By Harihar Swarup
A student writes letter to her estranged lover, who has been pulled out of college by his parents for being in a relationship with her, a girl of different caste. Through her letters and story the viewers gets a sense of what can be like to be a university student in India today, the internal turmoil, peer pressure, the political protests on campus, crackdowns on dissent.
A merging of reality with fiction, dreams, memories, fantasies and anxieties, an amorphous narrative unfolds is how the Cannes film festival website describes Payal Kapadia’s “A Night Of Knowing Nothing”.
The work of experimental documentation won the prestigious Golden Eye for the best documentary at Cannes last week. Kapadia, 35, says. She was taken entirely by surprise as she has no such expectation.
This is Kapadia’s full length feature, after three short films. She made it because it is important to her that artists reflect the world they live in.
Kapadia developed a love of storytelling early on, listening to her grandmother’s tale of life in undivided India. She shifts to independent India during partition. Those tales gave Kapadia an appreciation for the context as well as power fantasy. It is why she imbues her projects with multiple layers reality, drawn from dreams and imagined future, myths and folklore.
A night of knowing nothing is the first Indian documentary to win at Cannes in decades. In 1957 Gotoma, the Buddha directed by Rajbans won the jury prize. The Cinema Travelers, a film on India’s travelling talkies directed by Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya received honourable mention.
In the mainstream Slum dog Millionaire (2008) was an early sign of these shifting interests. More recently Bong Joon-ho’s Korean film Parasite (2019) became non-English film to win the Oscar for the best picture; it also won the Palme de’Or at Cannes. India’s Chaitanya Tamhane won the best film at the Venice International Film Festival in 2014 in Horizons category (for films that represented the latest aesthetic and expressive trends) with his debut feature Court. His next, The Disciple, won the international Critics’ Prize and Best screen play at Venice International Film International Festival last year.
There are several projects from South Asia at Cannes this time. Kapadia’s win is significant but we should definitely mention Bangladeshi film maker Abdullah Mohammed Saad’s Rehana Maryam Noor that just premiered at Cannes.
Kapadia is hoping that the major win at one of the prestigious film festivals in the world will make her next step easier. “There is a lot of funding in many South Asian countries for films that push the boundaries of cinema. If there were more ways to find finance in India to films which are the financial sphere, it would help film makers take more risk and create diversity in the voices being heard”, she says.
Smaller platforms are helping amplify smaller voices too.
Since 2004, the Berlin festival has invited application for funding from youngsters in countries where film is not a strong medium anymore, like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Afghanistan. This world cinema has helped South Asian makers to get more recognition.
Similar initiatives are acting as incubator for regional talent at Busan International film festival in South Korea, at festivals in New York, London, Melbourne.
For Kapadia, the win is also important for the format of the documentary, still a rather unappreciated and underexposed one in India. “It is easier to make documentaries as they need less funding and there are more funding bodies for them even in India. But there are no distribution network for these films. Better opportunities to distribute non-commercial cinema in theatres would really help viewership for different kinds of films.
For now it is time to celebrate. (IPA Service)