Images of Dreams and Memories: a conversation with Payal Kapadia

Payal Kapadia is one of the most promising filmmakers of our generation. An alumnus of Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), she has directed a number of critically acclaimed films, e.g., Watermelon, Fish and Half Ghost (2013), The Last Mango Before the Monsoon (2015), Afternoon Clouds (2017), And What is the Summer Saying (2018). Arguably, Kapadia is best known for her 2021 documentary feature A Night of Knowing Nothing, for which she won the prestigious ‘Golden Eye Award’ at Cannes film festival that same year. The film documents the heroic protests against the aggressive forces of Hindutva in India. At the same time, in the face of the endless night that has descended upon our land, it summons some of the forlorn spirits of the past – stray memories, nightmares and dreams – that swirl around the utopic space called FTII. In an era of spectacle-driven image production, Kapadia’s ambition is to ‘challenge the conventions of form’ with each of her works. In the following conversation with Counter shot, she reveals her passionate commitment towards the experimental project of undoing the prevailing norms of industrial cinema, and to navigate through unknown territories of audiovisual experience, where divisions between fiction and non-fiction cease to exist.

Counter shot: We would like to begin with your 2015 film, The Last Mango Before the Monsoon, which has been recently screened on the Youtube channel of theCircle. Last Mango.. is an eighteen-minute-long experimental film, it sets out with the sound of ocean waves thrashing somewhere off-screen. We see a woman savoring mango slices alone in her room. Later it is revealed what we have been witnessing was the woman’s dream, where her husband visited with her and asked her to prepare his favorite dish. It is very difficult to reduce the film to a single plot, as it does not follow a straightforward story as such. Instead, it gives us a set of episodes that are only tangentially connected, if at all. Can you describe how the film came to you? Did you start with a method of free association of fragments? Or did the concept/theme come first, and then you looked for a concoction of the corresponding pattern of sound and image?

Payal Kapadia: This film was made in 2014 and like all my projects, this one also didn’t start as a planned film. I had a friend who worked with the Shola Trust in Gudalur and he used to send me images that they had captured through camera traps. They were usually animal footages shot in night vision. I was very intrigued by these images as I didn’t know much about this kind of work before. I was very moved by how harmless and fragile even large animals in the wild can seem. There was something very poetic about these very scientific images. Meanwhile, my grandmother had been losing her memory and having dreams about visits from her husband who had died many years ago. To make her remember, I had encouraged her to write a diary of her dreams and memories. She could not remember things she did yesterday but her past from many years ago was crystal clear to her because it was associated with specific memories. I started thinking about documenting memories as well as the present in the form of camera traps. Somehow I found there to be a connection. 

Counter shot: The forest is a prominent presence in Last Mango.., it makes its appearance as two government staff go to install a camera to monitor wild animals, and then it acquires an autonomous existence beyond the adventure of the two men. How did you come up with that sequence?

Payal Kapadia: The stories I read from the Shola Trust website and some more about the conflict between elephants and people in this area was the start of the whole film. 

 We tend to romanticize nature but it is the most brutal force. I wanted to generate that fear of nature through these two men. 

Poster of The Last Mango Before the Monsoon

Counter shot: You have also superimposed and inserted some animated shots with your video footage, which reminded us of some of the recent works of Amit Dutta and Mehdi Jahan. Is there any aesthetic reason for using them that is specific to this film and its theme?

Payal Kapadia: Since my very first film Watermelon, Fish and Half Ghost (2013) I have been using drawings and animations in my films. It’s how I like to work with film, as a medium layered with different images. Working on film for me is like stitching a collage of things that come together to form a larger whole. Like making a patchwork quilt that is built from smaller, unrelated bits of fabric but when you put these scraps together, a larger image can be formed.

Counter shot: Your 2021 film, A Night of Knowing Nothing is about the student protests that took place against the rise of Hindu Nationalist forces in India through the last decade, as well as its impact on major educational institutions, such as saffronisation of the managerial bodies, cutting off of subsidies, quelling of dissent, and an overall demoralisation of any alternative discourse. But it is also a very intimate and personal narrative, in the sense that we come across all these events in the film through a character’s (L) voice; her letters give us an entry to this recent history. What drove you to this type of narration which is, to put it simply, a melange of intimate memories and historical events? 

Payal Kapadia: We began shooting in 2016. Ranabir (the cinematographer and editor) and I started to document life around us at FTII where we were students then, and through that, we started documenting our friends. Over the years we shot extensively but were not always sure of what we were doing but because it was amongst people we knew well, the shooting process was intimate and casual.  Some time passed and there was still no real sense of what the film would be. All we had were the memories that we were collecting with our small camera and sound recorder. Through these documentations, and testimonies of our friends, their dreams, memories, and anxieties, an image of a section of the youth began to emerge.

Many years passed and some of our friends gave us footage that they had shot in other universities. By then, protests were taking place across the country. They shot it because they had a pressing need to document, but like us, they were unsure of what they wanted to do with it. We began to find more and more of such footage – rushes borrowed from friends, old family archives, and viral videos off the internet. Our collected images became an ever-growing archive of memories – memories of the time that we had lived and witnessed. Soon, even the footage we had shot, began to feel as if it were ‘found’. We began to devise a narrative to connect all these seemingly unrelated images.

I started to think about the idea of a found footage film and got in touch with my friend Himanshu Prajapati, who is also a writer and filmmaker. We had been classmates at FTII. We began to come up with a fictional narrative to hold all these seemingly different types of footage to create a narrative.

A Night of Knowing Nothing (2021)

Counter shot: It appears to us that A Night of Knowing Nothing marks a clear departure from your earlier style – be it the tone and the texture of the image, or framing a fictional narrative to tell a series of non-fictional events, etc. Have you planned it deliberately before making the film? Or did the decisions come during the actual process of production?

Payal Kapadia: This film had a much more organic working style from my previous work. As I was doing this project with a very small group of people and very basic camera, the images would be of a certain nature. It was also shot by many people with their own gaze and motivations. Perhaps the style evolved from this. I feel myself drawn to this kind of filmmaking more and more now. I am excited by the sense of something more hybrid where fiction and non-fiction can mix freely. 

Counter shot: When did you decide to use the marriage video footage in the film? Was it there in the screenplay

Payal Kapadia: There was no screenplay to start with as the film was evolving in the filmmaking and editing process. We chanced upon some 8mm film archives which were uploaded on a website called which is run by the artist collective CAMP. When we saw that footage of the marriage, it connected very well with one of the dreams we had recorded of our friend Mukul. So we decided to use it together – using image and sound as the process of montage. 

Counter shot: We are really intrigued by the image texture you used in this film. On the one hand, it has the look of 16mm – which itself stood almost as an alternative to the 35mm standard film look. Needless to say, this position is political in the philosophical sense of the term. On the other hand, several filmmakers (like Jonas Mekas, for instance) have used this texture for their own personal kind of ‘diary film’ – which has interesting affinities with your project. Again, after the digital turn, we have saturated ourselves with this home-video look – the internet is full of them. So, have you been inspired by any of them? We want to know how you conceived, and if possible, created this texture at the time of work.

Payal Capadia: We were very much inspired by French New Wave films from the 1960s as well as old Soviet Cinema. We were especially inspired by Chris Marker. We wanted to shoot our campus with that grainy style and 1.33 aspect ratio to evoke those films. Ranabir used some basic filters to make a template for the style. After that we worked with the colour grader Mr. Lionel Kopp, who helped us achieve this look. He is a true artist. He uses colour grading like a painter. This helped us a lot.

A Night of Knowing Nothing (2021)

Counter shot: The film has a very loose structure: the sequence of images does not follow a cause-effect pattern. It is L’s voice that seems to give it a framing narrative. It also uses sound freely, mixing up the sounds of bells, crickets, wind, rain, distant thunder, etc. We are curious about how you came up with this sound design.

Payal Kapadia: Working with sound that is evocative rather than illustrative is exciting for me. We wanted to create a sound design that does not always go in synch with the images but creates a narrative of its own. The hope was that sound and images that are disjointed would be then juxtaposed to create another image in the viewer’s mind – to also become a form of montage. 

Counter shot: The space of FTII is quite crucial for the film’s unfolding. The footage of the protests, the writings on the wall – slogans, posters, graffiti – the whole ambiance of the space convey to us a utopian imagination long embedded in its project. What immediately comes to our mind is the history of the Indian New Wave, which is closely connected with the history of this space. Can you please talk a little bit about how you came up with the idea of making a film about this institution, about the experiences which inspired you to make such an intimate portrait of it, and the way you did it?

Payal Kapadia: Spaces like FTII were made so that everyone in this country can have access to making films regardless of their economic and social background. This was important for us to talk about in the film. One of the early teachers at FTII was Ritwik Ghatak and his films and ideology helped the film school also get a certain ideology.  As we were students there, we felt the need to document our campus. Personally, going through the long strike really changed me as a person and my political thought. I wanted to pay homage to a space that did that. Our public institutions are spaces of free thought and dissent. Although there are many problems within them and what they have managed to achieve, they at least give space for thoughts and ideas to blossom and raise questions. Perhaps this is why our governments feel so afraid of them!

A Night of Knowing Nothing (2021)

Counter shot: What is your next project? Are you interested in making a narrative feature film in the future, like Chauthi Koot (Gurvinder Singh, 2015)?

Payal Kapadia: Yes, I am currently in the process of making a fiction film as well.

Counter shot: What would be your advice to those independent filmmakers who may not have any institutional training in filmmaking, but are enthusiastic to make films without adhering to the mainstream commercial format? We ask this question because unlike in the 1970s and 80s, there are not many organized spaces for discussing alternative cinema which might help us cultivate a taste for non-mainstream, nonindustrial art forms. On the contrary, we are facing an onslaught of images every second from each direction which has a numbing effect on our senses. How, as artists and filmmakers, can we preserve our sensibilities to offer images that are nonconformist, imaginative, and at the same time, healing?

Payal Kapadia: I agree with you that we are now consuming images all the time. We cannot escape it. Maybe that should be the reason that independent filmmakers push even harder to challenge the conventions of form. But now the thing that is very freeing for us is that technology has become cheaper. With very good mobile phones, we can make films. So the best thing is to keep practising and keep making. Everything may not be a complete film but maybe it’ll lead you to something else. Always having an end in sight may not be the only method for making films! I would recommend for everyone to read an essay by Godard – which talks about making a film politically. 

And about cultivating a taste for non-industrial cinema – One way is to keep watching contemporary films from around the world that are doing formalistic experiments. Check festivals and see their lineups then try and find those films online or even write to filmmakers for links! Filmmakers can be really accessible! 

On the other hand, if one wants to make mainstream cinema intelligently, it is also very difficult but the need of the hour! In fact, this is more difficult as there are so many factors to consider. But more important too as these films reach out to so many more people. 

We are deeply indebted to Abhradeep Gangopadhyay (curator, theCircle). Without his cooperation this interview would have been impossible

উপরের সাক্ষাৎকারটির বাংলা অনুবাদ পড়তে ক্লিক করুন এখানে / Click here to read the Bengali translation of this conversation

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