When 16-year-old Jugani Rehman’s father seizes her electronic tablet and throws it on the floor , he shatters not only the screen of the tablet but also Jugani’s dream of pursuing higher studies. Fighting all odds, Jugani who is discouraged by her family from attending school, secures a full scholarship to pursue her junior college studies in the United Kingdom. A student of the Sarvodaya Kanya Vidyalaya in West Delhi’s Vikaspuri neighbourhood, she secured 95% in tenth grade exams of CBSE, but faced stiff resistance from her family to study abroad despite securing a 100% scholarship.
This impactful scene from the film Ready Steady — co-created by ten teenagers hailing from lower socio-economic backgrounds in Delhi — stays with the audience long after the film is over. All of them, including Jugani, have played themselves in the movie, and have co-written five short stories interwoven into one film. Across its 90-minute run the students tackle topics such as obsession with social media, casteist discrimination, othering due to religion, economic disparities and class divide through the cinematic lens.
The seeds of the film germinated during COVID-19, in 2020, when Nivritti Samtaney (33), a former Teach For India fellow got in touch with filmmaker Safdar Rahman. Ms. Samtaney wanted to document lived experiences of students, who had managed to secure admissions in elite schools of Delhi through the Economically Weaker Section (EWS) quota.
A reply to the Right to Information application filed by Ms. Samtaney around the same year revealed that 17 out of 36 States in India, had not admitted any children under EWS (as mandated by Section 12 (C) of the RTE Act, 2009), between 2015 to 2020. The section mandates a reservation of at least 25% seats at an entry level for EWS children in all private unaided schools.
States like Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab or West Bengal among others had not implemented the act. “While we know that over 43 lakh students were admitted or studying under RTE in 2019-20, the Ministry of Education was unable to provide data of those students who had dropped out between 2015 to 2020, and those who had completed at least five years of schooling under EWS as mandated by law. 45% seats reserved under this section remain unoccupied,” says Ms. Samtaney.
Ms. Samtaney, in 2012, had taught a batch of nearly 20 kids in a government school of Delhi. She pushed for all students in her batch to be admitted to better resourced private schools through EWS quota. “Parents of nearly ten of those children agreed for their kids to study in better schools, for instance Shiv Nadar School in Noida, even if that meant a 45-minute drive from say Seelampur or Mandawali,” Ms. Samtaney says.
‘Getting admission is only the beginning of struggles’
Later, she realised that getting admission into elite schools was but only the beginning of struggles for the children. Sweety Nayak (17) from Mandawali in East Delhi, who is now preparing to start her higher education at the National Institute of Design (NID) in Ahmedabad, was one of the first kids to get admission in Noida’s upscale Shiv Nadar School. She started off there from the third grade , when she eight-years-old. Sweety who plays herself in the movie told The Hindu, “I experienced class divide very closely at school. My friends would come in posh cars, I would have to travel in bus, and at times if my father came to drop me at school, I would plead with him to park his two-wheeler at a considerable distance from the school gate, as I felt conscious of being teased. When I was younger, I had pestered my parents for a mobile phone, when I saw students in the eighth grade carry expensive phones to school.” Ms. Sweety also adds that had it not been for the push she had received from Shiv Nadar school to pursue art in class ninth and tenth, she would not have secured admission in NID. “Getting access to better resources at school-level is crucial to pursuing a fruitful higher education,” she emphasises.
Mr. Rahman who loves working at the intersection of teenagers and cinema, feels that there is a huge dearth of meaningful content for high school going teenagers who are spending nearly five-to-eight hours on their phone screens every day. “The last impactful high school film to come out of the aegis of Indian cinema was Udaan way back in 2010. And then there is American experience borrowed into elite India in Student of the Year, but that is nothing like the lives most teenagers in India are living,” he says.
During the making of Ready Steady, Mr. Rahman realised the incredible poetic talent hidden in two of the teen students. Take for instance, Abbas (19), a resident of Sangam Vihar in South Delhi. In one scene, Abbas exchanges a few lines of poetry with his co-writer and actor Chanda. He narrates, ‘Siyaasi Mujrimo ke lautne ki aas mein, Haq hai hamara, Sadkon pe jaa baithna.’ (In hopes of the return of the political prisoners, it is our right that we sit in protest on the streets).
“We had to find a way to weave Abbas and Chanda’s in the film, and that flows towards the end. It is inspired by the real-life case of Abbas thinking deeply about the anti-Citizenship Amendment and National Register of Citizens’ protests that were breaking out at the time and what it means to be a Muslim in current times,” says Mr. Rahman.
Mr. Rahman is expecting the film to release to a wider audience later this year. Through his production house Lighthouse Studios, he now wants to onboard fifteen teenagers to train them in storytelling by bringing them into the studio. “This will pivot to opening up a platform for short format narrative content, written and performed by teenagers for teenagers,” he says.
Meanwhile struggles of teenagers who acted in the film and are now starting out in junior college are far from over. Jugani, who had to defer her admission by a year due to delays in getting a passport, will now pursue her Class 12th in the U.K.
“It is going to be quite difficult to now convince my parents back home in Delhi to let me further continue studying for my undergraduate studies. But I aspire to apply in colleges of the U.S., including the Ivy League ones,” she says.
“However, I have three sisters back home aged five, six and 21. The pressure on my mother to fend for the family is immense, but I think she will understand my need to study further,” Jugani adds .