Payal Kapadia’s debut feature A Night of Knowing Nothing opens with the discovery of a box of unset letters in a hostel at Pune’s Film and Television Institute of India. Written in the wake of a lover’s sudden departure by a woman from a lower caste identified only by the initial “L,” stories of solidarity and cinema transport the viewer to university life from 2015 and onwards. In Kapadia’s previous short films like The Last Mango Before the Monsoon (2015) and Afternoon Clouds (2017), women yearned for lost lovers within the secrecy of dreams, where for the duration of a night or a brief nap they could feel freedom from political and cultural strictures. But the epistolary structure and second-person narration of A Night of Knowing Nothing (which played in the Wavelengths program at the Toronto International Film Festival and will play at the New York Film Festival) allows for more direct confrontation: This time, the woman demands to know exactly why the man has left. Love drives her to hold him accountable. Within the first few minutes of the film, we learn that he has capitulated to the casteism of his parents, who opposed his wishes to marry her. And as the man shrinks away from L, she slowly turns her gaze towards the ongoing struggle faced by their friends.
Soon the recipient evolves from a romantic partner to a student body, to a nation. We float in the anonymous (and fictional) L’s memories of clashes between protestors and police, activists and nationalists, students and university administrators. Kapadia vivifies these surroundings as a collage of 8mm and 16mm footage, news broadcasts, and drawings. With trembling voice and mournful spirit L traces the various and often extreme ideologies behind them, all while trying to make sense of the fact that someone who once loved her deeply has chosen not to stand up for her. Though the faces of Akira Kurosawa and Ritwik Ghatak can be seen, and the names of Sergei Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin heard throughout, it is up to the students to forge the pillars of their own fight. L’s scattered observations and rhetorical questions leave us with no certain conclusion about her future, and the very circumstances surrounding the discovery of the letters signify the unresolved conflict that haunts the several campuses featured in the film. In our email exchange prior to the North American premiere of A Night of Knowing Nothing at TIFF, Kapadia shared more about the collaborative production and questions raised during the making of the film.
NOTEBOOK: Can you describe the inception of this film, which to my knowledge initially started with a loosely assembled batch of footage shot with friends?
PAYAL KAPADIA: [Ranabir Das] and I began shooting [A Night of Knowing Nothing] around late 2016. Honestly, we didn't really know what we wanted to do with the film but we kept shooting for over two years. The film was earlier planned to be a portrait of our friends and those around us. Later some of our friends gave us footage that they had shot. At some point, it had been so long since we shot our initial footage, that it also began to feel like “found” footage. Along with this, we came across some old 8mm archives as well as some mobile videos that we added to the mix. Around 2019 we began to edit this large, amorphous body and it began to get a form.
NOTEBOOK: How did you and co-writer Himanshu Prajapati approach constructing the voice of a fictional student, and how did you arrive at the decision for the central romance to be an inter-caste relationship?
KAPADIA: I was interested in this idea of love letters that are found somewhere. But these letters are never replied to. I was interested in this form of unsent letters. When we decided that this would be the premise, we set about watching all the footage and trying to understand how we could write letters that didn't always describe the image, but in some way worked to create a meaning. Both Himanshu and I have been together in film school and have shared memories of our time as students, [and] our friends and preoccupations have often been common. We wrote a lot of letters and rejected many too. Meanwhile, the editing process continued side by side. Ranabir would edit sequences with what we had written and share them with us. We would then see if the writing worked or if there was something else that should be done. So the writing and editing was all happening side by side.
When we began shooting, it was to be a film that was a portrait of our friends and other young people around us. At the time we did several long interviews too. Many of our friends and colleagues in university were at a stage in their lives where they were facing pressure from their families to get married. And many were in inter-faith or inter-caste relationships that their families would not approve of. These things would come up in daily conversations too, even if we were not filming. In fact, when we started out making the film, the impossible and doomed relationships were one of our central themes. So we retained that in the final film, devising this method of unsent letters. The film is also about youth in India. It is not possible to talk about this without talking about the discrimination that is present in universities and even within a family set-up.
NOTEBOOK: You find your subjects at especially intimate moments, in bedrooms and in the streets. Were there any particular difficulties that you faced while filming at this intersection of deep vulnerability and political strife?
KAPADIA: What you say is true, it is very difficult to shoot at moments like this. A lot of things happened between when we started shooting and when we decided to stop. As I mentioned, the film that we began shooting is not what is there finally. Many times we didn't shoot things that were outside of the immediate space of our university. When our friends gave us their footage from other universities, it became clear to us what we had to do. Then it became a little easier to shoot because we came to the realization that it was important to record what was happening. I think there is a lot of sadness too. Many of our friends and colleagues have personally suffered a lot. While editing actually, it became more difficult because of all those moments we were reliving, and remembering the emotions and anger.
NOTEBOOK: The names of Pasolini and Eisenstein are mentioned in the film, meditated on by the students. What ideas were running through your mind regarding political filmmaking during the production, and how did these guide your formal choices?
KAPADIA: I did think about it a lot, and the more I thought about it, the more I began to think that perhaps all films are political, or have a political position. Even the lack of a position is then political. There were so many things that were happening around us that were a part of our lives: our daily discussions with friends, articles shared and posted on social media, what we spoke to our families, what we were arguing about. Cinema became one way to comprehend some of these things. I didn't want to make a film that gave information about a political situation but [instead wanted to] evoke a more intimate, personal and so a more human perspective to a very complicated situation. I wanted to evoke in the viewer things that myself and many of my colleagues were feeling. Filmmakers like Pasolini have really helped me understand this approach.
NOTEBOOK: At one point, a student activist argues that "we as filmmakers have to be more nuanced, we should not be thinking in black and white." It’s an especially pronounced rallying cry given that most of the film is shot in black-and-white.
KAPADIA: What my friend is saying at the end of the film is about the responsibility that we have as filmmakers in the current times to bring in more nuance into the work we do, such that things are not looked at in extremes. There can be a spectrum of greys! In my opinion, what he is saying doesn't have much to do with shooting the film in black and white. However, I can understand why the audience might make that connection while watching the film. The reason we chose to shoot the film in grainy, black and white is that we were keen to evoke this feeling of nostalgia. But it was not a nostalgia for the past, but really a nostalgia for the times that we were in. It is a nostalgia for the idea of being young and believing in something, as cheesy as it might sound.
NOTEBOOK: I’d also like to know more about the sound mixing for the film, how you (and your sound team, Moinak Bose and Romain Ozanne) sculpted the various overlaps of voices and broadcasts, as well as the hums of the natural landscape surrounding the campus.
KAPADIA: This film was challenging because a lot of sound in the footage was not usable. And we wanted to have this disconnected feeling of non-diegetic sound. In fact, diegetic sound is only rarely used. We were keen that the sound does not become illustrative but invokes a feeling that goes beyond meaning-making. I was also keen to have this feeling of floating in these flows of sound that move smoothly and seamlessly, creating this sense of a continuous body rather than the actual fragments of the footage that we were working with.
NOTEBOOK: Much like your earlier shorts, the heart of the film is a woman’s love and its resistance to rigid tradition and political oppression. What drew you again to this theme?
KAPADIA: I think I am making the same films again and again. Maybe there are questions that don't go away but you just change the ways to ask them, in the hope of finding an answer.
NOTEBOOK: I’m curious as to what artistic works or artists have inspired your idea of love.
KAPADIA: In our country, love is a very political entity (I guess that is true everywhere). Many of my influences come from daily life and the struggles that are faced by those around me. There are many artists too that have inspired me which include the Iranian poet Farough Farokhzaad whose poem “Another Birth” has also lended its name to our production company. Others include painter Arpita Singh, the writers Berger and Rilke, and filmmakers Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and Aki Kaurismäki.