Categories
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).  

Categories
Issue 13

Mapping a Movement: Two Activists Tell-All

It is the year 2001. Nitya picks up the landline. His friend from Kodai is calling. Sensing his worry, Nitya asks, What’s happened? His friend lives opposite a factory making thermometers for export. In Tamil Nadu’s hill station, Kodaikanal.

The voice on the other side of the phone call is agitated. Shards of broken thermometer glass have been found in the nearby shola forest and dumped in torn sacks, weighing about 8 tonnes. Mercury waste from the factory is contaminating the Kodai lake and the Gymkhana marshland. The factory owner, Hindustan Unilever Ltd.

Twenty years later, Nityananda Jayaraman, environmentalist, journalist and founder of the Vettiver Collective, is recalling that phone SOS, from inside an autorickshaw sputtering through Tamil Nadu’s capital city. From breaking the news on mercury contamination at that factory in 2001, he is now on his way to give an interview – a task that he has done several times over since the story first broke that made him one of the most prolific journalists in Tamil Nadu.  

A viral video and social media campaign, along with relentless protests, finally brought HUL to the negotiating table.While a case was filed in 2006, it took the company in question 11 years to offer workers compensation. Today, even as activists like him contest that leaching of mercury continues, well above permissible limits.“We’re fighting a losing battle,” he says grimly. 

Nitya, as he refers to himself, cut his teeth in campaign work co-heading Greenpeace’s East Asia’s Toxic Waste campaign. Protesting the dumping of toxic waste by more industrialised nations in Asia, he recalls as, “a great learning experience, as I learned about the elements of campaigning, communication and media. It accepted no money from governments or corporations, which was good.” Leaving Greenpeace in 2004, he kicked off the Anti-Corporation Collective, which morphed into Vettiver (a name which refers to a native grass and, less directly, a collective in Tamil). “[In Greenpeace,] I learnt about making campaigns and relying on science, which I took back to Vettiver. But under it, I found it difficult to work with local communities, which I didn’t like. I didn’t want to do brand campaigning, I wanted to make new spaces that could be taken by communities in the margins.” 

By 2021, the Vettiver collective has grown in and through group work. Many of them are youth-led and autonomous in thinking through their understanding of issues, engagement with local communities and creative protest work – all in support of what Jayaraman simply calls radical values – “When I say radical, I mean values that are extremely different from capitalist notions of how we see society work.” These have included groups such as Reclaim Our Beaches in the early 2000s, and most recently the Chennai Climate Action Group, which led nationwide protests against the EIA draft notification 2020 as well as the Thoothukudi based anti-Sterlite movement

We respond to campaigns where we are approached by members of the community,” says Nitya. “Most of our solidarity is extended by way of time, law, media and arts, in order to visiblise the community’s struggles, the values that they represent and the issues they wish to highlight.” One example of the way in which the arts have helped the goal of the campaign is the song ‘Chennai Poromboke Paadal’, written by Nitya and sung by Carnatic vocalist, T M Krishna in 2017 in order to raise awareness about the need for the restoration of the wetlands of Ennore creek.

Yash Marwah, too, as the founder of the environmental group Let India Breathe does both the read-talk-fight and the sow-grow-roam, as a mix of actionable protest. “Aarey was a big campaign, I was a volunteer for it for over a year, until we actually started the Aarey campaign under Let Mumbai Breathe,” he says. From the Save Aarey movement in Mumbai to representing eco-issues in Greater Nicobar, the trajectory has been transformative, from a Mumbai-based climate group to a pan-Indian environmental organisation. “We started with something called Save Mahim Nature Park, then it was about the wetlands of Mumbai, and then the Aarey campaign of course. We became what we became, because people from Gurgaon, people from Delhi, Bangalore, started reaching out to us,” Everyone brings their own skill and experience to the campaign. But in order to bring out effective change, whether by interrupting a developmental project in the forest dubbed as the ‘lungs of Mumbai’ or lobbying for the protection of adivasi land in the Hasdeo area of Chhattisgarh, it’s important to keep the goal grounded in material improvement. “It takes a certain amount of years and practice to learn how to navigate these things,” says Yash. “It came to me from my one and a half year of experience in the movement [in the beginning], which was all grassroot.”

 LIB made news for their campaign on the draft EIA 2020 notification last July, as one of three organisations whose websites were temporarily blocked by the National Internet Exchange of India. “We see who is the affected community, and the affected biodiversity and natural ecosystem. It could be a wetland somewhere, a mangrove somewhere else, a forest. These two things are the very first things we do,” Yash elaborates. “Then we do a profiling right from species to flora-fauna, similarly indigenous communities if any, otherwise a social profiling because for instance, when it’s about evictions it’s about the SC and ST communities.

But what about activism fatigue? “As you become bigger and more trustworthy, more people want to take your help, it becomes a little difficult to turn some campaigns down at times. So at times you have  to say – I’ll help you out but I can’t take it up. I can make sure your cause gets the right attention, but I can’t drive it,” is his prompt reply.

Still, Let India Breathe officially lobbies for over thirty campaigns from all parts of India, ranging from the Save Mollem campaign in Goa to the Save Aravalli movement in the National Capital Region. A lot of the work LIB does involves keeping open channels of communication between its audience, the network of volunteers and activists on ground, so that simplified factual information can be shared with individuals who then respond to a call to action. “So while we do this, we basically make buckets of people to contact, because none of this can run without allies.” 

Both Nitya and Yash keep the local communities as the focus of the work they do. Donation drives is one thing with allies, but giving voice to what’s getting swept under is the main focus as Nitya reminds, “It’s not like the groups are restricted to local issues, but something like the EIA notification cannot teach you about the politics of social struggles, which work on the ground can teach you a lot more about, like how caste and class and gender interface with issues of development, and so I think it’s important to have a foot in both worlds”

The UN announced its “We the Change” campaign on 27th September of this year with the names of seventeen youth climate activists from India, to lead it. A cohort of young climate-aware Indians are organising themselves into groups, under the looming shadow of climate change and its inequitable impact. So, when asked what he would say to budding environmental activists, Nitya thinks for a moment. 

His reply is self-reflexive. “I’ll just repeat what Chico Mendes said – environmentalism without class struggle is just gardening. If we think of environmentalism as tree planting and solar panels then we are finished. Environmentalism is a social struggle that cannot be resolved without fighting and setting right inequality at all intersectionality. That’s something we need to be careful of, especially people from our kind of backgrounds, where the notion is of aesthetics instead of environmentalism, or cleanliness, beauty, trees, these are things that are filling in as environmentalism. I think it is very dangerous.” 

Isha Pareek is a fourth year student at Ashoka University. She has a BA. (Honors) in History and International Relations, and is currently finishing her Media minor and an ASP thesis.

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).