Memory, Longing and Rebellion in Payal Kapadia’s films

by Sofia Begum

Payal Kapadia‘s films are rich and lush with visual material and fond memory, prompting viewers to contextualise their own memories of India. As a second-generation Indian in Singapore, I found her images of India strangely familiar. What is it about images of India in conflict that ignites something in my blood? Is protest inherently at the centre of our existence? Has violence always existed in our inherited histories? I discuss A Night of Knowing Nothing (2021), a full-length documentary, putting it side-by-side with her 3 short films The Last Mango Before The Monsoon (2015), Afternoon Clouds (2017) and And What is the Summer Saying (2018).

 Her film A Night of Knowing Nothing is bustling, noisy, raucous. Centred on student protests against the BJP[i], the film makes use of non-diegetic sound. The narrative follows ‘L’, a student whose box of personal items lead the flow of the film. The incongruity of noisy visual spectacle filled with shouting students, aligned with atmospheric sounds from a recording in a quiet bedroom, forms a mise-en-scene of what is the everyday clash of education in India and their function in an increasingly fascist state permeated by Hindu supremacism. The loudness of the visuals (imagined of course in my mind) is contrasted with a mixture of images and footage that have been shared amongst students as a collection of collaborative memory. Some of these are staged, fictional. Some of these are real footage: a combination of mobile phone videos, recordings of protests and first-hand experiences with police brutality. It is a challenge to discern between them, but they melt together to form a kind of optical unconscious: the residues of the real leak into the staged footage, forming its own dialectic of past/present, real/fiction, absent/present, male/female, police/students. The shots are in continuous dialogue with one another, refusing to be coherent. This is reminiscent of the nature of memory (especially that of traumatised memory): unreliable, fragmented, incomplete, mimicking the connections that occur between memory and vision.  Kapadia mentions that her film includes footage jointly recorded and shared by fellow students.

From A Night of Knowing Nothing – depicting one of L’s sketches, superimposed on a se-quence of two people entering a house

Similarly, circular sequences dominate The Last Mango Before the Monsoon, a film that has no central character other than nature. The lushness of India’s rural and agricultural landscape takes viewers’ breaths away with its vividness. Audiences have not a single lead to follow, but many threads upon which one could hang onto, to disappear down a wormhole of different interpretations as Kapadia’s style revolves around how sound leads the process of image-making. The soundscape is indulgent and lush  – consisting of sharp and clear sounds of leaves rubbing against each other in the wind, crickets and insects in the night, and flies buzzing. The sounds are made louder, amplified to emphasise the natural landscape, drawing out the vibrancy of the environments in the film.

From The Last Mango Before Monsoon – a signature in all her films, illustrations that showcase the female body, harkening back to pre-colonial Indian art.

Beginning in darkness, the film slowly illuminates, moving back and forth between a woman eating a mango in silence, revelling in her loss. Grief is front-row in this film as the shots begin to move towards dimness, before paradoxically shifting to a documentary-style, scientific shot of animals. This film observes the wildness of India’s rural environment also evident in And What is the Summer Saying. In true Kapadia style, this film also contains disembodied voices that are recorded around the village – consisting of real and fictional voices in dialogue with one another, forming an almost operatic soundscape that blurs in and out of clarity. Some of these lines are romantic, some of them disconnected, and yet there is a deep quiet in the montage containing the quietness of a forest, a village, the clouds, a fog that permeates the lushness of leaves that are almost too vivid for the senses. The mixed layers of cinematic images and constructed drawn images provide a colourful palette that seem to emphasise a longing for a quieter, peaceful place in the past.

From And What is the Summer Saying – a still depicting one of the many quiet scenes in the film.
From And What is the Summer Saying – a still at the end of the film depicting illustrations superimposed onto a scene of serenity.
From The Last Mango Before Monsoon – a still of two scientists moving through the for-est. The second still depicts the elephant they were trying to capture footage of.

In contrast, the longing for quiet is shown in a different way in A Night of Knowing Nothing – the bombardment of a graphic and violent view of student life that is so visceral, you can almost smell some of the scenes: the blood, the horror at being attacked by the police – Kapadia also makes a point with clever montage, hailing back to the Soviet Montage movement[ii]. In fact, she refers to several Western film canon (in the way she splices her shots with text) – synthesising her Indian sensibilities with her Western film history education in a way that makes sense in this post-colonial state of conflict. This is made even more obvious in one of the few scenes with diegetic sound – a student yelling “‘Eisenstein, Pudovkin.” I took a moment here to reflect: if I had not studied film theory, would I have caught this reference?

From A Night of Knowing Nothing – visuals of a noisy protest occurring in contrast with the sound bite of a student recounting his encounter with police brutality.

Kuleshov posited that the audience can view two separate images and subconsciously give them a collective context – constructing films that reconciled authorial creativity, political efficacy and yet possessed the appropriate aesthetics for public consumption. She places spoken dialogue: “Arunay with his gentle voice, spoke about preserving the past”, with a shot of a raucous crowd getting agitated with protest slogans. The film is mostly narrated by a woman, her voice gentle and lulling in contrast to an angry, burning visuality that is full of shots of brutalised bodies drawing attention to how women participate in the public space especially in the space of a protest. Their bodies are furthermore sexualised and gendered and are targeted as sites of conflict as seen from how the police threatened to rape them – targeting sexual violence because they were women. Kapadia also draws attention to the women in protest as seen from a shot of a female student, who had been hit on the head till she was bleeding.

From A Night of Knowing Nothing – where police threaten to rape the women participat-ing in the protest above. Below, a shot of a female student bleeding from her head rec-orded on mobile phone.

A different aspect of femininity takes centre stage in Afternoon Clouds. Kapadia showcases shot after shot of silent images, of women longing and grieving. Men appear sporadically in the film as side characters who do little to alleviate the sense of never-ending longing. The shots are dreamy, hallucinatory, and playful and yet gnawingly lonely – the afternoon cloud in the title here seems to refer to the pest-control fog that is released in the afternoon, permeating the windows of the house and giving its inhabitants lucid and strange dreams that amplify their grief. Their bodies are constantly curled up, hunched over in corridors, on the stairs outside the house, or in a corner of their beds. The longing is spliced with images by Arpita Singh, her images are figurative and in tune with traditional Indian art and aesthetics. Yet there is something sharply contemporary about them as they contain images of present-day items (cars, urban life motifs) in her portrayal of the conflict that goes on in a woman’s body. These images accentuate how the film portrays the edge of Indian domestic life in an increasingly detached urban setting where women’s bodies are constantly in a state of deprivation of place and power, where desires have no place in a country that is still contending with uncertainty in relation to its past.

From Afternoon Clouds – the clouds in the title refer to the fog from a pest-extermination.
From Afternoon Clouds – in montage, first shot depicting a drawing by Arpita Singh of a woman surrounded by little men, tying her into a cycle of longing. Second and third stills showing the women in the household, parallel to one another in terms of their longing for the men in their lives.

Selectively edited and doctored images are beamed into A Night of Knowing Nothing, portraying a collective understanding of the violence embedded within the discourse of nationalism. What is it to perform or make films in solidarity? How can dissenting students speak out in such precarious conditions? Can film offer a momentary space of intimate-public conflation? Can this break out of the discursive frame of the screen? Kapadia is relying heavily on how the spirit of protest is ancient in India, deeply rooted in the same kind of longing and desire reflected in Afternoon Clouds. It is embodied in her mystical traditions, in classical Hindu literature, oral or written. Buddhism and the Bhakti movement of the medieval years are full of protest movements against Brahmanical doctrines[iii]. Her film captures this constant back-and-forth, the push-and-pull between ideas so deeply rooted in India, yet in seeming conflict with the authorities that are a result of a post-colonial world. The desire for political self-determination is even more pronounced for women whose participation in protest have been quietly impactful and overlooked for over a hundred years.

From A Night of Knowing Nothing – a frame within a frame, one of the many shots that depict the film’s awareness of its medium.

Kapadia’s filmmaking is hyper aware of itself – it makes many references to its medium, and the process of filmmaking, creating a continuous loop of doing, watching, reflecting. The connection between filmmaking and audience continues to unfold through the film. This is a refreshing and radical form of documentary-making, making it a form of cinema of resistance. Her films speak to one another, as they reflect a post-colonial reality or critique of that reality, that relate to India’s history with documentary cinema. While existing histories of Indian documentary cinema indicate institutional affiliations, Kapadia turns this notion on its head, while exploring how this relationship is contradictory and complex. She refuses to allow her films to be defined easily, refusing to be coherent and congruous. Her films are protests in themselves, a samsara[iv] of rebellion, memory and recollection.

About the Writer

Sofia is a programmer, producer, writer, educator and all-round multi hatter who has passionate drive for pedagogies that centre on empathy and rebellion. In her career in the arts education industry, her work revolves around creating pathways for artists and students alike to be rebels. Constantly floating from one creative endeavour to another, she hopes that her rage can be channeled into meaningful and productive work that can allow for more safe and brave spaces for young people.

Editor’s note: this essay is a personal response to the films of Payal Kapadia. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Asian Film Archive.


[i] Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) refers to the pro-Hindu political party of post-independence India.

[ii] Soviet Montage emphasised that montage was the basis of cine-poetics as Eisenstein, Pudovkin and Alexandrov theorised in their 1928 manifesto on Sound. (Stam, 2000).

[iii] Sundar posits that protest theatre is an integral part of India’s history even prior to colonialism, that Buddhism was in protest of several aspects of Brahmanic religions, namely their rituals of animal sacrifice (Sundar, 1989).

[i] Samsara (Sanskrit for ‘flowing around’) is the idea of cyclical life, death and rebirth that strives for ‘Moksha’ a release from the bonds of one’s past and deeds (Karma). This idea exists through several cyclical religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism.

About the Writer