The filmmaking workshop was scheduled before his suicide, and the protests that followed forced its postponement. When the workshop was finally held, Rohith Vemula had become an emblem of caste prejudice at Hyderabad Central University, students had been politicised about Dalit issues and institutional discrimination, and Ramchandra PN had a film on his hands.
The documentary The Unbearable Being of Lightness is both a record of the five-day workshop that Ramchandra eventually conducted with mass communication students at HCU and an account of college protests. Ramchandra, whose documentaries include the award-winning Miyar House and Lohit Diary, records the thoughts and views of the students as they discuss Vemula‘s suicide on January 17, 2016, caste and the position of Dalits in the social hierarchy. These voices are run over the action at Shopcom, the shopping area at HCU that was the main site of the protests. Here, banners and posters mourn Vemula’s death, a provisional bust of the PhD scholar is installed, and protest musicians sing out their support.
Ramchandra intersperses this footage with an actor’s narration of Vemula’s suicide note. Text from a Hindustan Times
article by Sudipto Mondal, which reveals details about Vemula’s family, is read out on a blank screen.
“Since the workshop took place after the strike that followed Rohith’s death, I had to react,” Ramchandra said. “It would have been impossible to be neutral at that point. The students had been through the death and the protests. There was bitterness and sadness, and they were facing question marks. I thought I should bring it all out and take them to Shopcom where the protests were taking place.”
Ramchandra didn’t use the footage shot by the students during the workshop. He also did not dip into the amateur footage shot by the protestors. “I didn’t want a workshop film, nor did I want a protest film, because I wanted a reflective tone that would have the points of view of the students and beyond,” he said. “That is why I have used Sudipto Mondal’s article, because that is the story of two-three generations.”
The filmmaker’s contemplative approach addresses a major challenge facing filmmakers and journalists who want to explore protests at colleges and universities. Unlike in the past, students are far more attuned to the power of images and shoot their own photographs and footage. The students are also generating their own narratives of the events, which leaves the outside chronicler with too much and too little.
“The challenge is to provide a context – for instance, both the students and I have shot the performance of a Faiz poem, but we have done it differently,” Ramchandra said. He has shown the self-funded documentary at Manipal University, and hopes to hold screenings at HCU and across the country.