One of the most telling testimonials in The Sound of Silence, Bina Paul’s documentary on how gender issues play out in Kerala’s colleges, is by Dinu, a student in Kozhikode.

In 2015, Dinu was suspended for breaking one of the rules stipulated by his college: “Girls and boys must sit separately in a classroom.” When Dinu tried to question the rule, he and his friends were asked to leave the classroom. The situation worsened when the principal ruled that Dinu and his classmates could enter the classroom only after they brought their parents to college.

A stay order from the local court finally got Dinu back into the classroom.

“How does sitting together on a bench become a disciplinary issue?” he poignantly asks in Paul’s compelling documentary. “It was nothing but moral policing.”

The Sound of Silence, which was screened at the Public Service Broadcasting Trust’s Open Frame festival in Delhi, travels to various colleges across Kerala and records voices such as Dinu’s. The film explores issues linked to gender, including segregation, rules that put severe curbs on the movement of women, and pressure on female students to marry and abandon their education.

Through interviews with students, teachers, parents and heads of institutions, Paul finds a veiled silence when it comes to talking about gender justice in colleges. The rules, though, are plenty: a girl must not be seen on campus with a boy after class hours. All girls must be back inside their rooms by 7pm.

In the case of Dinu too, the trouble began when he questioned this silence. “There is segregation but the way they treat students who question this is totally inhuman,” he says in the film.

The Sound of Silence (2017).

A report commissioned by the Kerala State Higher Education Council triggered Paul’s documentary.

In 2015, there was a spike in protests on campuses across Kerala. A few months before Dinu’s case, female students from a college in Thiruvananthapuram had squatted outside their hostel as a form of protest against the 6.30pm curfew. “Why not an early curfew for boys as well?” asked one of the students, leading what became popularly known as the Break the Curfew protests. A report called Samagati was finally sanctioned on the lines of Saksham, a similar report commissioned by the University Grants Commission. The goal of the Samagati report was to examine issues of gender on campuses in Kerala.

However, Paul found that the report’s findings were beginning to be ignored. “The report commissioned in 2015 is gathering dust after being presented to the government,” said Paul, a veteran film editor and one of the guiding forces behind the International Film Festival of Kerala. “What this film tries to do is corroborate the report that exposed structural problems in campuses regarding gender and had suggested recommendations that were considered far-fetched.”

The Sound of Silence comes in the midst of the trial of the actor Dileep, who has been arrested for his alleged involvement in the case related to the abduction and assault of a female actor. Paul, who is one of the founding members of a women’s collective for the Malayalam film industry , has been vocal about the widespread culture of misogyny in Malayalam cinema.

“I began making the film before the case, but after that the dots have begun to connect,” Paul said. “What can you expect from a society so deeply entrenched in patriarchy? This is not to do with Kerala or India but rather a worldview that women are struggling against. But change has happened because women are refusing to accept the status quo.”

The Sound of Silence (2017). Image credit: Public Service Broadcasting Trust.

The Sound of Silence busts the stereotype that Kerala is a deeply progressive state when it comes to women. The documentary opens with an interview with Meenakshi Gopinath, the chairperson of the committee that drafted the Samagati report. “What we found startlingly belied our expectations of Kerala,” Gopinath says in the film. “Kerala, we had seen as a progressive state that had enacted so much progressive legislation in the social sector and what we found was is difficult to describe unless you engage with the stakeholders, visit the campuses.”

Paul’s study of the campuses backs the report’s findings. Students narrate how security guards are instructed to separate girls and boys hanging out with each other. There are restrictions on clothes. College is considered a temporary pit-stop until the girl’s wedding is fixed.

Whether in the context of the interaction between sexes or individual choices, the focus seems to be on policing the girl. “Boys, oh no, never,” says the warden of a girls hostel when asked if boys are allowed to interact with girls. “We warn the girls when workers come to repair fans, lights etc. It is a ladies hostel, isn’t it!”

The Sound of Silence (2017). Image credit: Public Service Broadcasting Trust.

Paul eschews a voiceover, but her stance emerges loud and clear in the use of the song Periyare Periyare from the Malayalam film Bharya. The lyrics “Nagaram kanatha naanam maratha naadin peenaana nee (You are this region’s girl, one who hasn’t seen the city or lost her meekness)” seal Paul’s argument.

“One of the most important discoveries through the film has been that education and universities have become breeding grounds for conformity,” Paul said. “Students are not encouraged to think critically or be different. This has become the mandate of education. I’m surprised at how rampant the problem is and how we seem to be regressing rather than moving forward.”