Rama Tarantino finds threads between celluloid, and life – almost as if Ketan Mehta predicted events of today in his 1984 film, Holi.
On silver screen then, in reality today….
“A bunch of boys sit scattered in little space, each lost in their own universe, each alone despite being together. Dawn breaks, and they rise—not from sleep, but from dearer intoxication. As the day begins for everyone else, their night has just ended.”
The sequence immediately takes us to the world of college students, where the distinction between right and wrong are still up for debate. Just like debates at the Capital’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, the students of which believed that democracy gave them the right to question the 2013 hanging of Afzal Guru, the mastermind behind the Parliament attacks of 2001.
Director Ketan Mehta made ‘Holi’ as a workshop with the students of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), 1984.
It starred Ashutosh Gowarikar, Amir Khan, Paresh Rawal and Amol Gupte, among others in unrecognizable avatars alongside the already prominent Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri and Deepti Naval in cameo roles.
A film that goes as close to reality as it gets when it comes to portraying the college student community, Holi is a predecessor to films like Rang De Basanti and 3 Idiots that show student rebellion spiraling out of control.
The film revolves around a few college students’ escalating displeasure on being denied a holiday on Holi so they may attend a lecture by a politician and trustee of the college. They express their chagrin to beloved Professor Singh, who brushes off their initial discontent with winsome advice. Only, to the students, it’s much more than that. It’s really only the simplest thing in the world—recognizing our rights and fighting for them.
Naseeruddin Shah’s simple yet suave professor catches the sparks flying from the student body right from the start. He is the bridge between the students and the authority; the only entity that knows both sides of the story and finds himself trying to reason with both. He anticipates the tempest when it is lurking just round the corner, but is unable to prevent it.
Om Puri’s character represents the authority that does not recognize the expression of the students, and compromises on their demands for the sake of external appeasement. A collective representation of the same is seen in the Media today, who instead of being the voice of the people, pile allegations on students; in the Police in their arrest of JNU Students’ Union President Kanhaiya Kumar, and in Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s statement “…they will not be spared”.
Silenced on prime time, not allowed to speak – the other side of the story is lost in ruckus.
Back in Holi, when one of the students gets rusticated because of a canteen-brawl with the principal’s nephew, while the other remains unpunished: the students decide enough! One thing leads to the other. Suppression, leads to more agony; and finally the chain ends in a student committing suicide after being humiliated and harassed by the others.
The guilty students are arrested. Each of them looming over a low angle camera, saying their names and ages – because now, in the hands of the police, that is what they are—isolated from their justifications of wrongdoing. Mehta succeeds in presenting a balanced view of the situation: the students went overboard in seeking catharsis for the wrongs they had suffered, and must now, repent.
In an anomaly of sorts, the characters are introduced towards the end. As they walk up one after the other, their eyes ridden with fear and remorse, revealing their identities under the order of an authoritative voice, we realize that in isolation we are all much too young. As they struggle to look up, there is a sense of disbelief in their eyes at what they have been instrumental in doing. Youth comes with numerous promises, but disappoints when it comes to deliverance.
Unlike films, reality tends to complicate with time, new angles emerging like the snakes of Medusa’s hair. The students of ‘Holi’ and JNU were both penalized for exercising their right to dissent, which surely is the essence of democracy? But, somewhere in the parallelism between fiction and reality, reality gets more tragic and twisted, as evidence coils under, ‘false’, ‘alleged’ and ‘supposed’.
In the last sequence of Holi, the arrested students sit in a grilled police car, as street urchins beat their drums, and rub their gulaal on the van’s somber blue. These students paved their own fate, and earned punishment.
But what fate did they pave, those students at JNU?