Issue 21

Tax-Free Films: A “Larger” Message or the Government’s Message?

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

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 20

A Conversation on Intimacy With Aastha Khanna

OpenAxis had an insightful and inspiring conversation with Aastha Khanna, the first Intimacy Coordinator of India. In this conversation, she talks about her journey, her recent projects, and the core of Intimacy Direction. Head down to the audio below to listen to the podcast

To find excerpts of the talk and her answers, read below!


So how did you come about this career and how did people around you react to your decision to become an intimacy coordinator? 


I read an article about an intimacy coordinator in the west. That article hit home with me. It seemed like an incredibly pertinent job and something that I felt I would fit right in. But then the first COVID lockdown in 2020 happened. I was already in touch with a few intimacy directors in the west and had applied for a program and as luck would have it I got in.

The conversation was not very intense with my parents when I told them I’m doing it. I was not aware of what future it has in India. For my father, it was just a concern whether this is going to be a financially viable decision for me. I told him, I don’t know what’s gonna come of it, but I knew that it is something that I wanted to learn and I felt like there is use for it in our industry. My parents were supportive, they are big cheerleaders of the work I do. So, that’s been the journey.


I’m sure there were some difficulties in education in India like a lack of institutes or places to learn or people to talk to. So how do you navigate that space? 


There was almost nobody working in intimacy at the time in India and there aren’t any institutes even today that teach intimacy coordination, or any kind of intimacy work. In fact, the first course in India is also going to be launched by us at the Intimacy Lab in April this year. Did I have any difficulty in navigating the atmosphere in India? Not so much because I didn’t attempt it. I researched and I found that almost nobody was doing anything in this space. So for me to reach out to the people in the West and in other countries abroad was the most natural next step. I have studied abroad before, I did my undergrad there, so it wasn’t that difficult for me. I’ve always been somebody who travels a lot.


Will you be kind enough to tell us more about the Intimacy Collective that you started. 


So the collective basically happened to me because I realized that there wasn’t a community of people that were working in intimacy directly. I decided to bring them all together under one roof and that’s why the collective was formed. I got hold of somebody I knew who was working with minors right and someone who really wanted to pursue intimacy coordination. I was introduced to somebody who was working in sexual harassment as a freelancer for big corporate companies and was handling their POSH committees.​​ Then there were acting coaches and people who I have worked with.  I was searching for a community of people within our country who would understand where I was coming from when it came to cultural context and that’s why the collective happened.


How do you think we can teach the upcoming generations in India about the complexities of consent, sexuality, and intimacy so that we are able to create a more tolerant audience? 


I feel like consent is something that needs to be taught at an extremely young age. Just allowing people from a very young age to have agency over themselves is something that is a huge cultural shift for our community and we need to inoculate that within our younger generations. I think school has a big role to play here. The things that make you uncomfortable will stop, but the dynamic of where you are allowed to say no, and if it is acceptable is what we need to work towards. 

When it comes to sexuality, I feel again as a culture we are kind of growing towards a more knowledge-based approach towards the LGBTQIA+ world. I feel it’s very important for us to have more conversations around it and destigmatize the idea of having conversation about sex and sexuality from very young age. I think everyone needs to have a voice which is why I always say breed spaces where everyone has the agency to have a conversation that they feel that they want to have, and I think it’s very important for people who are from slightly older generations to address those questions, or those conversations with pertinent information. 


Do you think there is a difference in the ways intimacy is displayed by male and female actresses and the ways it is received by an audience? And why do you think this difference exists?


I think the audience is preconditioned. But to answer about heterosexual intimacy, what usually happens is that when intimacy is portrayed by a female, by intimacy I mean probably nudity, it would be considered aesthetic. When someone from the male gender usually portrays intimacy, socially, it’s considered aggressive. Predominantly using female nudity as a way to show intimacy is, in my opinion, slowly shifting to a more balanced and organic portrayal of intimacy, and rightly so. Intimacy is a part of the human experience, so audiences who watch intimacy and perceive in its most organic natural form will not become uncomfortable or feel like something vulgar is happening on the screen. It actually really depends on what the director really is trying to achieve. 


Several people within and outside the industry have had some criticisms or issues and referred to intimacy in various ways in which it probably isn’t portrayed; like ‘vulgar’ or ‘lewd. Do you think there has been a shift in terms of audiences being more accepting? Has there been some kind of a change or do you think the majority of the audience is still as skeptical as before?  


I think first thing is that none of us are wearing superhero capes. None of us are trying to change public opinion overnight over one film over one idea. I think Shakun was able to achieve what Shakunn wanted to achieve with the film. I think people have the right to their own opinions of whatever they see, which is why it’s been put out. It’s a story that we wanted to tell, and a story that we wanted would spark some form of conversation. . Yes, there could still be people that thought that it was overdone, or it was lewd or vulgar. So, for a relationship drama like Gehariyaan to completely avoid intimacy in the storytelling would have been very surfacal as intimacy is a huge part of that story. Whether it’s emotional or physical, it’s an extremely important part of being able to tell a story where any form of infidelity occurs, or any form of a relationship is being portrayed. I think the audiences are evolving. I think they are mature enough to take a story in its entirety and to understand that Intimacy is the part of it, and not just in Gehraiyaan.


What do you think is the core of Intimacy Direction?

I think the most important aspect of intimacy direction is trust building. You’re constantly working within an extremely vulnerable environment, with very vulnerable stories. I think for me the most important thing is that I require for my performers to trust that I am upholding their consent and that I am there for them, and that I am going to be supporting them throughout and also for production to trust that I am not a part of the actors’ entourage. I’m still going to be someone who’s going to support the director in his vision and work towards achieving it as best as we know how. 

I think empathy is also extremely important in this case because one can try and provide all kinds of support. But if you don’t fully understand your performers and the only way to do that is that they trust you. They will tell you their needs and unless you know what they need, you can’t support them. It’s actually not isolated just to intimacy. It stands true for any kind of creative collaboration.

Aastha Khanna, India’s first certified intimacy coordinator has always had a great passion for cinema. She graduated from the University of York in England with a Bachelor of Science Honors in Film and Television Production. She has been an assistant director on over half a dozen feature films in India. She hopes to share the much-needed knowledge and expertise of intimacy coordination across the different Indian film and television platforms.

Interviewers: Lakshya Sharma and Maahira Jain

Podcast Editor: Reya Daya

Picture Credits: The Hindu

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 20

In Deep Water: Three Generations React to the Intimacy in Gehraiyaan

Bollywood’s recent sensation ‘Gehraiyaan’ has caused quite a stir. No matter how much I tried to avoid it, I was forced to hear my parents and their friends discuss Deepika Padukone’s steaming hot body, and the movie’s risqué portrayal of a modern love affair. An Indian child’s worst nightmare is probably having to talk to their parents about sex but there was so much to talk about. Stemming from the movie’s themes of intergenerational trauma, I decided to have a conversation with my mother and grandmother about sex, sensuality, and sensationalism. 

My grandmother avoided the conversation for 3 days before I could dive right into the deep waters of ‘Gehraiyaan’. I asked what made them watch the movie and what they liked about it. My grandmother curiously said that the buzz had reached her circle. She was scared to answer my questions because with her house-help always around she had to forward through too many intimate scenes and didn’t grasp the plot. My mother’s reasons were similar, with the addition of social media hype. She liked the modernness and aesthetics of the movie, and more importantly Deepika Padukone’s acting, her real reason for watching it. The trailer piqued my curiosity for how dangerous it felt – a mainstream film about infidelity that isn’t a comedy? I was sold. There was a lot to like about Gehraiyaan, but perhaps my favourite thing was how much it left me to think about. I was expecting a film packed with sex and hadn’t anticipated the real conversations the film attempted to start. From intergenerational trauma to strained family dynamics to feeling stuck in the banality of life, there was something for everyone. 

My grandmother believed that Gehraiyaan’s portrayal of intimacy on screen strongly goes against Indian values. When asked why it’s okay for Hollywood to do the same thing she retorted “but we aren’t sitting in Hollywood”. What she meant was that the masses that don’t understand consent will not appreciate the movie for what it is but rather take the portrayal of sex in the mainstream as an excuse to do as they please. In some ways, she changed my opinion. At times I feel largely disconnected from the majority of the country. While I’m not saying that ‘Indian values’ are universally shared or should censor our media, I do believe we have to be cognizant of how this media will be received across all sectors of society. Yet I hope that normalising sex and intimacy will do more good than harm. The idea of watching two Indian adults embracing at will feels both freeing and unfathomable. Showing a live-in relationship in itself felt revolutionary in a country where arranged marriages take place without the bride and groom ever seeing each other. My mother agreed that the portrayal of intimacy is definitely a step forward but some things will just never fit in. While she is used to watching intimacy in western media, she acknowledged that the majority does not have access to the same information and resources as us when it comes to sex education.

My grandmother said that intimate scenes like these were never shown in the past. My mother instantly disagreed saying that from as early as the 50s and 60s, song and dance have been a stand-in for sexual acts. Whether it is the use of item songs, innuendos such as ‘choli ke peeche kya hain’ or rain and blossoming flowers to sanitise the portrayal of sexual desire, it has always been here. Only now it isn’t happening behind closed doors. My grandmother still felt that these examples were modern and compared them to the classical Indian music of Lata Mangeshkar. To her, Gehraiyaan felt more scandalous than a little bit of dancing in an item song or any sexual acts that were merely implied and not shown. I believe a large reason for disapproval amongst the Indian audience comes from the fact that Gehraiyaan didn’t simply have a palatable item song where the woman exists for the pleasure of men watching her. Here, Deepika’s character Alisha had agency and made decisions for her own pleasure. 

I could barely remember the sex scenes because of how nuanced the subplots were and because the West has desensitised me to portrayals of sex on screen. The internet also allows me to have all the answers I need right at my fingertips and the idea of watching a barely sexual scene just doesn’t feel as salacious. My mother has faced similar desensitisation but her media consumption begins and ends with what she watches on Netflix. The addition of a few odd sex scenes was enough to provide her a mild distraction from the rest of the movie. To my grandmother, it became a barrier in watching the movie entirely. 

The one thing we all could agree on was that sex sells, and hypersexualisation for the purpose of making a profit was not a great motive for portraying intimacy. My grandmother was convinced that just like item songs, all instances of sex in media are to sell more units. However, I didn’t believe that director Shakun Batra’s motives aligned with this complaint. The intimate scenes didn’t serve the singular purpose of shock value and were an integral part of the plot, without which certain storylines would not work. I do think that the trailer intentionally sensationalised the movie to generate public interest and it worked! The movie was a big risk and if that’s what we need to get an Indian audience to tune in then so be it.   

My grandmother thought that openly talking about sex to younger generations is very important. She also said that awareness is required but only of the ‘right things.’ I’m not entirely sure what falls within the boundaries of right and wrong, but I was surprised at her agreement. This is also a good time to mention that in our half an hour-long conversation, my grandmother never once used the word ‘sex’ and only referred to it as ‘those scenes.’ My mother asked her why she never gave her a sex talk and she replied that she was told all that was required and if her children ever had questions she would answer them. To be fair, my mother never had the talk with me either but as I get older it feels comforting knowing I can go to her to have these conversations. 

It’s ironic how Indians love a good romance but will squirm at the portrayal of intimacy. While shying away from sex in media will always feel like a safer option, at many levels, it feels like hindering progress. Luckily, OTT platforms are allowing creative freedom and more diverse narratives, including the portrayal of sex and intimacy, that traditional cinema would not have allowed. Given how influenced we are by Bollywood. I wonder if our country would be more progressive today if our censor board didn’t exist 50 years ago. 

Reya Daya is a third-year student, studying psychology and media studies at Ashoka University. Her other interests include writing, photography and music.

Picture Credits: Amazon Prime Video

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 17

And ACTION! Towards a greener Bollywood?

Hundreds of people packed into a street. All of them, bathing in tomatoes. Some climbed onto trucks and stomped on yet more tomatoes. Squishing them. Chucking them at the eager crowd. The Spanish harvest festival of Tomatina. 

An arresting sight. But this was a staged event by the people of the Spanish city of Bunol. Zoya Akhtar and her crew were shooting them for her film, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara. The film cost 60 crore according to trade reports and made approximately 90 crore in just domestic net collection.

A hit in 2011, it became the travel watch, ik junoon, ik deewangi for a whole generation of Indian cine-goers. 

In mid-2021, it celebrated a decade.

Tomatina might be a household name today but it also offers a segue to the big-budget Hindi film process. To paint it red, team ZNMD brought in sixteen tonnes of tomatoes from another country. Portugal, in this case. After the shoot, it had to be pulped, to avoid clogging the Valencian town’s drains. 

As per data curated by World Bank, an Indian in 2010 would emit, on average 1.34 tonnes of carbon annually. A single Bollywood blockbuster, approximately, could end up having a carbon footprint of around 10,000 tonnes

A 2020 report published and submitted to the UK Parliament by the British Film Institute, ARUP, and Albert, an environmental action group, offers some context. A Screen New Deal, says one blockbuster film with a budget of more than $70 million, produces an average of 2,840 tonnes of carbon dioxide, on production. A figure equivalent to the amount absorbed by 3,700 acres of forest in one year.

In air mile terms that is eleven one-way trips from the earth to the moon. ZNMD takes the protagonists from Barcelona to Pamplona, through Costa Brava, Bunol, and Seville. A  total travel distance of 2200.9 kilometres across the five towns and cities. The Albert report clarifies that transport is the single largest carbon emitter at 51% of the overall carbon emissions in a big film production. 30%  is by air and 70%,  land travel. The fuel used up by a film, on average, could be equivalent to 3.4 million miles driven by a passenger vehicle. 

This is not to single out Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara particularly, but to perhaps use its anniversary to begin a climate-conscious conversation across the Hindi film industry. Like Pippa Harris, Chair of the Film Forum in the UK says,

This report is being published at such an important moment for our industry. We have all felt the devastating economic and cultural effects of the pandemic, so now is the time to regroup and come back stronger. We cannot continue to create films, in the same manner, we did before with no long-term plan for the environment around us. It’s time for our industry to lead the way both on and off-screen and rebuild for a cleaner, greener future.

If the Albert report has provided the means for a consensus on reporting actual emissions to the British film industry, a similar study was first published by UCLA, in 2006 for Hollywood. While no such comprehensive work has been done for the many film industries in India, it remains the world’s biggest producer of cinema by quantity. In 2018, for instance, a combination of the film industries in India produced 1813 films. The US and the UK, together made 778 movies that year. 

So what are some of the changes that “need to be made to the whole ecosystem”? Here are some reccos Bollywood could begin thinking about.

Reusing production material for different films. Maybe when they are under the same production banner? Sourcing these locally, instead of importing and then transporting them across long distances, would also bolster local economies. This would help them gain materially from film shoots in their area. Back in 2003, Matrix 2 and 3 planned for this and were able to recycle almost 98 % of its set material.

Using renewable energy on set and light sensors, given that studio lights and air conditioning are heavily used on set. Large production houses in India could afford to lead here. The Hollywood study shows how Warner Brothers has been doing this with an Environmental VP at the helm. 

Thinking about what can replace diesel generators emitting 15% of a film’s carbon footprint. Digitization of on-set logistics would cut down paper use too, enabling greater flexibility in daily schedules. It’s something Bollywood struggles greatly with.

Currently, catering service and quality on many high-end productions are determined by tiers. With the highest tier being the star names, directors, and producers. Centralized catering services and shared transport, to and from frequently used film production hubs can reduce the transport part of the emissions. 

Assamese film director Biswajeet Bora’s 2015 debut film in Hindi, Aisa Yeh Jahaan shows it is indeed possible to move towards more eco-friendly filmmaking in India. It claimed to be India’s first carbon-neutral film collaborating with the Centre for Environmental Research and Education (CERE). CERE’s carbon footprint of this film’s production came to around 78 tonnes. To offset it, the unit planted 560 trees, attempting carbon neutrality in the process. Got done at a fraction of the production cost of the full-length feature film, set in Mumbai and Guwahati. 

Stars who often tell the rest of India to save energy through sponsored ads must at least begin the conversation to clean up their home turf. Perhaps, a desire to break new ground, not just in storylines, but also in production?

As Farhan Akhtar celebrated Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara’s tenth anniversary (and Dil Chahta Hai’s twentieth) another road trip movie in the same mold Jee Le Zaraa is hitting the production floor in 2022. Can it herald an era of sustainable filmmaking in Bollywood, singing a sequel to Der lagi lekin, maine ab hai jeena seekh liya? 

Featured Image credit: primevideo, via Google Images

Aritro Sarkar is a fourth-year student of history, international relations, and media studies at Ashoka University. 

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).  

Issue 12

Once Upon a Time in Mumbai

Stolen cars, dirty cops, a body dumped in a creek, and India’s richest family. These may sound like the elements of a thrilling Bollywood movie, but actually form the basis of a case that gripped Mumbai earlier this year. On 25th February, a Scorpio SUV containing 20 gelatin sticks (low intensity explosives normally used for construction) was found outside Mukesh Ambani’s 26 story residence in South Mumbai. A few weeks later, the owner of the car, Mansukh Hiren, was found dead in a creek. The high ranking police officer who had been leading the case, Sachin Vaze, was arrested by India’s main counter-terrorism body (the National Investigative Agency) for his involvement in the case. Vaze, a member of the famous ‘encounter squad’ of the Mumbai police, active in the 90s and early 2000s, has been suspended from his role as Assistant Police Inspector and is currently in custody of the NIA. Once revered by the media as a top cop, every facet of his life is now under scrutiny. As things got even murkier, warring political parties BJP and Shiv Sena quickly co-opted the story to hurl accusations at the other. News media were equally fascinated, and every new twist in the tale dominated headlines and primetime debates. 

Bombay is no stranger to twisted crimes and long drawn out investigations. Nor is the involvement of police and rapid politicisation of the case a new phenomenon. The city of dreams has had its fair share of nightmares, with three horrific terror attacks that killed hundreds of people in the past thirty years. One of the main accused in the first of those attacks was Dawood Ibrahim, a notorious gang-leader and designated global terrorist. The underworld of Mumbai was his playground in the 70s and 80s, but he fled to Dubai in 1986. The pervasive presence of these gangs and the bureaucratic roadblocks surrounding legal procedures led the city police to take matters into their own hands.

In the 90s Mumbai police formed an encounter squad to deal with growing gang violence and extortion cases. The judicial process was lengthy and it could take several years for a case to even reach the court, and ‘encounters’ were seen as an effective, if slightly controversial solution. An encounter generally involved the police cornering a gangster who would then attack or try to escape, and the police would use the opportunity to shoot him dead. Sachin Vaze was one of the original members of the squad and is alleged to have been involved in the encounter killings of around 63 gangsters. However while some appreciated this quick and brutal method of delivering justice, others were horrified and questioned the legitimacy of some of these encounters. There were also rumours that the cops were trying to outshine each other, and getting involved in gang rivalries in the process. Many members of the squad were dismissed from the force but later reinstated. In 2004, Vaze was suspended and charged with murder for the custodial death of Khwaja Yunus. In 2007, he resigned when his request for reinstatement was denied by the Maharashtra government. He then joined the Shiv Sena, and was later reinstated as a cop in 2020. But things quickly went wrong just a year later, when he was named the prime suspect in the murder of Mansukh Hiren. On 11th May, Vaze was dismissed from the Mumbai Police.

The tale kept many readers hooked for months, reminiscent as it was of a good Bollywood gangster film. In fact, many famous entries in that genre were based on the lives and cases of the encounter squad. That our desire for these fast-paced and intriguing stories is now being fulfilled by the news is a worrying trend, but in a year unprecedentedly low on movie releases it perhaps makes sense. Journalist Suketu Mehta has spoken about the curiously close relationship between Hindi cinema and the underworld gangsters: “The Hindi filmmakers are fascinated by the lives of the gangsters, and draw upon them for material. The gangsters, from the shooter on the ground, to the don-in-exile at the top watch Hindi movies keenly, and model themselves, their dialogue, the way they carry themselves- on their on-screen equivalents.” 

The connection between the two worlds runs deeper still, as gangsters used to finance major Bollywood projects, and actors like Sanjay Dutt have been arrested for ties to the underworld and terrorist groups. In 2000, an assassination attempt was made on the producer Rakesh Roshan, allegedly in relation to an extortion threat made earlier. The shooting followed a string of attacks on Bollywood actors and producers. In 2001, Nazim Rizvi and Bharat Shah, producer and financier of the film Chori Chori Chupke Chupke, respectively, were arrested for aiding and abetting the don Chhota Shakeel’s activities. Preity Zinta, who starred in the film, later testified against him, saying that she had received threatening calls from the underworld. Mumbai’s underworld turned to the film industry as a target for extortion when the property business dried up in the nineties. 

If this was a mainstream movie all the loose ends would have been tied up and the good guys would emerge victorious. Unfortunately, life isn’t a movie and the difference between good and evil isn’t always clear, especially when politics enters the mix. News readers eventually moved on from the case, distracted by the ongoing pandemic and newer scandals. Sachin Vaze has been in jail since March 13, potentially wondering how he fell from grace. If we’re lucky, a biopic is already in the works.

Photo courtesy: Shambhavi Thakur, Newslaundry

Rujuta Singh is a student of Political Science, International Relations and Media Studies at Ashoka University. Some of her other interests are music, fashion and writing.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 8

Feminist Bollywood, Really?

The question – are you less of a feminist if you listen or dance to songs that demean women is perplexing. All of us regardless of whether or not one is a feminist should feel degraded by writing, singing, dancing, or listening to songs that demean any human being. 

Unquestioningly accepting disparaging attitudes -whether in-jokes, images, music, or literature –  normalizes conversations and behaviours that exacerbate an already existing unequal power structure. 

All this matters particularly in the context of popular culture. Bollywood plays such a disproportionate role in defining our culture and values that it would be the obvious place to first examine what is being propagated.  Bollywood songs are everywhere. Not only does the music influence us but so do the themes, dress, dialogues, and the subtle ideologies that are conveyed almost imperceptibly. Clearly, Bollywood’s broad reach both mirrors Indian culture and shapes it.      

This two-way stream of influence makes it difficult to establish causality. But anecdotal evidence suggests that our everyday mimicry of the reel becomes our reality.  

Let us first consider a song like ‘Makhana’ by Yo Yo Honey Singh. A hugely popular Indian singer, rapper, composer and actor. Yo Yo’s (as he prefers to be called) single hit ‘Makhna’ climbed the charts soaring to around 19 million viewers immediately. He was flooded with messages welcoming him back, cheering this song and eagerly awaiting the next release. Some viewers talk about the beat that makes one want to jump onto the dance floor. While others have protested and wanted to file a case against the vulgarity of the lyrics. At a Delhi poetry slam another rapper Rene Sheranya Verma wrote and performed an open letter entitled “Namkeen Kudi” berating Honey Singh’s lyrics and views.  The most offending verse in Makhana says: 

 “Par Main Hu Womanizer

Mujhe Akele Main Mat Mill” .  

Misogyny in Bollywood lyrics has come a long way from the now seemingly innocent “Choli ke peeche kya hai” released in 1993, which had caused such a stir in those days. 

Some critics have attributed what they call India’s ‘rape culture’ to suggestive dance numbers and glamourized often forceful courtship to Bollywood.  But did this problematic portrayal of women already exist in our culture or has it been created and exacerbated by Bollywood? Indian culture seems to hold the veneration of women goddesses and the denigration of women seamlessly in the same hand. 

The issue, of course, is not merely about the lyrics but also about the in-your-face, crass eroticism of scantily and sexily clad women who sing and dance in an exotic carnival-like location. Women in Bollywood films often are not mere objects of and in the songs but are an integral part of it – by participating in it as actors, watching it, dancing to it, and, loving it. Where does one draw the line? Misogyny is not only a men-only domain. These ‘item numbers’ are as much for what feminist film critic Laura Mulvey termed the voyeuristic male gaze as they are for women who could also take pleasure in the women but also in the bare-chested, hip-thrusting men and even the bad-boy image projected by Honey Singh’s Makhana. Is it feminist to enjoy this kind of turning of the tables or is it merely reverse sexism? 

 If we accept the huge impact of  Bollywood on the Indian psyche then the fabric of our culture is already interwoven with misogyny. Honey Singh might be a one-off example, but so much of the way Bollywood depicts women and men’s relationships remains questionable, and, yet we continue to accept them as normal – ‘it is like this only’. Till recently we took Bollywood’s men forcing their unwanted attention on women and not taking no for an answer as acceptable if not ultimately desirable.  The many ways women are mentally, emotionally and physically abused and demeaned are visible in almost all Bollywood films. Even so-called feminist films such as English Vinglish or Dangal remain problematic.

Feminism may not dictate a response but we as individuals and part of a patriarchal community should not find it too difficult to come up with our own creative responses to what we find offensive. One might be to have these kinds of songs banned or censored and have Honey Singh and others of that ilk castigated, another would be to respond in kind as did the Delhi rapper Rene but ultimately the answer would depend on each individual. However, these individual protests need to blossom into something bigger that will raise awareness about what our popular culture is actually teaching us.  

There is no one size fits all formula for the degrees of feminism one should aspire to. I find Honey Singh’s songs vulgar and lewd not only because I am a feminist but they should offend anyone because the lyrics, and indeed the whole package is offensive.

Let’s not make feminism a rigid rulebook. We know censorship is a bad approach, especially in today’s borderless world. Already we see that Ailaan and Asi Vadangey – two Punjabi songs critical of the farm laws have been taken down from YouTube at the behest of the Indian government. There is no great distance between politically objectionable and culturally offensive.  

Geetanjali is currently Associate Professor in the Department of English at Ashoka University. She has also been Senior Lecturer in the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at Yale University, where she taught for 15 years. She received her Ph.D. in English Literature from Hong Kong University and her Master’s degree from George Washington University. 

Her book:  Indian Women in the House of Fiction (2008) is now in its third edition with the University of Chicago Press. Aside from participating in many conferences internationally,  Geetanjali has written numerous articles on various subjects including Sikh Masculinity, Representation of Sikhs in Bollywood, Children’s Literature in the diaspora, Indian women’s fiction etc. 

Geetanjali co-founded The Attic, Delhi – an interactive space for the living arts.

Picture Credits: reidy68/ Pixabay

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).


Myth Theory – Dum Maro Dum

By Devdutt Pattanaik

Published in Devlok, Sunday Midday, April 24, 2011.

Cannabis is an illegal narcotic in most parts of the world, even India. Its more deadly form is called Marijuana. From it comes some of the most lethal addictive organic drugs that ruled the party circuit until the arrival of even more lethal, even more potent, even more addictive chemical drugs.

But still, it is amazing to see Indian television soap operas directed at women showing Bhang being prepared from leaves of the Cannabis plant and consumed by the family during Holi. We have Bollywood songs where heroes and heroines run around trees consuming Bhang and singing “Jai Jai Shiv Shankar” and then we have the famous “Dum Maro Dum” with a very young and very beautiful Zeenat Aman surrounded by hippies smoking pot, hoping it will destroy all sorrow. No one is upset or outraged. An acknowledgement that Cannabis is sacred in India — it is sold in the temple markets of Varanasi, Puri and Nathdvara. Every sadhu smokes this potent drug.

Shiva, the hermit, smokes Cannabis. He is described as always being on a high. There are miniature paintings showing Parvati making Bhang for her husband. She berates him for always being in a hemp trance and never doing household chores. Krishna’s elder brother, Balaram, is known for his fondness for Bhang. Bhang drinking is a common part of rituals in Vaishnav temples. It is called a coolant to calm the short-tempered Shiva and Balarama.

Not just cannabis, many stimulants and depressants, including alcohol are part of sacred and social traditions all over the world. Vedic priests kept referring to Soma which enabled the mind to take flight! Homer’s Odyssey refers to lotus-eaters who lie around all day doing nothing. Across Arabia and Africa chewing narcotic leaves known as Khat is a part of the tradition. Ancient Egyptians called it divine food. Betel nut is an alkaloid that gives a chemical high when chewed and is famously consumed in every household in South Asia in the form of paan. In tribes, shamans have used chemicals to transport themselves to the world of spirits. Alcohol is served to Kala-Bhairav and other fierce deities. Wine is a sacrament in Christianity.

In modern times, most of these have been deemed as substance abuse agents and are banned in different capacities in different parts of the world. We want to create a world where no one takes any chemical stimulant. We want to force people to be good. And so now, people who smoke cigarettes which contain tobacco, have to stand outside buildings and smoke like criminals. Tobacco is deemed evil because it causes cancer. Even fatty and starchy food are being slowly treated as evil as they also cause disease. The worst sin of the 21st century is to eat a high-calorie meal.

This use of law to control human behavior did not exist in ancient times. There was a tendency to trust the human will, human intelligence and the human ability to self-regulate. Modern society seems to have lost faith in human beings. Modern society does not want to allow humans to take responsibility for their own lives. It therefore uses laws to control human behavior, domesticate them into perfection. Invariably it fails. Prohibition simply spawns a booming black market. And I realize this when I hear — much to my disquiet — well-educated and affluent boys and girls describing how they snort lines of cocaine in the toilet cubicles and how it makes them feel ‘cool and dangerous’.

This article was first published at Republished with the author’s permission.

Devdutt Pattanaik is a medical professional by training and writes on relevance of mythology in modern times. He has authored 41 books and over a 1000 columns and has also appeared on television.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).