In a city like Mumbai, we often express our anger about the state of our public amenities, and criticise our elected representatives and public servants. Fostering interest and involvement in civic life, however, is tough: even getting citizens to vote is an uphill task. How, then, do we get ourselves to know more about the way we are governed and, better, take an active part in the process? This Saturday, Godrej’s India Culture Lab and MIT’s Media Lab are collaborating on an event, The Past, Present and Future of Civic Entertainment in India they hope will encourage dialogue on the subject.
Anushka Shah, who works with the Media Lab’s Centre for Civic Media, researches what she calls ‘civic entertainment,’ a way to think of entertainment that inspires civic or political engagement. Shah, who grew up in Mumbai, and has worked on qualitative research with several non-profits and the Aam Aadmi Party, says that the media was getting so complex that she decided the need was for a more data-driven approach.
So she went to the U.S.A. to study applied statistics with a focus on media analytics, then got a job with MIT that offered her the chance to work at the intersection of several interests: media, entertainment and India.
To define the term, Shah offers problem statements: “We know very little of how our democratic and public institutions function: most of us don’t know the difference between a councillor, MLA, MP. What we do know gives us enough reason to mistrust public institutions and officials; this is a global phenomenon. Then there is a huge lack of confidence in that we can effect change; more so in India because we are such a large, complex country, no problem seems within arm’s reach, everything seems larger than life. The combination of these three makes it very hard to engage in civics.”
From there, she says, one can ask several questions. Stories of successful civic and political change come with drama, conflict, characters; can they then, told well, be influential? Another: we tend to think of activists as jhola-carriers, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not the only truth; can the others be told too? Then, we think of government departments as monolithic institutions, but they are made up of thousands of individuals making thousands of decisions every day; how do we not just empathise with them but also influence those decisions?
Parmesh Shahani, head of the Culture Lab, says, “The idea is so powerful — influence change by making entertaining media, using the right kinds of stories — we loved it.” Shah says the attempt is to bring in as many voices as possible, and “start a conversation on what it means to use entertainment in a more purposeful way for civic and political participation, on what civic cinema in India is. There’s a lot of conversation on political and the politics of cinema, but there is place for something like civic cinema as well.”
The event features two talks. Comic Rohan Joshi will talk of superheroes in pop culture and what we can learn from them. Ethan Zuckerman, Director of the Centre For Civic Media At MIT Media Lab, who is visiting Mumbai for the event, will lead a masterclass that will suggest ways people might use different levers of change to advance their own advocacy goals.
Zuckerman is working on a book that he says “looks at insurrectionism versus institutionalism, and considers the possibility that these are a better explanation for contemporary politics than left and right. While most approaches to civics are designed for institutionalists, he wants to look at it from the insurrectionist perspective. “I’m writing about models of civics that focus less on passing laws and more on making change through shaping norms, using markets and creating technology.” As to how this connects with the event’s theme, he says, “In the US, before equal marriage for gays and lesbians was legal, the idea became publicly acceptable through the media, with an increasing number of gay and lesbian characters on television and in movies. Making and sharing media as a way of changing norms is a powerful tool for social change, and one that’s open even to people who are alienated from traditional ways of making change.”
The day-long event will start with a screening of the Hindi-dubbed version of the recent Rajinikanth-starrer, Kaala, directed by Pa. Ranjith, who is Dalit, followed by a response to the film by Gopal Guru, editor of the Economic and Political Weekly. The programme will then segue into two panel discussions, one on creating content that has both message and entertainment. The other chat brings artistes together to discuss their motivations and choice of media. Also on all day will be an exhibit based on Bhimayana, a graphic novel by Pardhan-Gond artists Durgabai Vyam and Subhash Vyam, interweaving historical events from the life of Ambedkar with contemporary incidents.
At the inaugural summit of the Obama Foundation in 2017, Barack Obama said, “I believe firmly in politics. But I also believe that the moment we’re in right now, politics is the tail and not the dog. What we need to do is think about our civic culture.” It’s advice worth taking from someone who rose from community organiser to Senator to President of the United States of America.
The Past, Present and Future of Civic Entertainment in India will take place at Godrej One, Vikhroli East from 10 a.m. onwards on Saturday, August 11; free entry to all but a RSVP is mandatory at indiaculturelab@ godrejinds.com; for more details see indiaculturelab.org/events/special-events/the-past-present-and-future-of-civic-entertainment-in-india