Campus Rising: A tell-all documentary on India’s enraged youth

Filmmaker Yousuf Saeed brings out the various narratives of student agitations in universities.

WrittenBy:Sahla Nechiyil
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If the opening shot of a film can reveal what follows, Yousuf Saeed’s new documentary Campus Rising is the perfect example. The film’s opening scene shows a road inside a university campus stamped with the words “showcause notice” – the latest form of crackdown on student activism in Indian universities.

Saeed’s documentary features interviews with students from seven Indian universities – including Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi University, University of Hyderabad, Banaras Hindu University, Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University – who question their administrations and speak up against the problems in the respective institutions.

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Image credit: Yousuf Saeed 

The 73-minute film starts with former JNU students’ union president Kanhaiya Kumar’s byte on what makes a university different from a school, and moves on students talking about casteism in academia, 24×7 library movement and gender discrimination in BHU, the February 9 row in JNU and missing student Najeeb Ahmed, suicide of Ankit Ambhore in IIT Bombay, suspension of eight students in Lucknow University, violence in DU’s Ramjas College, scrapping of non-Net fellowship, the occupy University Grants Commission movement, curfews and absence of a students’ union in Jamia, and so on.

The documentary also features eminent scholars such as Romila Thapar and Irfan Habib stating the importance of dialogue and discussions in university spaces.

Campus Rising records what students and teachers have to say about how their freedom in university spaces has been curtailed and why they won’t stop protesting until the rights of the underprivileged are granted. Right-wing students too appear in the film, but for a short time, and talk about “anti-national sloganeering” in JNU.

Ironically, Saeed himself was against student politics during his college days. “I was a student of biology at Aligarh Muslim University and I used to wonder ‘if students do politics, how will they study’?” he said.

What prompted you to make a documentary on campus uprisings?

The immediate trigger was the February 9 incident in JNU last year, when the alleged raising of anti-national slogans led to students being arrested for sedition, including Kanhaiya Kumar. Also, ripples from the larger movement that was triggered after Rohith Vemula’s institutional murder were also there. I felt that these topics needed to be covered in a proper documentary. But, I didn’t want to make a sloganeering kind of thing. Rather I wanted to make a thought-provoking film, which is why I included questions relating to the purpose of a university and freedom in such spaces, etc.

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Image credit: Yousuf Saeed 

Have you visited all universities during these movements?

Yes, I have been in these universities except the Hyderabad university. I couldn’t go there often and I asked some of the students to record footage and send it. The rest has been shot by me. Also, I was lucky enough to cover some of the important incidents that were taking place at that time on campuses such as BHU, Ramjas College and JNU. Sometimes, you get something unique during a shoot which will improve the quality of your documentary.

How long did it take you to shoot the film?

The whole shoot took two-and-a-half months, from January to mid-March this year. About 90 per cent of the shoot was done in January and February. That was when the Ramjas violence coincided with Rohith Vemula’s death anniversary.

Where have you screened the film so far?

The first screening was held at a college in Nagpur. I also screened it in JNU and Miranda House. Though I wish to screen Campus Rising across colleges and universities and approached a lot of institutions, only few were interested. Jadavpur University has given the green signal and I will also screen it at film festivals in Udaipur, Patna and Bhopal.

The main narrative that comes out of the documentary is against the ABVP and its politics. And the film has given little representation to their narrative. Don’t you think it will be criticised for the “one-sided” story?

Of course. I am not shying away from that. Yes, it is a one-sided story because of several reasons. One is that the mainstream media is also showing one side of the story, so by making this film, I am doing my own politics. I am not making a balanced film. Even if I give space to people from the ABVP, the statements they give will make them appear ridiculous. So, my own politics will always be there. I can’t help it.

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Image credit: Yousuf Saeed 

Your documentary criticised the mainstream media for focusing on major campuses and neglecting what is happening in suburban colleges. But, you have also done the same. Or, do you plan to go to these colleges?

I would love to do that. But right now, funding is an issue as the film has been self-funded. There was no funding from outside and it is expensive to make a documentary of this quality. You need to have a team and invest in it for good quality footage, better sound and all. This is a voluntary effort and there is a limit to voluntary efforts. If I manage to get funding from somewhere, I would love to go further.

Do you think there is more suppression from the side of the administration ever since the BJP government came to power, or is it that students have become more political?

Suppression is definitely there. Ever since the BJP government came to power, people with a particular ideology have been appointed to head most institutions so that they can curtail academic freedom and they are not letting anybody speak up. So it is definitely that.

The documentary ends saying that “the film is unfinished as long as the struggle continues”. Do you have plans to take this film further?

I don’t actually know about that. Maybe I will make another film about education itself and leave this documentary as it is. I made that statement ending the film so that it remains open-ended and people know that things are always happening.

While shooting the film, I kept thinking that ‘okay now everything is done, I can edit the film’, and then suddenly something else would happen. Then I would have to cover that also. I was not able to find an end. There has to be an end to this, but it is just going on.

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Yousuf Saeed 


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