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 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.

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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)..

Issue 6

Indie Films You Probably Missed and Must Watch

Even without theatres, 2020 had a constant flow of movies to watch. In the hustle to keep up with the dominant Twitter conversations, we spent the year watching some of the most talked about movies out there, like Tenet, The Trial of the Chicago 7, and that Taylor Swift documentary. Inevitably, some of the smaller releases slipped through the cracks. Here are five indie films released in 2020, three of which I’ve seen and highly recommend, while the other two I am myself eager to check out.

5. Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen

“There are a lot of ugly things about our history, but I think we have to know them.” This quote from the documentary Disclosure sums up the driving philosophy behind the film. Made by trans filmmakers, it presents the history of Hollywood from the eyes of trans audiences and actors, and asks its viewers to reckon with the good as well as all of the bad. I can’t speak about whether it makes for a necessary or a good watch for a trans person, but if you’re cisgendered, I can assure you that you need to hear what this film has to say.

4. The Forty-Year-Old Version

This music biopic doubles as an underdog story, telling the inspiring story of Radha Blank, an almost 40-year-old Black playwright who decides to make a rap mixtape. With a beating heart and sharp wit, the black-and-white drama keeps a fast pace without skimping on quieter character moments. Blank, who writes, directs, and stars, pokes fun at the kind of poverty porn that white people think counts as progressive, while an undercurrent of anger makes sure we never feel like she’s making light of the issue.

3. Dick Johnson is Dead

Dick Johnson isn’t actually dead. Yet. As far as I know. But he’s getting close, and his daughter, documentarian Kirsten Johnson, made this movie to try to process that fact. This morbidly funny film is made up of scenes where the father-daughter duo enact various ways he could die, as well as a fake funeral ceremony. But much of the heart of the film comes from the scenes where they’re just talking, discussing the making of this film or remembering Kirsten Johnson’s late mother. Keep tissues handy.

2. First Cow

What would an indie film list be without an A24 release? First Cow, directed by Kelly Reichardt, sounds no less unique than we expect from the studio, and I’m kicking myself for not having watched it yet. Critics have started compiling their best-of-2020 lists (yes, before watching the December releases, it’s weird), and First Cow seems to be dominating. Like with any A24 film, I suggest watching this one knowing as little as possible going in.

1.Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Another movie gracing a lot of year-end lists, Never Rarely Sometimes Always tells the story of two teenage girls in rural Pennsylvania. One of them faces an unintended pregnancy, and the two set off to get her to an abortion clinic, something for which they cannot expect local support. By all accounts, the film appears to be a quietly devastating drama. And the fact that the director has said that she was inspired not only by a true story, but by the flaws she noticed in earlier abortion dramas, only serves to pique my interest even more.

Utkarsh is a student of Philosophy and Creative Writing and a writer-editor for the in-house film journal of Navrang, the film society of Ashoka University. Tanvi is a student of English at Ashoka University and is head editor for the Navrang Journal

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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.

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