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

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 7

Who is Deciding What You Watch? Fiction and Move Towards New Indian Censorship

The term ‘controversy’ refers to a “public discussion and argument about something that many people strongly disagree about, think is bad or are shocked by.” But why is it relevant here? The makers and actors of the web series Tandav, released on Amazon Prime Video last month have found themselves apologizing to the public for allegedly “hurting religious sentiments.” But let me tell you, this cannot really be termed as a controversy. It is not the first time that the term has been used to emphasise on the reactions of a certain group towards a fiction released on OTT (Over-The-Top) platforms. Clearly, the Indian media loves the term when it comes to addressing the reasons behind a significant rise in moral policing. The question arises, what then qualifies them to be called a ‘controversy’? Not saying that the content of the series is perfect, it has its issues which need to be critiqued, but that isn’t the focus of this piece.

Why did Tandav self-censor?  

FIRs against the series have been filed in states of Uttar Pradesh, Mumbai, Bihar, and Bengaluru so far, starting with BJP MLA Ram Kadam filing a police complaint in Mumbai and UP’s BJP MP Manoj Kotak writing to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to ban the series and apologise for “hurting sentiments.” At this point, one could ask – was there a “public discussion and argument” about it? Certainly not. Then whose “sentiments” are those? Leaders from a particular political party and the Police in these states filing FIRs at such a portrayal is a function of the religious group that they seem to align with. These sentiments are individualistic or concerned with a fragment of political leadership and could not be equated with that of the entire Hindu population of the country. However, it seems to have concerned the overall cast and crew of the show. The maker, Ali Abbas Zafar and several actors took to Twitter to unconditionally apologize and thanked the I&B Ministry for their guidance and support in the matter. In addition to this, they at once agreed to drop those sections of the show. 

This kind of censorship commonly referred to as self-censorship by the makers of the show, even before a legal order was passed by concerned authorities to do so, could be perceived as resulting out of fear. This culture of fear and intolerance has been perpetuated by repeated threats issued by religious bodies such as the Karni Sena, a Rajput organisation that has continued to incite violence against several creations of the Hindi film industry. In this case, they have announced an award for Rs 1 crore to the one who would chop off the tongue of the makers, even when the cast and crew has repeatedly apologized online and self-censored. Noteworthy it is that the maker and lead male actors of the show, Saif Ali Khan and Mohd, Zeeshan Ayyub have Muslim identities. Considering the state of politics in the country under the ruling government with the recent Anti-CAA/NRC protests, it appears that religion has played a crucial role in majoritarian powers deciding what viewers can watch. UP Chief Minister, Adityanath’s media Chief Advisor’s tweet on the same, and FIRs by members of political parties against the maker reveal the religious biases of the party in question. It forcefully restrains dissemination of that particular thought which seems to act against their religious beliefs. These leaders’ take on the issue alongside the crew’s swift submission towards those claims are moralistic in nature. One could perceive their actions collectively to be sensitive to popular support, leaders in terms of political gains and crew in terms of monetary ones. These motives make Tandav “controversial.” What one requires is a public discussion regarding the moralistic standards upheld by these two sections of the society, the stances taken by them in lieu of their hidden motives, rather than controversialize the content and members associated with the show for their thoughts that led to their fiction. 

The New Surveillance State 

What’s missing here is a legal development, definitive to this case. What the Indian audience received as a legal outcome is the recent statement by Union Minister of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting Prakash Javadekar, where he cites “a lot of complaints against some serials available on OTT platforms” and states that the Ministry will soon issue guidelines regarding them. This came after the Government brought films and audio-visual programmes over online platforms under the purview of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting in November 2020. These guidelines would control the release of content on digital spaces, especially OTT platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hotstar and more. This outright claim to control content on the web translates into control of a specific section of the internet by the Ministry. Considered to be in public interest, without involving the public in the conversation is quite ironic and diminishes the fundamental rights of the viewers, and furthers moral policing. The assumptions and predictions about the future of fiction on these platforms boils down to the question: who is deciding (quite literally) what we watch?

Fiction and Subversion of Imagination

“The web series ‘Tandav’ is a work of fiction and any resemblance to acts and persons and events are purely coincidental,” tweeted Ali Abbas Zafar, in the official statement by the cast and crew of Tandav. Fiction as a medium, is imaginary, that is, not based on true facts and/or events. And most Bollywood productions use this narrative art form to produce creative content for consumption by all sections of India’s population, complemented by its dissemination over OTT platforms. A consumer survey suggests that the most popular category of content watched in India on OTT platforms is movies and web shows. The form and platform together provides the creators with innate freedom to delve into issues that shape and reshape the society in diverse ways, borrow from society, and depict it  through dynamic, intense metaphors through storylines. Although content circulated are subject to healthy critique from viewers and rightly so, the move to assert control over their content under the discretion of certain leaders is oppressive and disrespectful to the viewer’s right to access multimedia, especially online. This act of taking decisions on behalf of the viewers, undermining creative freedom of the producers and digital space of the OTT platforms, restrains freedom of the consumers to access specific content and their right to critique. Earlier, the understanding of human life through fiction released over streaming platforms were not burdened by the jurisdictions of the Centre. When one proceeds to censor an imaginative art form, it is not only controlling the produced content, but at the same time the imagination itself. The angry FIRs by leaders upon depiction of Hindu deities in a certain light in a work of fiction attempts to curb the initial thought that goes into the writing process. This conscious effort to monitor ideas and stories before they are propagated infantilizes the viewers’ agency, and leads to subversion of thought.

The ‘fictional’ aspect now makes creations vulnerable to the guidelines. The imagination, ideas challenging the mainstream social structures, complemented by statements made by binary political leaders towards them inculcates fear and perpetuates it within the system at the same time. With the recent statement by Prakash Javadekar, it becomes certain that it is not ‘we’ who will in the future determine what ‘we’ want to consume online, at least in a ‘democracy’ like India. Till then, happy viewing!

Ariba is a student of English 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

The White Tiger: Poverty Porn or Gritty Realism?

Balram Halwai, the protagonist of The White Tiger, would have you believe that before any other label engulfs him, he is an Indian entrepreneur. The label of a murderer, a man emerged from ‘the darkness,’ or that of an ex-driver for the son of a wealthy and influential landlord is secondary. 

The White Tiger, released early this year, is an adaptation of Aravind Adiga’s Booker Prize winning novel by the same name. The movie provides an incisive narrative of the glaring class divide in India—and it does this humorously. The truth of the class divide is rather simple, as explained by Balram: the ones who live in ‘the darkness,’ who come from the castes of the narrow bellied and tuberculosis stricken; the ones from drought-struck villages, who make up 90% of India’s population are caught in a chicken coop. They see their fate played out in front of them through others caught in the same coop and they see their kind slaughtered right in front of them, yet they do not try to escape. That is their fate. 

“the trustworthiness of servants is the basis of the entire Indian economy” 

This is how Balram ends his philosophy with a macabre finality. As he says this, the movie displays montages of tired men cycling in rags, carrying furniture worth several lakhs, and being paid less than a hundred rupees for it. The dialogue ends with such a man bowing down to a woman in front of a mansion, displaying his thanks for being paid a meagre amount for his service—the people caught in the chicken coop do not try to escape. This is their fate. 

The film takes this simple philosophy, as thought of by Balram, and expands it into a carefully embroidered, gritty and rusted story that climaxes with a murder. Not once does the film slack in its depiction of the class divide—cities, when they belong to the caste of the big-bellied are grand, boasting of malls, clubs, people who converse seamlessly in English and wear short clothes. The same cities, when they belong to their populous, but largely overlooked counterparts are crowded, immobile, and reek with the stench of hate, crime, resentment, and, of course, open defecation. Throughout the movie, we see shots of crowded cities choked with poor people, and in the very next shot, open tennis courts, big residences occupied by not more than two people. We are very clearly shown how the rich (take, for example, the landowner) are unafraid of claiming the poor and treat the land and lives of the poor as if they already belong to them—like when Balram offers money to a crippled beggar, but receives scalding scorn from his ‘masters’; they treat his money as if it is theirs.  

Although this grisly, gritty depiction of urban and rural spaces contributes to how we view the limited accessibility of both public and private spaces, I thought this resolute ugliness veered towards the lauded portrayal of Indian poverty by Hollywood—think slumdog millionaire. This ugliness often felt like an attempt to translate Indian poverty, class and caste to a public who is far too separated from this problem to view it as anything more than entertainment. My saying that the portrayal of poverty often exists as a translation is also a privileged stance—after all, I am also writing this as a big-bellied person who has never had to step inside The White Tiger’s portrayal of ‘darkness.’ But the film often also presents poverty as a thesis; something to be dissected, explained and proved. We see this in the caricatural depictions of the wealthy high-class landlords, the bitter, soulless and money-hungry joint family back in the village and the typical rich, kind of nice, “caste-doesn’t-exist-anymore-papa” Americanized son. 

The characters, to prove a point of poverty, lack complexity and emotional depth. They are cruel just because they are. Their actions as a function of their class, caste and religion are one dimensional, and, frankly, a little boring. I mean, what’s new about a wealthy politically-inclined family that’s Islamophobic, casteist and misogynistic? In attempting to present and translate the ‘truth’ about Indian class, the movie misses out on a lot of character depth, choosing, instead, to employ stereotypes. The only redemption to this is a depth of contempt that runs through every character, despite their differences: nobody is happy, everyone wants to be somewhere they are not. The othering is mutual—the poor do not see the rich as one of their own, and of course, neither do the rich. 

The only character to break out of the stereotype, though, is the protagonist Balram Halwai, played phenomenally by Adarsh Gourav. If nothing else, I would recommend this film for its exceptional fresh-faced talent. Balram Halwai is probably the only intricately crafted character in the movie. He displays deep concern for his brother, which is laced with equal amounts of contempt. He cares for his ‘master’ (the landlord’s son) like one would care for a brother or a best friend, is hurt by his lack of consideration for him, but still does not hesitate for a second in believing that he has been greatly wronged by this supposedly nice man. 

The character of Balram Halwai is also charming and humorous. This humour seeps into the movie, and takes a dense and gritty topic accessible and interesting. We find ourselves agreeing with Balram, even when he is clearly in the moral wrong—we also see how our moral compass is deeply stricken by privilege. While watching the movie, I shamefully recognized some of my behaviours in the behaviour of the privileged. This is exactly where the film gets it right—although the characters portrayed as caricatural, their actions are mundane. They do what we all have done at some point in our lives. To be shown the wrongness of our beliefs and our actions is inherently shocking, and The White Tiger does a phenomenal job of that—shocking us by making our ‘mundane’ classism so lucid, so perceptible. 

Shivani Deshmukh is a second year undergraduate at Ashoka University. She studies Sociology and Anthropology.

Picture Credits: Netflix India

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 4

OTT Platforms: What controls the content we watch?

You sit in your bed, scrolling through the internet, looking for the next series to binge-watch. You switch tabs from Netflix to Amazon Prime Video to Disney+ then to Hotstar. You’re probably still confused about what you want to watch. The entire time, however, your choices feel seemingly limitless. You acknowledge tacitly that this was not the case a couple of years back. 

Over-the-top (OTT) platforms have expanded over the past 8 years. From only two platforms in 2012, India now has over 30 streaming service providers. Increasingly, television broadcast service providers have started giving customers the option to watch live TV online. A 2018 report by The Boston Consulting Group based its analysis off a consumer survey and predicted the Indian OTT market to reach $5 billion by 2023.

The reach of such platforms has been exacerbated by the pandemic as movies that would have otherwise released in theatres have now debuted on online platforms. An instance of the same is the somewhat controversial film Laxmii which is set to release on Hotstar later this month. While this doesn’t mean that theatres will shut for good, with different states opening up film theatres as early as November 2020, this does speak of the trend that the biggest platforms are racing to create libraries of content. This is indicative of an imagination where the OTT isn’t an adversary to film, rather a much-needed ally.

In this vast plethora of content, some questions remain. Do you choose what you are going to watch? Can someone influence your content choices? Netflix confirmed that it was testing a ‘shuffle play’ option for its users where the platform can suggest a title for you to watch based on your viewing preferences. One can, in light of this, think of online content as a basket of goods. While your screen time and interests may determine the exact good you choose from the basket, the entire basket differs from country to country. You’re provided with the content that will sell in your specific context as companies curate the content that you are likely to watch. 

Although companies are curating content for you, these are in themselves diverse. The bottom line is this– the singular power has gone out of the hands of big film studios’ now. At the box office, timings and screens are dependent on financial capacity. This problem shrinks in the online space. Filmmaker Anurag Kashyap, in an interview with the Hindu, spoke of his experience of not being strapped for money and concerns of audience reaction to the work he was doing. At the same time, the online space, like everything, isn’t free of problems. 

Even though the power to determine content isn’t concentrated in a few hands, the potency of the question stands, perhaps more as a ‘what’ question– what determines the content you consume? The answer is binge-worthiness which in part, determines the type of content that is created by production houses. That is why crime and horror are popular genres. Entire seasons are released in a single go contributing to the binge-watching trend. The goal for these platforms seems to be achieving the ‘endless scroll’, a constant updating of content. Coupled with the endless scroll, it is also important to acknowledge that the goal of binge-worthiness can go hand in hand with increased freedom to the creator.

This is true not just for the multinational names like Netflix, Amazon’s and Disney. Indian platforms like ALTBalaji, Voot and ZEE5 operate according to the same logic where the quest is to find content that appeals to the largest possible audience. These are also more pocket-friendly for different demographics. For instance, the Basic subscription for Netflix for a month is Rs. 499 as compared to ALTBalaji which costs Rs. 300 for a year.

Whatever be the cost, OTTs are often seen as competitors or add ons to film and television. There is a distinction in the entertainment content they provide. This difference or rather diversity of perspectives is perhaps seen most vividly in the comparison between one subsidiary of a TV company and the network itself– Balaji Telefilms. The ALT or alternative seems to have become a recourse from the regurgitated material we see on TV. A prime (pun intended) example of this is Balaji and ALTBalaji. While the former, meant for TV reproduces stereotypes; the latter, a mobile app and website sets out to challenge them. It pushes boundaries in showing queer romance, and central woman characters among others. While it does have its limitations, this content is far from Indian TV soaps, as mentioned by the Chief Marketing Officer himself.

A factor contributing to the success of ALTBalaji is its employment of erotic content. OTTs are free from the Central Board of Film Certification and hence several censorship rules. However, the formation of an adjudicatory body, the Digital Content Complaint Council (DCCC) was announced in February this year. This is coupled with a push for self-regulation. This is a salient distinction as it comes hand in hand with the individuation of the viewer experience. Some scholars see censorship as the adoption of a patronising attitude by the state. Online viewing is highly individualised with its focus on the smartphone and hence the assumption is of maturity on the part of the viewer, provided that details around appropriateness are provided. So the effect doesn’t start and end at erotic content but in general more freedom to the creator, as mentioned earlier. According to Kashyap, the topics “that matter to me: sexuality, religion and politics. These are the three big nos for the cinema experience. But Netflix doesn’t shy away from that.”

It would seem that the OTT platform provides more space for experimentation–both to the content creator and the receiver. That being said, it might not be the time to junk the TV completely, or at least junk it with the understanding that consumption of online content comes, at least in the Indian subcontinent, with a class dimension. While the idea of ‘selling content’ may work for entertainment channels, it is somewhat tricky territory when considering another category of content such as news which in itself is a public good. The question to ask then is who has the resources to invest in what essential are additional sources of entertainment? While data is a cheap commodity, with companies like Jio entering the market with highly affordable plans, viewing online content comes with the ability to pay for a subscription as well as pay for an uninterrupted internet experience. 

Sanya Chandra is a student of History, International Relations, and Media Studies at Ashoka University.

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