An interview with Mr. Vijay Singh,
Film-maker, screenplay-writer and novelist
Mansi: How did your journey to JNU begin?
Vijay Singh: Just to situate things, we are speaking of 1972. I had just sat for my Bachelor's final at St Stephen's College. For the summer holiday, one of my uncles had invited me to spend some time in a rest house on a small dam in Dakpathar, near Dehradun. I remember I was going through a strange intellectual phase of my life. Such was the hunger that I wanted to just gulp down anything that went by the name of a good book or a good LP (music record!). So I went to the St Stephen's library, chatted up the librarian to issue me some 50 books – which was clearly not allowed!- and left for Dakpathar. And of course, I had picked up some music – I remember Simon and Garfunkel and their El Condor Pasa! For 45 days, then, I read one book a day – Sartre, Camus, Hesse, Malraux, Mann, Beckett. One per day. God knows if I really understood anything of them! Anyway, when I returned to Delhi, there was talk amongst friends of the Centre for Historical Studies at JNU - and that it had a wonderful faculty with great historians like RomilaThapar, Bipin Chandra, S Gopal, Sabyasachi Bhattacharya. It was very tempting to join JNU and be a student of these masters. But I was still not really convinced. Being an academic was never really the goal of my life. I was more interested in writing, drama etc.
Around the same time, I was desperately trying to chase a girl those days. One day, we were having coffee in Connaught Place, when she surprised me by suddenly declaring that she was going to join CHS at JNU! "O are you? So am I", I said, despite the haze of all my confusion. All my indecisions fell flat at the feet of love, and my decision was instantly made! I jumped into the first auto rickshaw and said JNU chalo! Long live the young lady!
It might sound funny today but it's true that it was this girl, in retrospect, who had inadvertently opened the doors to a divine light.
Mansi: What was your experience here over the years you were here?
Vijay Singh: Academically, of course there were great teachers at CHS – Romila, Gopal, Bipin, Bapa. But there was more to it than just teaching. We didn't just learn history - but also learnt life. How history holds the key to understanding life. Then their way of teaching was so different. To be able to call teachers by their first name at that age was itself a wonderful experience. The span of their knowledge was astounding – they talked economics, philosophy, sociology, literature, and of course history. They were truly multi-disciplinary in that sense, where one discipline dissolved into another like a delicious "osmosis".
Then the fantastic JNU culture. Any knowledge needs freedom to grow, and JNU hostels provided this freedom to boys and girls alike. Being able to have a room to yourself, not having to sign a register at the entrance or having a curfew, being able to discuss things until the crack of down at the dhabas, watch films at Priya after walking almost 1 km through the woods. Delhi was safe for our girls those days. That freedom was perhaps the greatest gift of JNU. As I said, without freedom, without the absence of fear, nothing can sail to the shores of light!
Ours were also socially tumultuous times – the Naxalite movement, the Railway strike which almost brought the Indira Gandhi government down, the nascent industrial working class agitations… Around that time, a man called Jairus Banaji had arrived from Oxford in JNU. A superb thinker, a fountainhead of knowledge, a mesmerizing public speaker, the kind JNU will perhaps never see again. With him we slowly formed a "revolutionary" Trotskyist group – and our ambition was to understand the Indian social classes and the state-form, and then of course to emancipate not just India, but the whole world! This was the passion that governed our readings. Why we read those books was not to acquire some passive knowledge, but to change the world around us. For many years, we followed that dream, through the ebbs and flows of history. In fact, that experience marked many of us forever. It was the most fruitful intellectual phase of my life at JNU, when dream and action worked hand in hand at the service of a social transformation. In many ways, this phase was like an orgasm, it did not last a lifetime but it shaped our mind and our desire for a lifetime.
Mansi: How do think JNU has changed over these years?
Vijay Singh: Maybe one has to be in constant touch with the place to comment on that. But one thing that did strike me, it is a politically less aware campus. But that is really a reflection of the society we live in, and JNU and many campuses worldwide are only mirroring a depoliticisation of intellectual life. But it's always difficult to say how social passion in life, emerges and disappears.
I would like to believe it's the same as before. Maybe some of the issues are different, people are more into jobs and a little corporatist culture has seeped in. But that's not a bad thing in itself as long as one makes good human use of any form of knowledge.
Again, it's an easy thing to say that the Berlin wall fell, but with the fall of the Berlin wall, the bipolarity of the world was lost and we were left with a unipolar world - which meant that people started thinking only capitalism shall survive, only the culture of money, the culture of power, the culture of the commodity, the culture of consumerism. So this campus depolitisation worldwide is a reflection of this phenomenon. Francois Truffaut said, after returning from Hollywood, that it is the only place in the world where money has acquired the same stature as morality. So what I am saying is that the values have changed as the epoch itself has changed. But that itself will change. This time a spiritual and human search will also be the motive force in the 21st century.
Mansi: What trajectory did your career take post JNU?
Vijay Singh: I did my Masters from CHS in Modern Indian History, and then MPhil. During PhD work we were considered to be good students by the faculty but it must be said, we were more interested in politics - in changing the lives of our people in the country, in changing the world really. Nobody was really interested in applying for jobs. Applying for the IAS etc was obviously out of the question. We felt that we owed our lives and our social commitment to the world. Then came the emergency, those were difficult years, although we were not threatened personally. After the emergency, I worked a fair bit outside JNU - with the Tuglaqabad railways workers, the Cotton textile mill workers in Kanpur, for a short while I went to the south of Bihar – Singhbhum. In retrospect this political work with the working men and women was a very illuminating and emotionally enriching experience. A lot that goes into my films and books has come from those days.
On a different front, through Jairus, I fell in love with the French artistic movement - surrealism. That was to change my life forever. Marxism, surrealism and a certain spiritual quest became the three strands of my journey through life. One fine day, I picked up my backpack and left for Paris – the Mecca of surrealism!
Mansi: What are some of the highs and the lows of being in this profession?
Vijay Singh: I suppose you are meaning the profession of filmmaking. While writing is more fulfilling in a very personal way – it digs deeper into you– filmmaking allows me to meet my audience, which is not always the case with writing. I love presenting my films, because it gives me the rare opportunity to meet an audience which has, within a span of 90 minutes, just discovered your work, all together in one go – and it's wonderful to be able to discuss with them. It's almost an act of love, when the object and the subject dissolve into each other.
Mansi: You have seen different places, universities, what sets JNU apart for you?
Vijay Singh: I heard Amitabh Bachchan once say during his parliamentary election near Allahabad, that the village elephant goes all over the place but returns finally to his land of birth. JNU was this place for me – the learning, the loves, the walks into the infinite horizon. Some relationships are irrational, and they are best left at that. One shouldn't think too much about them. Mind is an enemy of man.
Mansi: Any special memory of JNU to be shared with everyone?
Vijay Singh: Yes. I will share it in a future novel or a film.
Mansi: One message to the students reading this?
Vijay Singh: Liberty, love, poetry.