Indian cinema: environment and engagement

Cinema’s relationship with society is well documented yet the question of its influence and capacity to trigger behavioral change remains a matter of investigation. Can a film based on environmental issues set agenda for people to amend their ways of being? Do narratives engage people with reality and allow them to shape their personal responses? Such questions have been explored by many scholars, particularly in relation to Hollywood films where environmental issues drive the narrative (Beattie, Sale and McGuire 2011; Manzo 2017). These research studies demonstrate clear evidence of emotional and cognitive response in the audience to cinematic depictions of dire issues such as global warming. Whether this emotional impact of films translates into behavioral change is a matter of further research in various cultural contexts across the globe.

One of the most challenging parts of communicating environmental issues such as climate change and biodiversity is that they are real yet abstract, experiential yet predominantly situated in the domain of science and data. Hence, it is crucial yet a distant reality for most people. The first step towards mitigating circumstances is to have a clear understanding of the issues that matter and cinematic narratives help in creating that understanding by inviting the audience to engage and locate their own lived experience in relation to the filmic world. The cinematic depiction of specific events or collective action allows for interrogating particular contexts and processes that required people to engage as a community. This cinematic rendering of community engagement serves as a significant symbolic construction that asserts environment or climate as a lived cultural domain of collective relationship between human and non-human elements. 

Where cinema essentially and significantly contributes by narrativizing or dramatizing human experience on screen lies in its capacity to bring environment or climate from the realm of statistics and science into the domain of life and lived space. The cinematic discourse on environmental issues and climate crisis offers a creative and affective framing of nuanced micro experiences that largely go unnoticed or remain incomprehensible due to the dominant framing of environment as a scientific issue that can only be dealt with by state policies and legal frameworks. In this article, I focus on how Indian cinema has dealt with environmental issues in the recent past and what role these cinematic narratives play in communicating about environmental issues. A detailed analysis of films is beyond the scope of this article and I only attempt to raise certain crucial points regarding cinematic reflections on environmental issues and public engagement in some Indian films.

When Tamil language Indian film The Elephant Whisperer won the best documentary short at the 95th Academy Awards (commonly known as Oscars), it was a moment of recognition on a glamourous international stage that millions of Indians cherished and obviously tweeted about. As an Indo-American co-production, The Elephant Whisperer is a significant film for various industrial and aesthetic contexts but it is more important from the perspective of its subject, narrative concerns and the questions that the film raises in the context of environmental debates of our time. Shot in the middle of a forest reserve, featuring the picturesque elephant camp in the southern part of India, the film touches upon the issue of climate change, its impact on natural habitats and human-animal relationships through a tender tale of human and non-human bonding. This film is one of the most recent examples of how Indian cinema has dealt with environment, bio-diversity, conservation and co-existence by focusing on the lived environment as a complex web of relationships and emotions over the past many decades. Before The Elephant Whisperers’ win, the film that raised India’s hopes at the Oscars is Shaunak Sen’s acclaimed documentary, All That Breathes (2022). Sen’s film is an extraordinary story of two Muslim brothers who have dedicated their lives to saving the injured birds of prey- black kites and in turn the eco-system of India’s national capital. Set against the backdrop of the polluted environment of grey and dusty Delhi, All That Breathes is a story that raises the larger contextual questions of religion, humanity, development, hope and future in the biggest democracy of the world. There are numerous non-fictional films that are crucial documentation of people’s resistance and collective action such as Sagarputra: Offspring of the Sea (2021)by Pooja Das Sarkar. Sagarputra captures the fight of a fishing community, Koli of Trombay Koliwada to secure their traditional rights to the fishing commons in Maharashtra which Mumbai’s public bus company has acquired for developing a bus depot. The film captures how Kolis continue to assert the right to fishing that the community has been engaged with for hundreds of years. Sagarputra is essential documentation of people’s resistance aiming to save their livelihood as well as a caution against coastal development projects that may threaten the ecological balance of traditionally inhabited places by the sea.    

The issues and concerns about environment and conservation are not solely limited to non-fiction films or what we call the “activist documentary”. There is a wide range of fictional films that have attempted to deal with the lived environment and socio-cultural contexts that shape the nature of the relationship between human and non-human life. Rishabh Shetty’s Kantara (2022) brought one of the most contentious parts of India’s ecological history on screen- the Adivasis and their continuous fight for land rights. Shetty situates Kantara within the colonial and post-colonial power structures and tells the story of an indigenous tribe, their lived space, cultural beliefs and people’s historical relationship with their non-human environment. The film pays greater attention to the nuanced aspects of local cultural life while depicting how the state asserts coercive power in the name of conservation and preservation. As such, the film offers a non-fictional and spectacular exploration of indigenous cultural life that does not generally attract media attention until some drastic event takes place.

Fictional films made in various Indian languages have continuously shown local stories that effectively deal with the human side of complicated scientific subjects such as global warming. Made in 2021, the award-winning Odia language film Kokoli: Fish Out of Water by Snehasis Das depicts the devastating impact of rising sea-level near Puri Beach in the state of Orissa. Told in the form of a love story, Kokoli’s protagonist is entrustedwith the task of building a wall by the seashore to stop the rising waves in order to win his love. Despite being told as a fictional tale, the film throws light on the very real challenge faced by the fishing community and its altered relationship with the sea. The sea which has long been the source of livelihood is now causing displacement and people must see that global warming is not a distant reality.

The examples that I have cited above form the recent constructions in the many decades-long Indian cinematic traditions of featuring environmental issues and civic engagement on film. In India’s ecological history, the 1970s was a crucial decade in environmental debates in India, particularly the Chipko movement that influenced people’s environmental movements in various parts of the country. Chipko inspired local communities across the country and awakened people to the power of collective action and community voice against crony capitalism. The movement also influenced filmmaker Sai Paranjpye to make a Hindi language fictional film, Papeeha. Though the film was made in 1993, two decades after Chipko started, it was much earlier before environment, biodiversity and climate officially became a matter of concern in global forums. Papeeha attempted to showcase the land rights conflict between the Adivasis and the state while focusing on people’s movement to save the forest by hugging the trees to stop illegal felling. The question of Adivasi life, natural habitat, land rights, biodiversity, conservation, the role of state machinery and systemic corruption feature in Papeeha allows the audience to see the complexity of environmental issues and the possibilities of collective resistance. 

By focusing on real-life events or stories related to common people, these films shift the locus of power from authoritative administrative or political figures and state actors to common people, communities and other non-state actors. This decentralization of climate communication through cinema whether in fictional entertainers or non-fictional intimate portrayals of people’s engagement opens a more direct way of translating critical factual information into emotional and affective imagery capable of evoking further human action. Celebrities and film stars have emerged as important figures of authority in various forms of climate change communication and their impact has been noted in scholarly studies (Boykoff, 2011). But I think films focused on ordinary stories and everyday heroes also perform this political function of shifting power because they provide figures and situations that allow the audience to identify and learn about threats and opportunities.

Whether produced in the form of fiction, non-fiction, popular or experimental, what is common in these narratives and binds them together is the desire to engage with the existential crisis facing humankind. In doing so, these films do not rely on inducing fear by reproducing tragic events or creating a spectacle out of the lived experience of loss or suffering. Rather these narratives aim at generating engagement through micro-narratives of relatable stories of human action, stories that can potentially shape people’s perceptions about social realities triggering a personal response. By drawing on and from human acts of resistance and people’s movements, these films connect various emotional, cultural and political dots for the audience. In this sense, the cinematic narratives exert their potential power in suggesting not just new ways of thinking about one’s surroundings through a complex spatiocultural lens but also the possibility of exercising human agency. In this regard, the argument put forth by Kate Manzo (2017) is significant here she discusses climate change films from the perspective of usefulness. Manzo argues that the question that we should ask about climate change films is not whether they are factually correct or scientifically accurate, we should focus on the function that those films perform and how the films are useful from an educative aspect. In my reading, with a wide variety of aesthetic approaches utilized to tell these stories of resilience and resistance, these films frame the human-nature relationship as a complex web of historic power relations while creating new figures of authority. These films contextualise environmental matters in relation to socio-cultural specificities allowing the audience to relate and interpret the narrative meanings for possible future action.

Framing efficacy beliefs, communicating action

As mentioned above, by paying attention to public engagement or collective action on issues threatening lived environment, these filmic narratives construct environment as a site of community and cultural relations whose sustenance requires active human participation and emotional labour. This cinematic function can be understood through the theoretical formulation of frame and framework introduced by Erving Goffman (1974) in his ethnographic research. Goffman studied and explained how people made sense of everyday social experiences by applying certain frameworks to decipher what is going on around them. He called these frames “schemata of interpretation” (p21, 1974) that people use to locate, label and generate meanings of current occurrences. The notion of frame and frameworks is relevant to films as narrative constructs that frame social experiences for people to make sense of what is happening around them. In all the cinematic examples cited earlier, the stories present frames “by connecting the mental dots for the public. They suggest a connection between two concepts, issues, or things, such that after exposure to the framed message, audiences accept or are at least aware of the connection” (Nisbet, 2010, p47). The kind of frames that these narratives construct in the cinematic space by exploring crisis along with human action in search of solution bears significance for efficacy beliefs with relation to environment.

The concept of efficacy beliefs or perceptions was first discussed by Albert Bandura (1977) who defined self-efficacy as “beliefs in one’s capacity to organize and execute the courses of action required to produce given attainments” (Bandura, 1997, p3). Efficacy beliefs thus emphasize perceptions about self or collective capabilities to organize action or exercise personal control. As Bieniek-Tobasco et al (2019) demonstrate, even if people are concerned about climate issues, they are unsure about their capacity to effect change which proves to be a great barrier in deciding about the course of action required to make behavioral change. What can an individual do personally that would help in conserving bio-diversity? The answer to this question is not simple particularly when available research shows that public engagement with climate is affected by a lack of knowledge as well as their belief that individual actions do not make a big difference in bigger issues such as climate change (Lorenzoni et al., 2007). It is in this gap in knowledge, awareness and belief in an individual capacity to influence the macro narrative of environmental debates that cinema’s affective role becomes important. Bieniek-Tobasco et al (2019) note that “low efficacy combined with high levels of concern or risk perceptions (which may result from the demonstration or experience of climate impacts) can lead people to reduce fear through coping mechanisms as opposed to taking action to reduce the threat” (p3). The emotional and affective regime of both fiction and non-fiction films showcasing ordinary humans raising their voices and engaging in collective action for environment can stimulate response and enhance efficacy beliefs.    

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