What has transpired recently at Kalinga Institute of Industrial Technology at Bhubaneswar is most upsetting, but in no way surprising. Engaging in unbridled violence against each other is not new in the life of an Indian college student. In fact, many will tell you that campus violence is a characteristic of college life in India, and they are not wrong.
At least, that’s what Indian movies seem to tell their viewers. Many movies paint a picture of every wonder college life has to offer. Characters from these movies are immortalised and their soundtracks played regularly at parties.
Considering how severely Indian college students were impacted by the country’s politics in the 1970s, it’s interesting how a watershed moment for the depiction of the college student came only in 1989, with Ram Gopal Varma’s Siva taking over with a frenzy. A scene where Siva beats up his sworn enemy with a bicycle chain became iconic and continues to be widely cited.
Since Siva, many more have joined the list of cult hits – Rang De Basanti, Jaane Tu… Ya Jaane Na, Gulaal, Haasil, Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi and the like.
2017 saw a new entrant in this list, which created an impact close to that of Siva, and became an overnight sensation. The movie, Arjun Reddy, named after its titular character, cultivated a sense of devotion that was matched only by its mythological namesake – the attributes of whom also remain problematic (competitive enough to wilfully watch his fellow student physically suffer, deceitful enough to attack unarmed opponents, being complicit in sexual harassment) but blindingly worshipped.
As a film, it stood out – it wasn’t guilty of recycling melodrama and makeup but it did recycle explicitly toxic masculinity and an astoundingly backward rationale for misbehaviour. For Arjun was ‘a difficult boy but a brilliant student.’
Truth is said to be stranger than fiction, but does the truth sometimes seek inspiration as well? The series of events that unfolded at KIIT is eerily similar to one of the many problematically violent plot lines from the movie Arjun Reddy – where Arjun, armed with a bat, storms into the college of a boy named Amit who allegedly harassed a girl he likes, Preeti (note: at this point in the film, she is not yet his girlfriend) and beats him up mercilessly. After beating him up, Arjun collapses into an emotionally charged speech about ‘how much he likes the girl’ and how this boy had the audacity to touch her inappropriately.
The twist? Arjun and Amit have fought with each other before.
Amit was beaten up by Arjun previously at a college football match. The former’s violation of Arjun’s yet-to-be-girlfriend was, you guessed it, retaliation.
For many, these are both scenes that have gone down in Telugu cinema history. The comments section on their YouTube clips offer a glimpse as to the kind of popularity Arjun Reddy enjoys.
There are multiple affinities in both these cases of non-political campus violence.
Firstly, the administration is missing in action. The very group of people who undertake the responsibility of safety on residential campuses are nowhere to be seen when security is breached. The point of ID cards, curfews, and regulated entry seem to be pointless when they fail to prevent incidents like this.
Secondly, what happened to the girl? The person who was initially violated is conveniently excluded from the narrative that follows. In the case of KIIT, the issue had already been resolved, and one wonders what may have actually triggered the subsequent student clashes. In the case of Arjun Reddy, no one stops to ask Preeti about her preferred course of action.
In both cases, she is reduced to an unwilling catalyst for turbulence and quickly forgotten about. It is completely disregarded that in the first case, she stood up for herself and used her voice boldly; and in the second, maybe someone should have asked her how she even felt about being caught in the middle of two boys fighting with each other, neither of whom she had any consensual relations with?
Thirdly, why is violence a solution? In a subcontinent that supposedly rests of the cardinal virtue of ahimsa, why do so many students feel that beating each other up, is an effective way to settle differences? What are the forces at work that encourage this mindlessness in the very place you should be encouraged to expand your thought? A culture of protest within campuses is deemed ideologically violent, but when will we as a nation, address how easily we resort to physical violence?
There is a difference between an action sequence and senseless bloodshed, depiction and glorification, between reason and justification. Art that supplies oppressive social sanctions with fuel, is not art that liberates, no matter how pretty the picture. Art imitates life, yes, but the lines between those two need to be drawn by those who consume the art. Now, more than ever, the responsible consumer needs to take the lead.
As a country of the young, India and its students are better equipped than ever to take this lead. As they increase in strength and solidarity, and voice their opinions more vociferously than before, they are in the process of creating a new foundation.
Our films are close to us, and form an integral part of our identity, but that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t keep up with the times. Fundamentally, the portrayal of violence in our cinema must change. We should not be indifferent to it, rather, understand its workings and be accountable for creation and consumption.
Similarly, the portrayal of the Indian college student needs be an empowered one. Not one that disables them of their autonomy and turns them into a victim of their circumstances, or in this case, a victim of melodrama and exaggeration.