

Payal Kapadia.

Kapadia was a relatively late admission to FTII direction course. She enrolled in 2012 at 26, after having already earned a degree in economics and a post-graduate diploma in media studies in Mumbai.

The FTII experience was deeply enriching for Kapadia. “It was the first time for me to be in a public university space with such a vast variety of classmates,” she recalled. “My direction classroom had nine unique students and each of them were from different parts of the country. Although I have a lot of privilege being the daughter of an artist mother [Nalini Malani], I didn’t have any academic background in either art or film. Exposure at a young age to these things of course was very helpful but to study them in a rigorous manner at FTII was something that helped me formulate my own practice to a great extent.”

In Kapadia’s version of the celebrated film Memories of Underdevelopment – a subjective visual diary of personal and political tumult in Cuba over the decades – the ineffable is evened out by the tangible. The device of using L’s voiceover was part of the larger conceit.

“Initially when we were editing the film, we were using stray voices from the interviews we had made,” Kapadia said. “But our interviews were long and could not finally be used in their actual form. We felt as if some of their nuances were being lost in cutting them short. We decided to create a fictional character and narrative to cover some of the themes we had picked up and the events that were taking place around us. That’s when we decided to work with Himanshu [Prajapati], my co-writer. We were classmates and had some shared memories and experiences of FTII but he also brought a different dimension to the film and to this character. Later on we had Neel [Mani Kant] come in as a script consultant to help refine the text and even the actor, Bhumisuta, brought in some changes to the character.”

A Night of Knowing Nothing (2021).