India’s students are angry, and that’s good news for India, a new film finds
“A man was reduced to his immediate identity. To a thing. Never treated as a mind… a glorious thing made of star dust”. Hyderabad Central University (HCU)’s Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula’s suicide note lit a fire across India’s varsity campuses in 2016.
Even as HCU simmered over the administration’s inept handling of the case and discrimination against Dalit students, protests erupted in two other premier public varsities — Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and Delhi University (DU) — over the arrest of student leader Kanhaiya Kumar on charges of sedition.
Earlier this year, students in DU clashed with rightwing groups over their right to free speech. In September, Banaras Hindu University (BHU) students held fierce protests against the university administration’s failure to act on a case of molestation and victim-shaming.
Such ferment on campuses gave Yousuf Saeed, an independent filmmaker, archivist and author, an opportunity to capture not just the belligerent mood but also the issues that are enraging students.
“The immediate trigger for Campus Rising was the 2016 JNU incident when some TV channels showed students seeking aazadi... it was assumed their slogans were anti-India,” Saeed says.
The New Delhi-based director felt the demand for “freedom” was seen from a very narrow perspective; it was actually a result of deep dissatisfaction on issues such as “casteism, feudalism, religious fundamentalism and corruption”. These underlying causes, Saeed felt, were underplayed by the media and so students were condemned as “anti-national”.
“I started looking at the concept of freedom in university spaces and interviewed students on it,” Saeed, an alumnus of the Jamia Millia Islamia’s AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, explains. “Freedom can never be a standalone concept. So discussions moved into issues of discrimination and suppression of thought.”
After speaking to students of seven universities, Saeed says he began to feel that all educational institutions inculcated patriarchy, corruption and nepotism, and that India’s falling quality of education and research was also linked to the lack of freedom of speech and the shrinking space for debate.
Interestingly, for Saeed, the film became a recalibration of his own views.
“When I was in university, I was disdainful of students who participated in politics and leadership. I couldn’t figure out how they found time to study. This has probably been the thinking of many people who consider universities or colleges as institutions for career-making,” he says.
But, he realised, political participation by students is critical. “One of the reasons why the Muslim community doesn’t have young leaders is because there is a restriction on student politics in institutions such as Jamia Millia Islamia and AMU,” Saeed says.
Watch Basant (1997), a short film by Yousuf Saeed
Campus Rising (73 minutes) is also different from Saeed’s existing body of work, which has revolved around culture and science. He did 45 episodes of Doodarshan’s science programme Turning Point. Earlier films included Khayal Darpan, exploring the development of classical music in Pakistan post-1947, and Khusrau Darya Prem Ka, a modern-day docu-drama on 14th-century poet-composer Amir Khusrau Dehlavi.
He is the prime mover behind Ektara, a collective of media and art professionals based in Delhi, and Tasveer Ghar, a digital archive for collecting, digitising and documenting materials produced by South Asia’s exciting visual sphere.
Despite his body of work, Saeed says the life of a documentary filmmaker remains difficult. “We are always caught between marketing and production,” he says. “If in a year I put out 20 proposals, only three will manage funding. Indians don’t appreciate documentaries because of lack of exposure, and so viewership is limited.”
Filmmaker and festival organiser Sanjay Joshi feels that movies such as Campus Rising are critical for a ‘new’ audience. “Many would say that the film does not capture the views of the ‘other side’. But this is an artist’s response to what is happening on the ground and raises important questions on caste, gender and the education system,” says the national convener of the Cinema of Resistance Initiative.
“Thanks to digital technology, we can screen these films in small towns and villages. It is in these areas that such films will spark discussions… and that’s a huge, huge bonus.”