Mumbai: More than a decade ago, during a television interview, actor Amitabh Bachchan had very simply pointed out the relationship between poverty and cinema in India. He said, "There are a large number of people in India below the poverty line. They want to find a little escape from the hardships of life and come and watch something colourful, exciting and musical. Indian cinema provides that."
On Friday, as the World Food Programme (WFP) launched its second 'cinema ad' as part of its 'Feed Our Future' campaign, at Facebook's Mumbai office, three Indian directors -- Nandita Das, Anubhav Sinha and Neeraj Ghaywan --- pushed Bachchan's hypothesis a little further by asking: Can cinema be more than mere 'escapism'? Can it act as a catalyst to inspire mindset change towards poverty and world hunger?
At the centre of these discussions was the poignant 'cinema ad' created by legendary adman, Sir John Hegarty of The Garage SOHO. The ad begins with a group of kids standing in the compound of completely destroyed buildings, on piles of rubbles, and singing the dulcet tunes of the song, 'How Can I Tell'. As the ad proceeds, one by one, kids dissolve in the air like gossamer fabrics and the chorus grows mellow. In the end, only one child remains. The commercial finishes with a note saying, "Every Year 3 Million Children Die of Hunger. Help Keep Their Voices Alive."
This chilling ad film has especially been made for theatrical viewing and during its launch event, filmmakers Nandita Das, Neeraj Ghaywan and Anubhav Sinha agreed that right now, cinema is one of the best mediums to draw attention towards hunger.
Can cinema initiate behavioural change towards hunger and malnutrition?
Nandita Das, an advocate on issues of social justice and human rights, apart from being a critically acclaimed filmmaker claimed that while cinema can inspire behavioural changes, they are very gradual and mostly require 'internalisation' on an individual level.
"Films don't create revolutions but they do go into your subconscious. If cinema wasn't powerful, it wouldn't have been banned. Cinema is a medium of communication and it can be used for all kinds of things. It can be used just for information, it can be used for propaganda, it can be used to move people. It goes into you subliminally and very slowly, it impacts how you respond to things," said Das.
"Apathy to action is a gradual process, but if a cinema or ad actually moves you, and it stays with you then chances are it will create an impact. However, there is no way to actually measure that impact, that's why films are not science but part of the arts." added the filmmaker.
Back in the 40s and 50s, 'poverty' and 'hunger' were reoccurring themes in Bollywood movies. However, Neeraj Ghaywan, the director of ‘Masaan’, pointed out that in the Industry parlance, 'it has become a cliche to talk about hunger.'
"With the figures we are seeing on food and nutrition, and the kind of hunger index we are on, I think it is essential now, to bring attention to nutrition and hunger, via cinema," said Ghaywan. The filmmaker pointed out that apart from subliminal branding that Das suggested, one of the best ways to cinematically raise the issue of hunger is by in-film branding.
Ghaywan propounded that for a theatrical advertisement like ‘Feed Our Future’ campaign to work, there has to be an amalgam of persuasive narrative, along with creative aesthetics.
"I think if you are trying to foster theatrical showcasing of advertisements, there has to be some way in which we can get both the aesthetics and narrative right. When a viewer goes to the cinema, he wants to watch a particular film, but during that, if the viewer is shown commercial on malnutrition, he might not want to see it because he has come with a different intent. So, there has to be an aesthetic and narrative form, in terms of creativity, that should make him want to watch it," Ghaywan added.
Taking the example of the current anti-smoking campaigns, Ghaywan pointed out that it is hard to gauge out the efficacy of such campaigns. However, had the narrative been more engaging, and the advertisements were aesthetically evocative, they would have been more effective.
Anubhav Sinha, the director of ‘Mulk’ and ‘Article 15’, said that cinema is a very powerful medium to talk about hunger.
"If you look at the issue from a very basic perspective, when you are looking at a film screen, that's a hundred feet; it's already above you. So, when you say something successfully through that medium, it is going to be way more powerful than anything else which is dependent on your remote," said Sinha.
From Apathy to Action: How the 'Feed Our Future' ad campaign inspired action
While the filmmakers talked about how cinema can induce behavioural changes towards hunger, representatives of United Nation's ‘World Food Programme’ revealed that they were pleasantly surprised to see tangible changes in not just people's mindset, but also in their actions, following the launch of 'Feed Our Future' campaign last year.
Corinne Woods, Chief Marketing Officer at WFP, said they always knew that the campaign had the power to change mindsets, but they thought they had to use various other supplementary platforms to initiate real action. However, last year, just 10 days after the campaign was launched, the brand awareness of WEP almost doubled.
Last year’s global results showed a rise of more than half a million dollars through online platforms and a 38% increase in downloads of WFP's ‘Share the Meal’ donation App, pointed out Woods. She added that this data means that people are actually travelling from apathy to action by making donations. Woods also suggested that if it is difficult for someone to make donations, food recycling is a great way to ensure less food wastage, and hence ward off hunger.
The abysmal data and cinema's rural reach
Globally, one out of every nine individuals does not have enough food to lead a healthy and active life. However, the data is even more dismal closer home.
Earlier this week, the Global Hunger Index classified India as a country with 'serious' levels of hunger and ranked it at 102, while the country with the most severe hunger issues, the Central African Republic was ranked at 117. Not just that, it also revealed that less than 10 per cent of the babies in our country are properly fed. While the child wasting rate was 20.8 per cent, the child stunting rate is at a staggering 37.9 per cent.
Bishow Parajuli, Representative and Country Director, WFP India said, "We still have a challenge when it comes to hunger and malnutrition. The level of stunting in India is comparable to some of the worst countries in Africa. It is currently at 38 per cent and that should never be the case. Of course, stunting and malnutrition are complex issues. It needs water sanitation, informed mothers, and certain behavioural changes. Films, being a major communication medium in the remote areas, are great tools to make an impact and bring behavioural changes."
While India has made some progress in recent years in eliminating hunger and malnutrition, there is a desperate need to continue the effort so that the zero poverty goal of UN can be achieved by 2030, Parajuli said.