A palpable sense of desperation and anguish fills the hall. Then, the Indian flag slowly unfurls. The audience waits with bated breath. They wait for that moment — when the emotion on the screen mirrors the turmoil in their hearts. The music swells as 170,000 Indians are rescued from Kuwait and brought back home. Immersed in that moment with our eyes glossy and wide, leaned forward in our seats, and our hearts filled with joy, it is hard not to acknowledge the power of cinema.
Airlift (2016) is a film that follows Ranjit Katyal’s and Air India’s efforts to lead the evacuation of thousands of Indians from Kuwait (when Iraq invaded the country). It is patriotic, sentimental, and has a powerful message. With this message, the film ceases to be merely entertainment, and instead, it becomes part of a larger cause. The state then responds to this media in a way that clearly signifies its support: through subsidies. However, is it always a “larger” message that prompts this response? Is it on the whim of the government that a film reaps the benefits of being tax-free, or are there political, social, or sentimental undercurrents that influence this decision?
In India, the goal of making a movie tax-free is to lower the cost of the ticket so that more people can watch it. When a state declares a film tax-free, they are willing to let go of their share of the tax, whereas the Centre still receives their share. A tax-free stamp often increases the film’s publicity and reach. On March 19th, Savita Raj Hiremath, one of the producers of the film Jhund (2022), questioned why her film was not made tax free. Jhund is based on the life of Vijay Barse, the founder of NGO Slum Soccer. The film is about caste and economic disparity, underprivileged children, opportunity, and it clearly points to a social message. Hiremath argued the same when she said that the film had a subject that is “crucial to our country’s growth”. The remarks were in response to the film The Kashmir Files (2022), which was released a week after Jhund and was made tax-free in multiple states. The crux of the matter here is not whether the former is a better film than the latter but whether there is a criterion that determines when one film gets benefits over the other.
In 2020 (right before the pandemic hit the country), 22 feature films made it to the Uttar Pradesh government’s subsidy list, so that they could benefit from the government’s film policy. The list included six Bhojpuri films and movies such as Anaarkali of Aarah (2017), Shaadi Mein Zaroor Aana (2017), Sonu Ke Titu Ki Sweety (2018), and Behen Hogi Teri (2017). Critics state that Anaarkali of Aarah is a feminist narrative that has a strong message and focuses on the big picture of sexual assault and consent. The other films on the list, such as Behen Hogi Teri and Shaadi Mein Zaroor Aana, do not have any clear or powerful social message, but they have been shot in locations in Uttar Pradesh. Moreover, Anurag Kashyap’s Saand Ki Aankh (2019), which was declared tax-free the previous year by the UP government, did not make it into the list. Saand Ki Aankh promotes women’s sportsmanship as it is about two women in their sixties – from Uttar Pradesh – who learn the art of shooting and win various accolades. However, despite its social message, it was speculated that the BJP government did not include the film because Kashyap had then spoken against the new citizenship law.
In the past, various other films have received tax-free status in India. Dangal (2016) is a film about two sisters who are trained in wrestling by their father, after which they represent India and win at the Commonwealth Games. It was declared tax free in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and Haryana. The Chief Minister of Haryana also announced that because the film promotes “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao”, the government decided to make it tax-free. Other subsidised films, such as Bajirao Mastani (2015), Sarbjit (2016), Uri: The Surgical Strike (2019), and Tanhaji (2020), are nationalistic and patriotic. Mary Kom (2014) and Sachin: A Billion Dreams (2017) are biopics about inspirational sports icons. Mom (2017) and Nil Batey Sannata (2016) are feministic and support women. Padman (2018) and Toilet Ek Prem Katha (2017) support the “Swachh Bharat Abhiyan”, a clean India mission launched by the government in 2014. Some films have a message, while some are shot in a particular state, and some do not receive benefits due to ongoing political movements. Some are feministic, sports-themed, patriotic, or support government schemes. Yes, most of the subsidised films have a message. However, it also seems completely arbitrary, because there is no fixed criterion.
With no set ground rules, the government supporting a film to be tax-free seems to be dependent on their choice, and the message they want the majority of the population to pay attention to. Cinema can often be polarising and evocative, and when a film gets the state’s support, their reach becomes much more powerful. In such a diverse country, where forms of art such as film shed light on innumerable points of views, it is important to note which voices are getting highlighted by the government and which are not. There is a fine line between supporting a film and pushing an agenda through the film, and it seems that subsidy is that fine line. The state has the power through subsidies, but so does cinema – through its narrative. Perhaps to balance this power, it is necessary that certain rules be drawn regarding which films get tax-free status. One can argue that it is the nature of the cinema to be enigmatic in its meaning, thus making it harder for one to put it in a box that categorises it as “tax-free”. However, that does not mean that it cannot be done.
Shree Bhattacharyya is a student of English literature and Media Studies at Ashoka University.
Picture Credits: Shree Bhattacharyya
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