India, the world’s largest democracy, also ranks third in higher education across the globe for producing approximately three million graduates per year. Yet, the perception of students in Indian media is of college students and their unions being either cynical or entirely uninterested in politics.
It is safe to say that we have come a long way from a point in history where student organisations were a valued workforce that was actively acknowledged for their contribution towards an independent India to Indian universities making headlines over threatened university autonomy, academic freedom, and restrictions on self-expression.
Student dissent comes with greater risks as a result of an increase in mandating ostensibly ‘apolitical’ campuses wherein students participating in protests are liable to be suspended or expelled. It is comfortable to look at campuses as apolitical zones and universities as stepping stones that one has to get over, with the reward of being allowed to sit on the ‘adult table’. The increasing mandates along with campus guidelines to police student protests and the subsequent student agitation towards them is evidence in itself that for students, universities are very much the ‘adult table’ that provides them with a platform to integrate their issues and community into decision-making processes that they are otherwise kept away from.
‘Bollywood’ is the world’s largest film industry in terms of the number of films produced each year. However, there is a brand of Indian cinema that is purposefully kept out of reach. Films with strong language, suggestive scenes, gender taboos, political themes, and religion are still largely ahead of their time.
Indian universities are not just hubs that harbour critical thinkers. They are places that allow students to access social and cultural capital. It is for this reason that the Hindi film industry needs to acknowledge student unions as driving forces that possess the capability that can make or break a government. While the industry is notorious for capitalising on the campus canteens, makeshift dhabas and tapris inside campus premises, it also needs to acknowledge the essence and ambience of a university campus. It perhaps needs to stray away from a surface-level and largely performative exaggeration of student politics while placing the campus, its politics and student unions in a space where they can be easily misguided and controlled.
Being conscious of the impact of cinema on society, it becomes increasingly crucial to question the policing and declining of films on subjects related to student dissent and the censorship that intensively dictates the narrative of such forms of cinema. Their representation in films, or their misrepresentation, along with the rising intolerance towards student participation in politics, raises a range of questions that makes examining cinema around these subjects a matter of urgency.
Here are some films from the Hindi film industry that deal with subjects of student politics and dissent:
I. Goonj’s (1989)
This film starring Kumar Gaurav and Juhi Chawla was set in Goa in the 1980s and told the story of how a group of students involuntarily get involved in state politics. When an MLA’s illegal activities are aired out he has no idea that confronting politicians and those in power will cost him dearly. However, ‘no guts, no glory’ as the saying goes, and a revolution begins with the power of one.
II. Yuva’s (2004)
The story, which was originally made in Tamil, follows student politics through the eyes of three men from different social classes. It is still an important commentary on the frailty of youth, the liberties of university space, and the power of the human will.
III. Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi (2005)
The film borrows its title from Mirza Ghalib, which translates to “A Thousand Desires As These”. Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi is set against the backdrop of the Indian Emergency and is narrated through the eyes of three students. The film acknowledges the co-dependence of politics and social change and deals with political struggle and caste dynamics.
Touching on the subject of the disconnect between leftist politics and the people it is meant to serve, the film attempts to explore the ideas of capitalism and socialism through the worldview of the younger generation.
IV. Rang De Basanti (2006)
Soon after losing a friend in a MIG 21 crash, a group of college students becomes politically aware and questions the government’s rampant corruption. They are inspired by nineteenth-century revolutionaries, Bhagat Singh, Rajguru, Sukhdev, and Chandrashekar Azad as they investigate a scandal involving the Ministry of Defence. The film alternates between parallel narratives of the Pre-Independence movement and the current status of youth protesting against state-sponsored violence to highlight the similarities between the two.
RDB’s student characters do not exist in a vacuum. Their diverse identities, backgrounds, ideologies and aspirations are a testament to the idea that while school constricts people to similar backgrounds and socioeconomic, a university campus exposes you to a range of individuals who come from communities and backgrounds different from yours.
V. Gulaal (2009)
Gulaal, directed by Anurag Kashyap and set in modern-day Rajasthan, delves into the state’s student and secessionist politics. Social hypocrisy and student activism collide in the story of a fictitious secessionist movement to create a separate state of ‘Rajputana’.
If you liked this article, we suggest you read: