Issue 17

Kapur & Miyazaki: Wild celluloid connections from the 7th Century CE to 2022

Yet another Kapoor in film? 

At about the time, a second generation of the Kapoors were becoming a hit in Hindi cinema, animation films were getting packed movie halls in Japan for the first time. The oil from a camphor tree, was being used to make film stock. All three from the 1950s.

Camphor, from the kapur family was a key ingredient in the making of celluloid. So yes, yet another kapur is in film.

Celluloid, or cellulose nitrate plasticized by camphor. Hailed by some as the first industrial plastic in the late 19th century. Early still photographers and filmmakers through the 1920s to the 50s, found it extremely moldable. Until acetate replaced it. 

While the jury is still out on which is better, Indians have known about the natural and artificial version of camphor, for several centuries. The 7th century Ayurveda work, Mādhava Cikitsā, advocates its natural variety for treating fever. Egyptians embalmed their dead in it. Both civilizational lands continue to value its fragrance. As Karpura in Sanskrit, Hindi and several Indian languages. 

In colloquial North Indian use, some shorthand it to kapur. This slow growing tree is a Taiwanese and Japanese native, with many species of its evergreen variety found from India to Egypt, Mongolia to Vietnam and China to Southern United States.

Camphor, actually references the species, Camphora. For the chemical in the oil, found in the tissue of the tree. Used by modern organic chemistry eventually, to also make film. The East Asian avatar is still used to make both insecticide and perfume. Indians currently find it handy for moth-free cupboards, while many cultures still treat it a like noxious weed.

In Japan though, it remains pretty sacred. An 1890 article in the Scientific American, reminds us that some of the best camphor exported to the rest of the western world back then, came from Southern Japan. Hayao Miyazaki, film director and co-founder, Studio Ghibli, featured it like a body guardian presence in his 1988 anime, My Neighbor Totoro.

Isabel Stevens, writing in the November 2021 issue of the film magazine, Sight & Sound, evokes this connection, “Miyazaki’s film is true to life in acting like a guardian to the girls, whose mother is in hospital, just as it does to shrines across Japan. Throughout the film, the tree is tenderly observed in many different shades of watercolor. All manner of green by day, ink black, grey and purple by night, and dappled with yellows at sunrise.” Stevens also points out that the oldest version of this tree still alive in Japan, is said to be 1500 years old. Another one, she speaks of, survived the atomic bombing at a Nagasaki shrine.

Resilience, clearly a quality of this tree also surfaces in Hayao Miyazaki’s animation films, through a variety of protagonists. Who navigate uncertainty or change. Young girls go on adventures and come of age in some significant or quirky way. While creatures drawn from Japanese myth, simply help pause or protect. Shape-shifting, between the supernatural and the wild. 

Take Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, the highest grossing film of all time in Japan, when it released in 2001. It had a mountain witch and part of the film’s name in Japanese, implied a hidden deity, kamikakushi. A folk tale reference there. Where when a girl was lost, the Japanese were prone to suggesting, she has gone to the kamikakushi. This is invoked in the film’s story as well. 

Miyazaki’s fantasy, as a comfort food offering also speaks to his own youth. When Japan began modernizing quickly in the 50s, his placement of protagonists in rural settings, protected by folklore, was as much to connect the young, as a touch of staying rooted. Himself.

After all, Japan has worn its own past-continuous animistic tryst with nature and spirit life, like a second skin. Be it Japanese literary references of ghost foxes, going all the way back to the 11th century work, Genji Monogatari. Or the more zombie-in-a village-graveyard anime hit, Jujutsu Kaisen, in the Japan of 2021. 

While Indians can watch both My Neighbour Totoro and Spirited Away on Netflix. Miyazaki’s own tripping the light fantastic has created an enduring following, both at home and abroad. This September, when the Academy of Motion Pictures finally opened USA’s first proper Museum of Film, they celebrated with a Miyazaki retrospective.

In another American hat tip to a wider and younger Japanese anime creativity, nature and film touched base in a new way. Seven of Japan’s anime studios got their hands on some unexpected material. To reimagine the Star Wars connections.

On an open invite from the US franchise. The New York Times pointed to this landmark east-west sharing. ‘It is the first time outsiders from any country have been given this sort of access to the themes, ships, characters and even signature sounds of the Star Wars franchise.

Each anime studio worked its own style and story. Making a rock opera, a family centric reflection and an ecological tale. Nine shorts by nine individual directors. All of them available on Disney Hotstar as a collection called Star Wars: Visions.

In fact in a curious case, the one US state to get the first Disney hotel dedicated to Star Wars in 2022, is Florida. Where camphor also happens to be a native tree. The hotel conceived apparently like an immersive spaceship experience, speaks to a younger Miyazaki. Whose early sketches were not of humans in anime. But planes in flight. 

Now readying to feed the fantasy of a different OTT generation, navigating uncertainty and change in a pandemic. Who perhaps use celluloid as a shorthand for film itself, like some Indians do kapur?

Tisha Srivastav teaches 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 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 7

Someone Great

Directed by Jennifer Robinson and starring Jane The Virgin star Gina Rodriguez, Someone Great is a 2019 film that at once encompasses humour, friendship and love in a breezy 90-minute movie. It is set in New York City, the home of three girlfriends in their late-20s, navigating their careers and loves, all the while holding on to their cherished friendship. The movie revolves around the protagonist Jenny Young’s (Gina Rodriguez) recent breakup with her long-term boyfriend. While at first sight, the movie might seem like another light break-up watch filled with peppy songs and quippy one-liners, it touches upon the less-talked-about aspects of heartbreak and moving on.

Instead of going the conventional way by focusing solely on the protagonist’s broken heart, it attempts to explain the nuances of a complicated long-term relationship, the troubles of emotional attachment and the pain of moving on. Through the film, the protagonist is shown as actively coming to terms with the break-up, moving from blaming her boyfriend to admitting her own faults. It ends on a bittersweet note, with Jenny realising that while her time in the relationship was beautiful, the ending was also justified and all she can do is look forward and wish her ex-boyfriend future happiness. This attempt at understanding and achieving closure is perhaps the highlight of the film

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)..