Interview: Jharana Jhaveri on Coca-Cola, CBFC and Independent Filmmaking in India

"I am not making comfortable films, I am raising issues that affect the lives of millions of people."

Jharana Jhaveri with Arundhati Roy. Credit: Facebook/Jharana Jhaveri

Jharana Jhaveri with Arundhati Roy. Credit: Facebook/Jharana Jhaveri

New Delhi: On November 24, 2004, at about 2:30 pm, a congregation gathers in Mehdiganj, off the Grand Trunk Road, about 40 km from the temple town of Varanasi. The protesters, all residents of the village and nearby Ballia, raised their fists in the air in tandem with slogans that went like this:

Pani chori bandh karo,
Bandh karo bandh karo

Makhan aur dudh ki jagah me
Nahi chahiye Pepsi Cola
Nahi chahiye nahi chahiye

Vikas hamara adhikar hai
Kisi ki baap ki nahi hai
Nahi hain nahi hai

(Stop stealing water now
Stop it now

In the land of butter and milk
No need for Pepsi Cola

Progress is our right
Not anyone else’s)

Soon, the state was seen unleashing its brutal power on the gathering to silence them – the voice of protest against the global beverage giant Coca-Cola. Police batons fell mercilessly on the sloganeering men and women, old and young. Some ran, some fell down – a melee ensued.

A 2.5-hour film, Charlie and the Coca Cola Company, documented this public protest against a bottling plant of Coca-Cola in the area. The film also tracked the company’s possible role in groundwater abuse and loss of livelihood of the local people for a decade, between 2004 and 2014. Charlie and the Coca Cola Company would have seen a theatrical release last year – had the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) issued it a certificate.

But the CBFC refused, calling the documentary “politically motivated”.

The film’s maker, Jharana Jhaveri, thereafter approached the Delhi high court for redress, which is hearing her petition.

Speaking to The Wire, Jhaveri talked not only about the film that took her a decade to complete and the trouble it has found itself in, but also her body of work as an avant garde filmmaker and the struggles that independent cinema has to endure in the country.

Excerpts from the interview:

What is your film Charlie and the Coca Cola Company about?

It is basically about how two places close to Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh – Mehdiganj and Ballia – have faced severe water scarcity due to a bottling plant set up by the global beverage giant Coca-Cola. The dipping groundwater level has dried their farmland, affecting their means of livelihood. Instead of scientifically managing the waste the unit produces, the company has passed it off to the farmers as fertiliser, which has further worsened the state of their arable land. Though they have been protesting this through public meetings and so on, there is no redress. The state is quiet.

Through this story, we wanted to sketch the big picture of how precious natural resources like water, on which people living in an area have an inherent right, have been privatised and handed over to corporate giants without taking people’s consent and their concerns into cognisance. It took us ten long years to complete the film.

I also want to highlight here that this has been a standard practice for Coca-Cola across the world. Wherever it has set up a bottling unit, it has sucked up all the water and in about five years’ time, there is no groundwater in about a 100-km radius. After committing groundwater abuse, it shifts to a newer area to do the same. My idea through the film is to also name and shame it so that smaller companies in the business, who also follow this model set by a giant like Coca-Cola, are also forced to resort to better practices.

Similar protests against Coca-Cola were seen in other parts of the country as well.

Yes, one has seen similar protests in many parts of the world. Within India, there has been protest against Coca-Cola in Placimada in Kerala and Kaladera in Rajasthan. Recently, we have seen this phenomenon in Gujarat. People were asked to pay so that they can get the Narmada waters from the Sardar Sarovar Dam into their village. However, once the people paid up, the state government gave way to Coca-Cola there to set up a bottling plant. Local people are protesting it. The state is quiet again.

The CBFC has, in a way, banned your film, saying it is politically motivated. How do you see this reasoning as a filmmaker, because what we understand of the CBFC is that it is a body that certifies a film as per certain categories. While one has heard many times that the CBFC has directed filmmakers to cut certain portions of their films in order to get a certificate, the denial of a certificate to a film altogether is rarely heard of.

True. The reason given to me by the CBFC in August 2016 for refusing a certificate to the film is, “more than education, it is misleading and has political motive and therefore can’t be passed in the present form”. But the name itself of the board signifies what its primary function is: it is to certify a film and not ban a film. My point is, why not tell the filmmaker which portions of the film are objectionable to the board and suggest cuts? But how can you stifle a voice altogether? I agree that it is a biased film, a political film, but my honesty lies with the audience, with the people, not with any political party. But the truth was so discomfiting to them that they couldn’t allow it to be seen by the public.

I want to know if there was any pressure on the CBFC to act that way because the film directly indicts the company for wrongdoing. Or is it that one just can’t believe that Coca-Cola can do this to our natural resources? The company spends crores of rupees on advertising, to establish a good impression about it. Bollywood stars and sportspersons, people who are idolised by children and youth, are hired with huge money to promote its products. The tagline is: little drops of happiness.

So it may be difficult to see the ugly side of the story. It was not easy for me either. Coke regularly came home; my friends in the field of art were getting sponsorship from the company, Coke was all around me.

I remember writing to actor Aamir Khan after seeing him promoting Coca-Cola, to tell him that I am ashamed of having worked with him in Ketan Mehta’s Holi. I am also ashamed being a part of a film fraternity that could be so insensitive to what is happening on the ground, to be so detached from reality. Aamir was not aware of this aspect. The Centre for Science and Environment sent him a report on the issue. My intervention hastened his understanding of it and he began to take a pro-farmer, pro-people position. Legally, those who do Coca-Cola ads are bound not to criticise it; else they will be heavily fined. So Aamir didn’t openly criticise it but set up the Pani Foundation. The TV series Satyameva Jayate followed. Today, he is perhaps the only bold and intelligent actor who is trying to bring into his work what is happening in real India.

After the CBFC refusal, the film went to the appellate authority and was rejected. Then you went to the Delhi high court. What is the present status of the case?

The very reason I went to the CBFC seeking a certificate was because I wanted a theatrical release of the film. I could have uploaded it on YouTube etc. After CBFC refusal, I had to go to the appellate authority, as that is the norm and also since I was not told what exactly was objectionable in the film. The appellate authority is like a court; it has a five-member bench headed by a retired chief justice. Interestingly, some members just couldn’t sit through the 2.5-hour film. One such member was the BJP leader Shazia Ilmi, who disrupted the screening, which a fellow member even opposed. The truth was so discomfiting for Ilmi that she couldn’t bear to watch the entire film.

I wonder, why does truth have to go through such scrutiny? I am not making comfortable films, I am raising issues that affect the lives of millions of people. Corporations are solely responsible for it [the negative impact] and they need to be punished for the errors and forced to change the technology they are using that causes such harm to people. Our rivers are getting dirty, groundwater is being abused – so should we allow them to do it? The film exposes it. Not for nothing that over a hundred universities in the United States and India don’t allow Coca-Cola to come for campus recruitment. IITs don’t allow this.

But the media is quiet about this abuse because they get a huge sum every year in ads from Coca-Cola. This close-mindedness is spawning a weird kind of fanaticism; it is dangerous because it is taking away independent voices, harming independent cinema. Who is going to create a platform for it if governmental authorities like the CBFC don’t? Who is going to give a voice to the voiceless? Take the ongoing protest against the film Padmavati. They are taking a position without even seeing the film. In 2007, Aamir visited Gujarat to attend a dharna by the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) against the Sardar Sarovar Dam. He and his cousin Mansoor Khan were then thinking of making a feature film based on it. Soon after that, we saw that his film Fanaa got banned in the state. This is how the state machinery operates.

After the appellate authority’s decision, I decided to challenge it in the Delhi high court. The case is being argued on my behalf by K.T.S. Tulsi. After watching the film, Tulsi told me it reminded him of Erin Brokovich and her fight in America against water abuse. Tulsi, also a Rajya Sabha member, wanted to write to the then Vice President Hamid Ansari to seek permission to show it in parliament, but unless you get a clearance from the court, you can’t do that. The honourable judge hearing the case watched the film on October 28. The next date of hearing is December 14. 

The common thread one sees in Charlie and the Coca Cola Company, your film on the Narmada struggle Kaise Jeebo Re and also Kosi Katha is water. Can we say then that issues around water particularly attract you?

Kaise Jeebo Re was screened at the World Water Forum at The Hague. Though I had been thinking about these issues around water, it was at the water forum that I realised much more deeply how the privatisation of water is taking place across the world, and also its fallouts.

The person who introduced me to these deeper issues was writer-activist Arundhati Roy. I first met her in Delhi, after she had seen Kaise Jeebo Re. She wanted to donate her Booker Prize money of Rs 25 lakh to the Narmada struggle. I told her to visit the valley first. She travelled with me and returned to write the essay ‘Greater Common Good’ in Outlook magazine. Together, we travelled to over 100 universities across the world, where she would read out portions of her writings on the issue, screen parts of the film and take questions from the audience. Then the ‘Rally for the Valley’ happened when 400 journalists from across the world were invited to come to New Delhi and travel to the valley to see for themselves what was happening on the ground.

A still from <em>Charlie and the Coca Cola Factory </em>.

A still from Charlie and the Coca Cola Company .

From your body of work, not just these films but also One Night in Delhi or Right to Information, filmmaking to you is clearly about giving a voice to the voiceless, bringing to people a reality that mainstream Hindi moviedom either doesn’t bother to dabble with or try to put a curtain on in the name of popular entertainment. What pulls you to these stories?

As I said, I wanted to make films about people, about real issues, issues that affect lives. Right to Information was screened at the 2001 MAMI festival. In the late 1990s, people knew about corruption but didn’t know how it happened. Activist Aruna Roy explains in the film how it is done by drawing from her experience as a bureaucrat. The film was shown to the parliamentary standing committee on the freedom of information Bill headed by Pranab Mukherjee. The film did the groundwork for the RTI campaign.

One Night in Delhi situates itself in 2000, when the Olympic torch came to India. Through a protest held in front of the Chinese embassy in New Delhi, I track down the ethical values of the games since the 1890s, look at role of the International Olympic Association, the Indian Olympic Association, show how Tibetans can’t participate in these games because Tibet is not recognised as a separate nation. It was during the filming of that protest that the Delhi police broke my camera, detained me.

I see a similar plot in Aamir’s Dangal. Wrestling is a man’s game in an international sports event; these two girls, however good they may be, are therefore not allowed to participate in it. But they stand up to the patriarchal idea of the games.

What I am trying to say here is, there is this connection between the kind of films I make and that of fiction, popular cinema; we can take from each other. Films like Dangal show that cinema can be closer to reality; one can take this form of art to people in a meaningful way. Dangal’s success shows that there is acceptance of such films, people are not dumb.

I want to direct feature films, work with new actors but do only realistic cinema. Look at the film Qissa, a brilliant portrayal of Punjab during Partition. By the way, it is the only film where I am seen in front of the camera, acting.

Another reason is, since childhood, I have been told to ask questions. There was space for us to state our opinion, make mistakes. Otherwise, for someone coming from a middle-class family to carve out a patch for herself on her own would have been very difficult.

What role did FTII play to shape you as an avant garde filmmaker?

When I joined the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune in 1982, I got an opportunity to watch world cinema, particularly the meaningful realistic cinema being made those days in Eastern Europe. Those movies greatly affected my outlook on the medium. I wanted to make avant garde films that are entertaining but also make the audience reflect on an issue and be a little bit more informed about the subject of the film. But there was very little scope for such cinema in India, no funds to make such films. To make Charlie, I had to sell my house. I did it because I believed only in this kind of cinema.

After passing out from FTII, I took to travelling to the hinterland of India, in the villages. Having grown up in Mumbai, in the cities, you tend to be removed from the other India. I wanted to see that India. I remember when I mingled with people in villages, I was asked about my caste because caste is important to them, but not for us, so I didn’t even know my caste then. They wanted to know whether I am married, these things matter to them, maybe not much to a city dweller.

You often credit Arundhati Roy for giving you the courage to become a full-time filmmaker.

I did many odd jobs before becoming a full-time filmmaker. Arundhati gave me the courage to do so.

Another strong influence in my work was theatreperson Badal Sircar. I first met him at a theatre workshop in Surat and thereafter did many such workshops with him. He became my mentor. Till his death, he wrote me letters on inland letters.

Sometimes, I find myself alone. I feel more and more filmmakers should do far more radical work than I am doing. If the media, parliament and the corporate sector understand the issues better, millions of lives can be saved from disasters, the kind I am trying to show in Charlie. My problem as a filmmaker is once I see something, I can’t un-see it.

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