Angry students, clueless teachers and the colour red: Ketan Mehta’s ‘Holi’

The 1984 movie, based on the Mahesh Elkunchwar play, resonates with the situation across college campuses in the country.

How should dissent be addressed? Holi (1984), based on Mahesh Elkunchwar’s play of the same name, begins with Jehangir Choudhary’s handheld camera peering into the squalid rooms of a hostel where students have gathered for an all-night drinking session. The camera moves stealthily like a private investigator through the hallways of the college campus, filming students who are waking up after a night of revelry. The apparatus appears to be looking for evidence of their immorality, just like the politicians who believe that the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus in Delhi is a hotbed for anti-national and libidinous activities.

The students in Ketan Mehta’s movie find out at the break of dawn that they don’t have a holiday on Holi. Instead, they are supposed to attend classes and a function to honour the founder of the college. They are in no mood to comply. So what do these rebels without a cause do?

They rant against the educational system, which they term a slave factory, they indulge in petty scuffles in the canteen, they rag fellow students, they destroy campus property. They seem to have no direction, are fed up with a didactic curriculum and uninspiring teachers, and loiter around the campus seeking romance.

In real life, such a situation would involuntarily allow politicians to meddle with college management committees. In an early scene in the movie, an agitated Om Puri, who plays the college principal, challenges an idealistic professor played by Naseeruddin Shah: “Will you be teaching me how to run the college?”

In a recent interview about Holi, Mehta said he was inspired by a strike at his alma mater, the Film and Television Institute of India. “I made Holi in 1984 which was about internalised violence which society imposed upon students,” he said. “There was a strike at FTII when I was a student there. I was reliving the experience through the movie.”

Aamir Khan and Kitu Gidwani.
Aamir Khan and Kitu Gidwani.

What was true then is also true now of the current state of student politics. Holi paints a grim picture of the consequences of challenging an educational system in which the liberty to pursue a creative vocation is stifled and dissent is firmly discouraged as a form of expression.

The film encapsulates in a day’s events the many anxieties of young men and women who are dissatisfied with their socio-political environment. Their protests lead to a dramatic climax that puts an even bigger question mark on their future.

Apart from starring Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Deepti Naval and Paresh Rawal, all of whom are stellar, the movie launched the careers of several raring young actors, including a loutish Aamir Khan (credited as Aamir Hussain), Neeraj Vora, Ashutosh Gowariker, Amole Gupte and Raj Zutshi, and Kitu Gidwani as Khan's girlfriend.

Filmed in fluid long takes, a style that was later used by Gus Van Sant in his school tragedy Elephant, (2003), Holi is an early entry in the campus docu-drama genre and worth revisiting on a day of merriment.

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