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Celluloid dreams

THE THIN EDGE | A film on the life of a young India

Ruchir Joshi Published 25.01.22, 12:28 AM
 A still from the film, I am 20

A still from the film, I am 20 YouTube

I was recently nudged into watching S.N.S. Sastry’s classic Films Division film, I am 20. I had previously seen the film on the screen when it was a standard component of both film appreciation and film-history courses in the 1970s and 1980s. Viewing it again, at this point in our history, was instructive.

Joining the recently-formed Films Division in the mid-1950s as a cameraman, Sastry became one of FD’s most innovative directors by the mid-1960s. I am 20 was made in 1967 as one of the films marking the 20th anniversary of Independence. Probably partly inspired by the Soviet fiction film of the same title, the idea was brilliantly simple: interview a variety of twenty-year-old Indians about what they thought of life, the nation, their hopes and ambitions for the future, their worries and problems about the present, their take on twenty years of independent India which happened to overlap with their lives; interspersed between the talking heads of the youngsters is footage from around the country that is not only illustrative of what each person is saying but also, at times, symbolic or elliptical. The style is quite frenetic, cutting between a close-up of a young woman’s or man’s face saying something quite briefly and a cascade of shots filmed in city and village, farm and factory, ancient temple and modern laboratory, idyllic landscape and air-force base.


“I think the planning’s been terribly lopsided!” says one voice. “What is my future in this country?” asks another. The train tracks blur, some gears move a machine. “Mera umr na, bees saal ka hai,” says a voice in Hindi — ‘My age, it’s twenty’. Train carriages pass a station, palm trees whip by above, and the first proper voice clip begins — “Maybe I am very talkative... I make my presence felt, but I am entitled to my opinions!” says a south Indian boy, waving his spectacles over a pile of books. One of his ambitions, he tells us, is to travel across the country with a pen and paper and a camera and a tape recorder in order to understand “what I am part of and what is part of me”. A quick montage of musical instruments, temples, and classical and folk dances is followed by another young man in his hostel room belting out “I Should Have Known Better” by The Beatles. A young woman leaning on a window says, “15th August is my birthday... it’s one of the greatest day for India.” An apprentice mechanic speaks in Hindi about what azadi means, a classically Bengali-beautiful young man in a panjabi speaks in crisp Bangla about shadhinota, a cute pug-faced trainee air-force pilot standing in front of his De Havilland Vampire trainer indignantly declares his patriotism — “How can you ask me that question? Of course I love my country!”

There is always a danger that a clever idea such as this can become formulaic and repetitive. One proof of S.N.S. Sastry’s talent and skill is that this isn’t allowed to happen. Once he has chosen his interviewees, Sastry mostly lets them be themselves. If they peacock that peculiar know-nothing pomposity of the young, he lets them preen, he doesn’t ask for a re-take; if they say something stupid or inarticulate, he keeps that in; if they show insecurity or pessimism, Sastry’s camera and, equally important, his editing hold on that and weave it into the flow of the film. Thus, even these clearly highly-arranged, carefully-lit interviews become, in a real sense, ‘documentary’: when faced with lights, camera and tape-recorder, this is who these twenty-year-old Indians are, this is how they present themselves.

In the shot that immediately follows the young fighter pilot earnestly laying out his patriotism, The Beatles’ fan candidly says, “I have no love for my country!” The young woman who doesn’t want to be a movie star is seen talking to her parents during a meal where she tells them how males on the street now transgress way beyond wolf-whistles and groping women — sharply bringing us to today, half a century later, where nothing seems to have changed in so many parts of the country. When a young man says his life’s ambition is to join the IAS, sit in an air-conditioned room, make some notes on the margins of files while drinking lots of coffee, the camera and recorder stay with him; and they keep rolling when he says, “And then I’d like to marry my boss’s daughter... I don’t know why I said that.”

Where this energetic and highly engaging film falls short is when it moves away from the fluent, English-speaking youngsters to the working class and rural interviewees. It’s obvious that not all children of Independence’s midnight are born equal, at least not in terms of what Sastry needs to make his ultimately upbeat film. There is the twenty-year-old girl in the village who has been married for twelve years; there is the other young woman who stands in front of her hut and tells us there are thirteen of them in her family; there is the young Sikh boy, the face under his turban still completely hairless, who sits on his tractor and speaks of his dreams of more efficient farming; there is no young Dalit, no young adivasi, no one from a city slum who might already have been labouring for many years.

One obvious question is where are all these people today, at the age of 75? There are various answers on the internet: the boy who insists that he has the right to use foreign razor blades since they are better than Indian ones becomes Aditya Kashyap, a high honcho of Tata Steel; the chap who wants to marry his boss’s daughter, Victor Menezes, moves to the United States of America and becomes a director of several major companies and charities; the Bengali dreamboat becomes Dunu Roy, the well-known development activist; Shailesh Gandhi, who articulates great pessimism about India’s future, becomes an entrepreneur and then an RTI activist; the first face, the one who wants to walk all over India at a very leisurely pace, leaves in a couple of years and spends his life being a Maths boffin in America. Watching this made me want to see two 2022 versions of the film, one maybe titled I am 22 and the other, I am 75, both of which include a far wider cross-section of today’s Indians.

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