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I am 20: Remembering India's youth

May 27, 2022

In 1967, the Films Division of India produced a short documentary under director S.N.S. Sastry. The simple, 18-minute documentary titled “I am 20” depicts the lives of the Indian youths, their hopes, aspirations, and apprehensions. It captures the true spirit of the Indian mindset of the 60s, the multitude of visions and dreams and ambitions. For an Indian youth watching this documentary, it is very difficult not to be moved by it. It is this timeless quality engrained in this film that has garnered it the iconic status that it truly deserves.

A scene from ‘I am 20’, a 1967 documentary. PC: FDI

A scene from ‘I am 20’, a 1967 documentary. PC: FDI

Originally, Mr. Sastry interviewed just about any Indian born on 15th Aug, 1947. This is an ingenious idea because who can give a more accurate description of India’s development after 20 years of independence than the youth? However, he was not convinced by the monotonous answers he received. In pursuit of intelligent answers, he interviewed IIT Bombay students as well. The final outcome of this improvisation is rather pleasing with a balanced mix of the India that was and the India that was to be.

As one progresses through the film, one cannot help but notice the stark differences that existed among individuals. Some of them overtly ambitious, some with a burning desire, some of them just prisoners of circumstances, some of them freewheeling, and some of them simply existing. The film is essentially a torch-bearer to the radical transformation that India was undergoing at that moment, capturing it in that delicate tango of the decrepit and poor and the ambitious and inquisitive. I love how well Sastry manages to pack so much and with such ingenuity into such a small space. Even within a limited canvas, he masterfully employs his medium to communicate his ideas effectively.

Direction And Cinematography

Sastry’s style unmistakably reminded me of Godard and more specifically Breathless, the 1960 Godard that started the New French movement. Influences also come from “I am 20”, a 1965 Soviet movie by Marlen Khutsiev, atleast on the title of the film. All that aside, just the idea of creating a film about the youth in a way that express their thoughts is so refreshing, like the director has stepped back to let the characters speak for themselves.

Take for example, sloppy montage shots of girls in skirts walking down a road highlights the fundamental transformation that the closed and orthodox Indian society was undergoing, finally breaking out of its slumber and opening up to the world, adopting the Western culture while respecting its own roots. A regiment of brilliant minds frothing with energy and a deep-seated selfless love for their country. Or consider the linear traversing shot of newborns in a hospital. Or the nicely executed contrast between shot of a nuclear reactor and steel plant with a labour relentlessly toiling in the sun. Any story of the modern India must include the downtrodden and the underprivileged. Sastry understood that very well.

Youths Of 1967

Let us spare a moment to talk about the youths too. There are no credits for the interviewees in the video but India in Pixels did an amazing job to track them down. The only person who names himself is Mr. T. N. Subramanian. A charming, articulate young man who concedes to being “talkative” and believes in the entitlement of his opinions. Through the film, he anchors the flow and gives a context to what India was becoming. It is this personal valuation of opinions that I believe the modern youth lacks or has lost in the trivialities and frivolities of modern amentities or circumstances (Yes, looking at you, social media :/). He wanted to go through the country with some money, a pad, tape recorder, and a camera and learn about the wealth that is India’s rich culture. Every dance, every song, every roadside conversation, every vernacular oozes India’s everlasting lust for inclusivity and diversity. It is funny how I have found a friend from the past.

A beautiful young girl is asked if she would marry by choice and listen to her confident and assured reply. Just before that, Sastry asks the same question to a tribal girl and listen to her reply. Extremely disheartened as I write this but that India is the present India. Vir Das was right when he talked of “two Indias”.

A Bengali student says that “The real indepence is the independence of the mind” and how it doesn’t matter much to him if, say, Pataudi scored a century. It is only if he could score one that he would find peace. It is this burning desire to do something and leave a mark that is so characteristic of the youth. There is a guy who talks about security and sitting in air-conditioned offices (and ends up doing completely opposite but far exciting things). That cracked me up, thinking how closely his views resonated with my parents/relatives. His case only goes on to show how undecided our lives are, even in the face of complete “control”.

Carefree romantic ideas such as the freewheeling and careless “film star” who will save money to make films. On a graver note, the educated girl is not shy to complain about rising instances of eve-teasing or talk about her hobbies and ambition while the girl from the village can’t remember her marriage because she was eight years old. We have to seriously ask ourselves the question: What have we done about it?

Concluding

The film is not only just a record of what was but also serves as a reminder to what we were. Youths of today can get inspired from the whole-hearted sincerity and ambition portrayed by the people in the film and better understand their role and responsibility in the current world scenario.

The modern youth enjoy a much safer and richer lifestyle than the previous generations but with economic and social freedom, they also have more serious and introspective responsibilities. The modern youth mustn’t squander time and work towards a inclusive and sustainable future for all.

On The Margins

I came across this video in a language course at university (NLN101) and was frankly quite impressed by it, the idea, execution and all. I thought it might be fun to write about it considering I haven’t, in a long time. Sincerest apologies to my readers but university is crushing. Oh, and watch the India In Pixels video for more trivia.

Watch it below

Basil | @itbwtsh

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Basil blogs about complex topics in simple words.
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