53 years ago, an audacious film made an attempt to find out what the youth of India thought about their country. The premise seems simple enough, only here the catch was that to celebrate the 20th independence day, director SNS Sastry made a documentary interviewing people who were born on 15th August, 1947, bringing the circle back, essentially interviewing India herself at 20. ‘I Am 20’ is a remarkable achievement of juxtaposing the ideals and the realities of life in a way that is neither judgemental nor hyperbolic. The documentary, all of 19 ironic minutes, is astonishing in its ability to be pertinent and relevant still today, as we celebrate our 73rd Independence day, and take a look back at the many things our country has been part of despite its extremely young age.
The film opens with the only person who is named, T. N. Subramaniam, who has the presence of a college professor at all of 20 years old. His depiction of himself, calling himself “talkative and loquacious” is the beginning of a number of interviews with extremely well spoken and well informed people. The greatest achievement of Sastry is the way India’s dichotomies are shown, not through questions, but through answers and swiftly shifting to new perspectives. He builds a narrative and then challenges it in the space of half a minute, and you would be hard pressed to find a better guide to the different threads that together make up the fabric of young India.
A self-described “rich young man” explains the benefits of living in a capitalist system, and eloquently argues that if foreign items are of better quality and last longer, then he will of course want to buy them. The market exists to show him products he would want to buy, and so he does. He has no qualms on them. The very next segment interviews a farmer in Madhya Pradesh who says that some clothes and a place to sleep are all he needs in life to be comfortable. This constant juggling of opinions takes place in a space that Sastry has made decidedly non-judgemental, and as you watch further, you too are included in this experiment to objectively see what the youth of 1967 have to say.
Coming to the word experiment, one of my favourite dialogues from Mr Subramaniam is when he says that “India is an experiment…and I would like to be part of it”, a sentiment which has somehow lost its relevance in today’s world. The idea that India is still a young country is something that is lost to a lot of the youth of the country today, and it is appropriate to mention that there is no dearth of contradictory opinions in those times still. Another very eloquent student from Gujarat says that corruption has bitten into the heart of India and is the reason why so many Indians today are not fortunate enough to even have a roof over their head, or a piece of cloth on their body. Another brilliantly sarcastic comment comes from a student who aspires to be an IAS officer, “sit in an Air-Conditioned room all day, push paper and marry his boss’ daughter”! Such droll is now a common part of our daily language, and it is refreshing to see such honest opinions from a period where appearing on camera was an entirely serious affair. There are other such interesting characters, such as that of a self proclaimed esoteric extrovert.
Another part of India is highlighted by the inclusion of a 20 year old girl from Rajasthan who was married off at 8 and has three children, and the aforementioned farmer who does not know who the Prime Minister or the President is, but knows who the District Collector is, proving that many Indians live in a tiny bubble far away from knowledge of the outside, and sadly, show a similarity to situations even today, 53 years post. A quote from the film explains this perfectly, “our achievement is that we have a hopeful tomorrow. Our failure is that our today is very precarious.” It is indeed sad that it still holds up today.
As an experiment, considering that I am also 20, and have access to more 20 year olds, I decided to ask some of my peers what they thought of India today. It is remarkable to see how many of their viewpoints are very similar to those from all those years ago, and also how the youth of India now has so many more far-ranging concerns, that may have been fiction to the youth of ‘I am 20’.
One of them, M, says
“I would expect India to be more accepting of the youth in politics and see some proper representation”, as well as “be more secular and accepting of minorities, neither of which has happened”. “The country is basically being divided further on the basis of religion and seeking revenge and most of the ones leading the country are old men who do not want change.”
A contradictory viewpoint comes from D, who says
“the youth of India still has no solutions to the problems of current times and lives in hopes that the next decade will belong to India while the reality stands an ocean apart.” “The youth must understand that the govt. is the means to bring about change while they themselves are the resource who must bring the change in the form of solutions.”
The conflict between the idea of the youth vs the aged continues as a theme, with O:
“It reminds me of how certain things may never change, like how the people of youth form their opinions. Maybe the context changes where the youth of ’67 looked towards a rather bleak future, relied on stability and maybe even the fact that some of them particularly “don’t want girlfriends”! Today, the youth has more agency, way more feminist thought, more hope, and even more determination to move towards an inclusive future, with the usual nihilist sentiments, of course. Who knows, maybe some of us don’t want girlfriends as well! But even today I can count the number of people who want to ‘explore’ the country with one tape recorder (my privileged, pretentious self included), people who want a stable future, and people who’d rather shift their focus on the local authorities. But again, we’re all 20 once. The world undoubtedly was a massive oyster in ’67, still is in 2020, maybe just a clammed one at the moment.”
From what we hear of our peers today, it would seem that while the youth see ourselves as more open, accepting and liberal, we also seem to be stuck in a generational strife with the elders of our country, who, curiously, would be the same age as the youth in the film! It would seem that the theme of basically saying “India can be great, but it is not now” is one that has persevered through all this time and yet we seem to have no clear ideas or answers as to what might be the solution to this dichotomy. The country has forever been stuck in definitions of “potential”, “developing” and “upcoming”, and Indians are stuck in a perennial wait for the ever foretold ‘arrival’ of India.
An interesting take away from the film is the very obvious colonial hangover that can be observed in the interviewees. The British accent that many of the educated youth seem to possess, is a direct bequeathal of the colonial era, while today we seem to have reclaimed our command over the English language, with Indian English being a globally recognised dialect now, and Hinglish becoming ever so popular. The ideas of foreign goods being of higher quality are also eroding slowly, although one can always debate whether by right or wrong, as we seem to become vocal for local.
As India becomes 73 years old, younger than all of the great powers in the world, we have come to a point where we have to start showing up our potential, something that we all we possess all the way from 1967 to today in 2020, and come to a consensus as to what we want the country to BE. The fact that as India turns 73, her identity itself is the hardest hitting and most abundant question in our minds, should be of concern to anyone. But, as a 20 year old pilot says
“Well, I don’t know how you could ask me a question like that because I am an Indian and India means everything to me. I am part and parcel of India and India is a part of my life.”
You can watch the short film by clicking this link.
-Written by: Trayambak Chakravarty