If there is one thing that going to the Mass Communication Research Centre at Jamia Millia Islamia taught me, it was to take myself seriously. There was no choice. Everybody else did.
To reach MCRC, one had to enter one of Delhi’s great Muslim ghettos. Yes, of course it is politically incorrect to call it that, but it is really an extended ghetto that stretches almost from the Surya Crowne Plaza hotel on one side right up to the arterial roads that lead to the NOIDA suburbs on the other. The pulsating heart of this ghetto is a yawning stretch that is the Jamia Millia Islamia, the university that lies like a bulbous octopus head at the centre of the bustle, from which every other area, from Gaffar Manzil to the infamous Batla House to the once liberal Rafi Complex spread out in throbbing pulses. For the university, despite being small by the standards of the Jawaharlal Lal Nehru University (JNU) or the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) or the multi-campus spread of Delhi University, is still the inspirational showpiece of this area.
What the bazaars of Chandni Chowk and the solemn historical weight of the Jama Masjid inspire in Purani Dilli, Jamia Millia Islamia does here. It offers business, shade and refuge, provides an everyday morale boost, injects politics and inspires street parables.
But Jamia does one better than Purani Dilli. Its university gives it the intellectual vigour that died in old Delhi when the poets disappeared. The university lends youthful street cred; it brings a peculiar nonchalant aggression that only universities can manage.
In what could easily be another poor ghetto, the university shines through.
When I entered MCRC, the fables were already well-ingrained. One of the first few films I saw there was a student film starring, and I think made by, one Shah Rukh Khan. Shah Rukh Khan dropped out of MCRC—no, he was expelled, as the college is famous for reminding its students, for low attendance. He was shooting for a serial called Fauji and MCRC demands more than 75 per cent attendance. The fine print, almost like a scene from Shah Rukh’s hit Mohabattein, set in a college and inspired by Dead Poet’s Society, was clear: we do not regret expelling Shah Rukh. The rules of MCRC are above any student, no matter what that student goes on to become.
In the student film that I saw, the future superstar of Bollywood flips his bushy hair back, dons Aviator sunglasses like in his early films, and prances around in a style that he has made his very own. I do not remember the storyline, but he almost seemed to rehearse what has now become his trademark style and dimpled grins.
Then there was Kiran (Rao), who was seeing (teachers at MCRC knew this long before any tabloid) Aamir (Khan). Barkha (Dutt) had been ‘even then such a hard working girl’. There was Ritu (Kapur), wife of then CNBC TV18 baron Raghav Bahl, and even in those early years, MCRC predicted ‘they would create an empire’. They did.
The list was long. Now there were all of us who could potentially, sometime in the distant future, make the list. But to make the list, MCRC demanded, and received, complete submission, even subservience. There was, though, a twist in the MCRC tale.
In the years that I attended MCRC, it was one of the most liberal campuses in the country. It was as left-leaning as JNU, as promiscuous and free-thinking as Pune’s famous Film and Television Institute of India (FTII). MCRC revelled in its alternative identity. It had furiously erudite teachers, who had not only read and seen everything, but had also read and seen everything about everything—and whose sexuality was deeply ambiguous. There were teachers who had been reputedly seeing each other for as long as any batch of students could remember, and yet one of them was known, ostensibly, to have had a boyfriend, perhaps boyfriends. There was a teacher who arrived in class wearing a lungi, or very short pants. Sometimes, in the summer, he wore a ganji in different colours. He brought forward ideas that none of us had ever dreamt of before.
Can a human perform as a puppet?
What is the relationship, the psychological equation, between a marionette and a marionette master?
What happens when we get comfortable with touch? What is our relation with our limbs? What happens to our minds when we get comfortable with our bodies?
Where does the best hashish come from? How does one roll the perfect joint? What is the importance of Dharamshala in the global tourism map?
Another teacher, also the head of India’s most important art centre, spoke constantly of arrival. What is arrival? How does one arrive? Do you ever arrive in art? Or is it a constant transit?
One morning, he arrived carrying a satchel stamped with the air cargo marks of the weary artist travelling the world. Peter Brook, he said. He had just met Peter Brook the night before and watched the stirrings on stage of a new project. Another time, he spoke of how he had met his Japanese wife, an artist.
It was all stirring enough to be surreal. A pond, unruly and unflappable, unaware of the ecosystem, might be altering fast. Teachers repeated that this was all free. This was unimpeded and imaginative, far away from the sea.
In a psychedelic loop, the song of autonomy played on, with each of us playing a character. Asia’s best non-fiction film school was playing itself each and every day, with movements fast and slow, with caricatures thrown in at times. It wouldn’t be worth it, would it, not to be paisa vasool?
So we played characters.
All that we wanted to try and could not touch. All that we wondered, but could not think. This became the playground of the hitherto unthinkable. Our crash course in being different. For what did each of us really want to be? We wanted to be different, teachers, students, all of us. We wanted a gap, a space between the conforming world and ourselves. Too tiny for real street power, afraid maybe of the burgeoning university, we strove to stand apart.
A large part of the lesson was the importance of being complicated, which is the other way of learning the trick of appearing cool.
It was a curious and potent mix. A clutch of Delhi brats from the great Delhi Brahmin schools, St. Stephens and Lady Shri Ram College, Hindu College, Miranda House. A bunch of students from Jamia, some with threadbare spoken English, a short girl from Manipur, a tall girl from Kashmir, a socialist singer from Assam, a beleaguered-looking boy from Bihar who sometimes muttered about lost lands, Maoists and private armies, a wannabe DJ, a dancer, the proud sister of a champion table tennis player.
We learnt to be anti-America, anti-big brands, anti-big government. Later, big dams were added to the list. We were compelled to feel different, and therefore act different.
It took curious shape in each of us. Dreams of Bollywood were tempered by aspirations towards street theatre. Too tiny to riot or even strike, we spent our time raising our voices all the same, creating dystopian fantasies that made us heroic. Like all utopian worlds, it made all of us forcibly equal, and equally less than honest about our own desires.
What did MCRC want? It wanted radicals, street fighters who would expel injustice and fight crass commercialisation. That was why it had been built as a centre for documentary films. Yet, as always, so many of its students went off to Bollywood.
This year, when I read of Kiran Rao talking of how Aamir Khan laughs at her love for world cinema and teases her saying, ‘Tum Fellini ki dum ho!’, it took me back to MCRC. We, the tails of Fellini, are now in Bollywood, making films. Calling them Break ke Baad, styling clothes for Bluffmaster, marrying superstars.
And MCRC had resigned itself to being proud of its children in Hindi cinema. When I entered the college, it had long intellectualized Hindi cinema. Among my favourite classes: The Importance of the Black Leather Jacket in Hindi cinema.
Inspired to get in touch with my multiple sides, I wore dhotis to college and, for a few months, an anklet on one leg, to understand, among other things, the feminine in the masculine.
But there were more important lessons to be learnt at MCRC. ‘After all,’ as one of my father’s friends explained gravely, ‘it is, you see, a Muslim college.’
This Muslimness was novel. I may as well admit that most of us didn’t know much about Muslims. Here was what had never been apparent in school. As a passing professor said, but of course everything you do is political.
‘Do you fear The Other?’ asked Abhilasha Kumari, and answered, ‘of course you do. It is the one thing that we all fear: The Other. I shall teach you research, qualitative and quantitative, and in research The Other is of supreme importance. You might as well say that research is all about The Other. If you know what I mean. Which you might not.’
We didn’t know, and it was an odd feeling. We felt that we didn’t know a whole lot about Muslims. Perhaps that is incorrect. We felt that we didn’t know a whole lot about the different aspects of the life of the devout Muslim. We felt the inevitable discomfort with the politicization of the different. How does one explain the uneasiness of situations that ought not to be uneasy?
Did we think we were uncomfortable in a Muslim college? No. But here was a discussion on The Other. Why, then, did that make us squeamish?
There were questions.
‘How many Muslims do you know?’
Oh, of course I have lots of Muslim friends.
Galat jawab! That, as it so happens, was the wrong answer. Every Hindu who apparently considers himself liberal replies in the affirmative. Now I didn’t know that. I hadn’t asked anyone this question. Everyone, said the professor, says they have lots of Muslim friends, or that they know lots of Muslims. Just the need for that affirmation is problematic (do you ever need to affirm that you have a lot of Christian or Sikh or Jain friends?), but that apart, the affirmation is usually not true. I had never really thought of this either. There was Tathagata (who has a Muslim father and is my oldest friend) and others in school, and then, come to think of it, there was no one in college. My parents didn’t really have any Muslim friends. They had some Muslim friends in school and college, and then everyone had drifted apart.
There were no immediate names. No one we hung out with.
There was more to the question.
‘No. I mean really know. Know families. Do things together as families. Know members of families. How many?’
Well, it was clear that afternoon, and in many others that followed, that there weren’t that many. And the dusty class would fall silent. Little fissures mushroomed here and there. How difficult it is to explain that discomfort. How ill-fitting that awkwardness.
What were they, those conversations that thrust upon us ideas that so many of us had missed? Nothing had prepared us for this, this paradox of the misfit liberal. That then was MCRC’s greatest lesson, a lesson I could have learnt nowhere but at Jamia, a lesson I carry tossing and swirling in my blood every day. In a world of people like us, this great college had taught to appreciate The Other. It made us democratic. Even human.
[Hindol Sengupta is a Jamia alumnus, and the author of ‘The Liberals’ (Harper Collins, 2012), which documents, among other things, his years at AJK-Mass Communication Researh Centre (MCRC), Jamia Millia Islamia. He graduated from JMI in 2004. He currently works as a Senior Editor for The Fortune magazine in India. He can be reached via email at: hindol.whypoll[at]gmail.com]