By Shambhavi Saxena:
Imagine driving through the mountains in a dusty jeep so far from your home in South Delhi, that the mist in the trees makes you forget the sound of traffic. The feeling of being alive, and knowing a cliff isn’t the only thing that separates you from death, that things beyond your control — people, corporations, schools, governments — are calling the shots. Imagine escaping only to find yourself at the heart of a whirlwind, “in the throes of chaos and anarchy”, awakening to purpose and power. There are no wars here, but even as Lennon prays for “nothing to kill or die for”, his vision, as the vision of the makers of India’s constitution, remains unrealized. Imagine being young, and inheriting the carcass of the earth, blindfolded by somebody else’s instructions.
Indie filmmaker and NYU graduate Agneya Singh’s imagination has made a valiant attempt at capturing the predicament of the Indian youth in his latest cinematic endeavour, M Cream — a tale of four Delhi University students in search of charas (cannabis), who are at every turn provided an opportunity be involved in something bigger than themselves. The narrative of the film may come across as frivolous, as the lifestyle of the youth is usually labelled, but raises some very poignant questions about the role of young people in Indian society, greatly hampered by hierarchical social arrangements and ultimately presenting the hope of reconstruction. Singh says his film “serves to explore the contemporary idea of rebellion and just what it means to young people in our country today.” (The Film Street Journal)
The word “rebellion” may conjure up images of shaggy haired stoners or kids committing arson, but in the context of India, it appears as a call to action against an unjust status quo, maintained insidiously by warped treatises on nationalism, propriety and honour. The revolution that Singh prophesies about will not come in the form of burning buses and thrown stones, but in an organized and rational way, when the youth of this country finally accept their social responsibility, instead of pandering to social expectations.
Young people’s participation in decision-making within the household and without is, at best, nominal. Most young men, women, trans* or genderqueer persons are at the mercy of their immediate family’s wishes regarding concerns of education, marriage, political affiliations, identity expression and even interpersonal relationships. The family structure, under the excuse of cultural correctness, strips young individual members of their autonomy until they have reached economic independence and in some cases not even then. While caution can do no harm, subordination produces tension. When no value is attached to the experiences and opinions of the youth, then compliance towards elders follows. This system of dependence implies the absence of critical thinking in a young person who is unequipped to recognize modes of oppression around him/her/hirself. Singh’s movie propels this aspect of youth engagement as well, saying there is a need to “learn to identify and analyze the root causes of social inequalities.” (The Film Street Journal)
Being young in India is truly a paradox, particularly as a student, because university campuses are simultaneously sites of liberation and of submission. The hierarchies between teacher and student are maintained, in which the teacher enjoys more power over the student, but at the same time imparts knowledge of freedom and resistance. In the long run, the school or university is still an institution which governs students, and has the power to quash or ignore students’ demands, such as in the case of Jadavpur, Himachal Pradesh University and Delhi University’s English Department. By 2020, India is projected to have the largest youth population, with every other Indian being under the age of 30. This unique factor has been projected as the reason for India’s growth. Disappointingly, this does not accord respect to young people as anything other than components in a large machine, supported by and supporting the same modes of oppression — class, gender, religion, sexuality, you name it. During this year’s General Elections, 150 million first-time voters constituted a significant chunk of the 814.5 million strong electorate. In the weeks leading up to the elections, news reports came in claiming that political parties ought to make extra effort over this single demographic. As encouraging as this sounds, youth participation in national politics is routinely dismissed by the very office bearers who are supposed to represent them. In the recent past, the unfortunate incidents that took place in Calcutta’s Jadavpur University, which sparked massive protests in several Indian cities, is only testament to how little political authorities think of young people. The traditional family unit — where the father is breadwinner, mother homemaker and child the subordinate or student — is responsible for the promulgation of patriarchy and heterosexism at the smallest level of social organization, and, unsurprisingly affects the standing of youth in society. It is here that the silencing of youth voices begins and may be sustained over long periods of time, unless the family unit is open to uninhibited political debate.
Even so, there is a growing sensitivity towards institutionalized discrimination and the violence with which it is meted out to underprivileged sections, rural and tribal populations, women, religious and caste minorities, non-heterosexuals, persons of the third genders, etc. Young people have started to recognize that any and every form of oppression has to be rooted out before India can call itself progressive, and that development does not exclusively imply the GDP of India, but also involves national literacy, sexual health, HDI, among other criterion.
In the last two years, youth in India have galvanized into a tremendous force demanding of governments and other institutions accountability, transparency, efficacy and responsiveness. Dissatisfaction and disillusionment is only the prelude to rebellion. In Singh’s words, “the youth of today [are] finally beginning to form a vanguard of rebellion against a hypocritical and oppressive social order.”
Younger and younger individuals in professional fields ranging from journalism to medicine to civil services seem to have made personal pledges towards reconstituting social orders. Agneya Singh, counted among this group, has “always considered cinema to be a truly revolutionary weapon.” (The Film Street Journal)
After all, all art is political, otherwise it would just be decoration.