A Night of Knowing Nothing
Selected as part of the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs section of Cannes, Mumbai-based director Payal Kapadia’s A Night of Knowing Nothing creatively experiments with the documentary form to provide a thought-provoking insight into the rise of student resistance to injustices occurring under Narendra Modi’s premiership.
The film uses the concept of a box of lost possessions, recently recovered from a hostel in the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) and containing letters and newspaper cuttings, to document the rise in Indian student activism during the mid-2010s when the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party came to power.
Those possessions belong to a student named by the initial “L”. Included are letters to her lover, “K”. Through these, the viewer learns that the two are in an inter-caste relationship that deteriorates because of K’s parents’ prejudice towards L – a discriminatory attitude that has gained traction under the BJP.
Occasionally, though, the creativity gives way to an ambiguity that can be bemusing rather than engaging. This is particularly apparent in the random tranquil scenes of family domesticity that underscore the reading of L’s more intimate letters to K. The sorrow and sympathy that might have been intended misses the poignancy that their crumbling relationship should generate. Furthermore, the narration of L’s letters by Bhumista Das lacks dynamism and feels as if they are being intoned, despite the heartbreak and worry underpinning many moments.
Fortunately, these somewhat underwhelming aspects are balanced out by the black-and-white camera footage of protests, speeches and activism that surround L as her relationship disintegrates. While the distraction seems to provide her with solace, it allows the audience to witness the unrest and injustice that Modi’s government has precipitated. One moment the viewer is heartened by the solidarity shown, as choruses of students engage in rousing pro-equality chants for the Dalit community. Then, soon after, one is appalled by the violence student and academic protesters suffer from both the police and nationalist mobs.
Even though the film ends ambiguously, with a lecturer from FTII urging students not to create work in black and white (despite most of A Night of Knowing Nothing being monochromatic), this does not detract from the fact it has already won over audiences with its artistically trenchant insight into the left-wing struggles that are valiantly fought by the academic and student communities in India.
A Night of Knowing Nothing does not have a UK release date yet.
Read more reviews from our Cannes Film Festival 2021 coverage here.
For further information about the event visit the Cannes Film Festival website here.