Let’s imagine you’re a government. As a government, you have many divisions that do different things. Say you had one whose job is to make films, sort of like public service announcements. What’s the most boring name you could give this department? My bet: Films Division, fondly known as FD.
The outstanding dullness of FD’s name is matched only by the outstanding crapiness of the films that it’s put out in recent times. You don’t get to see FD films these days. They were seen regularly back in the pre-cable TV era, when we had a couple of state-run TV channels that needed fillers. Now if you see a FD film, it’s usually a public service announcement, directed by people like Devendra Khandelwal, who can put a whole new dimension to the So Bad It’s Good genre.
Once upon a time, however, it seems FD did some rather special work. Back in 1967, a gent named S.N.S. Sastry directed a short film titled I Am 20 for FD. Sastry interviewed a number of young Indians, men and women, rich and poor, urbane and rural; all of whom shared a birthday with the nation. Twenty years after 15th August, 1947, how did the young citizens of India feel? Watch I Am 20 to find out.
It’s a simple little film. It has little finesse and no technical cleverness. Everything about the film is unvarnished and simple. I’m not sure if any of the interviews were scripted and if some of the interviewees are actors. A few, like one of the farmers and the Bengali, feel just a touch unreal, but maybe that’s just my 21st century jadedness. It doesn’t really matter though, because I Am 20 is a remarkable little film. There’s a spirited quality in the interviewees, a forthrightness in their responses that makes it more modern than most of the representations of youth that we see today, whether in documentaries or advertisements. Farmers, factory workers, students, scientists, the poor, the rich, the idealistic, the bored — they’re all here. Personally, I think I’ve got a little crush now on the loquacious P.N. Subramaniam, who is just an adorable little cynic and optimist.
The honesty of I Am 20 is remarkable, especially when you keep in mind that this was a government-funded film. There’s a young man who blithely says, “I don’t have any love for the country” right after an air force pilot declares his patriotism. One young man says that freedom in India means “freedom to starve, to go naked, to die of hunger and go uneducated.” A young woman politely asks why she should have to do anything for the country beyond being a responsible citizen, clearly implying that the government has no right to demand anything more given how little it’s doing.
The minimal demands and needs of the rural folk, their disconnect with the cities and centres of power, are contrasted with those of the affluent, anglicised set. The film doesn’t try to cover up the unease that a young woman feels about the poverty around her. Neither does it varnish the callous cool of a young man who says he wants to join the Indian Administrative Service for “a comfortable chair, an airconditioned room” and hopes to marry his boss’s daughter. These young men and women sing Beatles’ songs, talk about Zubin Mehta, explain what they want in a movie, talk about money and dreams, and so on. Some don’t really care about anyone or anything but themselves, thanks to being either very privileged or very desperate. There are a few, like Subramaniam, who are trying to be positive and others who are bitterly despairing, like the young bespectacled man who bluntly says, “I don’t think there is any future left for us. We have got only a big past to boast of.” It’s startling how contemporary the sentiments of 1967 sound.
One big difference between then and now is that I doubt the bureaucracy is today as coveted as it was back then. The other is that you’d be hard pressed to find as eloquent and interesting a bunch as these people. Gather a sample of today’s youth and an overwhelming majority will probably say films and cricket (at best, football) among their extra-curricular interests. If what I read of the Indian youth’s writing online is any indication, not many of them can string together the kind of sentences that Sastry’s interviewees rattle out comfortably. And I suspect we’d have to hunt high and low to find fans of ghazals and Zubin Mehta. Also, I’d be very impressed if any FD director went out to find the range of people, in cities and villages, that Sastry did.
Watching I Am 20, I found myself wondering whether we have actually become a more free country over the decades. If someone made as honest a film as this one today, I’m not sure it would be telecast in India. Sastry shows us the backward as well as those who have benefited from different governmental programs. The attempts at progress aren’t ignored, but it’s quite obvious Sastry isn’t convinced by them. Subtly presented though it is, Sastry’s sense of frustration at the state of the nation is obvious. For every patriotic moment, there’s a sound byte or a shot that undercuts that propaganda. Particularly near the end, he puts shots of industrial units, people in labs — signs of progress and modernity — next to short sequences of men doing manual labour. The human body is reduced and likened to a machine, but unlike machines, it becomes weary and yet it must labour on. Suddenly, Sastry inserts a shot of a few infants. Then he cuts back to two men pulling a loaded wheelbarrow uphill. It’s for those newborns, the next generation, that the country is labouring, and yet, you can’t help but wonder what kind of hope those infants are going to inherit when this is the state of their country.
At one point in I Am 20, Subramaniam says, “Our achievement is that we have a hopeful tomorrow. Our failure is that our today is very precarious.” It’s 46 years later, and nothing seems to have changed.