In 1967, documentary filmmaker S.N.S. Sastry spoke to twenty-year-olds who were born on 15th August 1947 across the length and breadth of India to capture the realities, thoughts, struggles, and ambitions of the youth. He combined the footage into a documentary film titled I Am 20.
What is immediately striking is the candour and reflection with which these youngsters can put forth their thoughts. It is tough to imagine a similar film with such diversity and authenticity being released in today’s polarised social landscape where even the most mundane instance of a politically charged thought results in a backlash in the best-case scenario and violence in the worst.
I Am 20, therefore, acts at once as a time capsule and a reference point to see how far we have come, and how much further these young people imagined us going.
Representation of women
The twenty-year-old young women featured in Sastry’s documentary I Am 20 come from all walks of life. We see an air hostess in a pristine plane at one point, and a girl who was married as a child bride at another. Perhaps it makes sense to then concentrate on what we do not see: women talking about aspiring for leadership roles (unlike the many young men who talk about such ambitions) and women in hijabs.
However, what the director has managed to capture through I Am 20 paints a picture of the yesteryears that cancels out any argument that feminism is a western import of recent years. Not that we need proof that women never liked being harassed, but this documentary reinforces it.
So often during the #MeToo movement, we have people defending perpetrators by claiming that it was a “different time”. Here in I Am 20 however, we see the camera show us the gaze of a man following two women in short skirts through a street, and then immediately cut to a young girl talking about how it is not okay to do so.
In I Am 20, we see working women, a woman who talks about being open to the idea of a love marriage, and women who are opinionated and politically conscious. We also see them being juxtaposed with the conversations with women who are not as privileged as them- the one who suffered from being married as a child, for example, talks about how the only thing that she remembers from her wedding day is the good food.
We are forced, therefore, to confront not only the social suffering of a woman in the absence of privilege but also her lack of access to basic pleasures like good food. Gender justice is thus, undeniably a huge theme of the film.
I Am 20 has captured proof of the fact that the idea of gender equality is as old as time and that women have always suffered in its absence.
The clear gap between young people’s access to basic resources like education, and how that has impacted their worldviews, is another omnipresent thread in I Am 20. On the one hand, we see urban college-going youngsters talk about political turmoil and development. On the other, we see a young man from a non-urban location being extremely frank about not even knowing who the political leaders are.
He is the person that ‘development’ is supposed to reach, but even the names of those who he is supposed to hold accountable for it are out of his grasp. Not to mention that the struggle of the rural women is so obviously different from the struggle of the urbanites.
This gap brilliantly captures what Intersectional feminism aims to address today- our struggles are not equal, and we need to acknowledge that while formulating policies and advocating for gender justice. As a twenty-something-year-old living in 2022, I was particularly conscious of how someone could have told me that the rural footage of this documentary was captured in present-day India, but the urban shots are decidedly outdated.
If this is not an exceptional eye-opener for why the feminist struggle cannot be divorced from the politicisation of privilege, nothing can be.
Political debate and consciousness
The idea of critiquing political leaders and engaging with their actions to demand development and hold them accountable is present in a lot of urban youngsters who have been interviewed. Considering that I Am 20 was shot in an India that had still not been exposed to the world through liberalisation and globalisation (but had given its youth a peek into the Western culture through its post-colonial nature), it can be very confidently said that even in the absence of those factors, the definition of ‘loving one’s country’ that these Indians held was decidedly progressive.
One of the interviewees even compares the country to a child and says that growth can happen without nourishment- implying that progress over time is not necessarily proof of enough initiative. What his interview captures is an Indian youth aspiring for more- an Indian refusing to settle for the status quo, and believing in aspiring for more for his fellow citizens.
This is not very different from the perspective of those who stand up for what it right today- whether in the streets or on social media.
What I Am 20 has captured, therefore, is the spirit of hope that has been alive in the youth of the nation since time immemorial. They refused to believe that passive acceptance needed to be their way of life. Perhaps, if these youngsters had not believed this, we would not have come this far, and if we do not continue to believe it, we will not go much farther.
I Am 20 is historically significant and inspiring, but it is also presently relevant because the struggles, ambitions, and reality of the youth, unfortunately, do not seem to have changed much. As one well-spoken individual summarises in the film, “Our achievement is that we have a hopeful tomorrow, but our failure is that our today is very precarious.”
Featured Image Source: The Wire