We all live in a Cannibal Holocaust

This is the 44th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

A horror film from 1980 anticipated the Age of Instagram. And it is indeed a horror.

William Shakespeare was once confronted by his girlfriend. “You pretended to be so gentle and millennial while wooing me,” she said, “and then you go and write Titus Andronicus. What’s going on in that head of yours?”

“All the world’s a stage,” replied Willy, “and we are all performing. Even I don’t know what I really am.”

We live in performative times. Peeps on Twitter are signalling virtue, peeps on Instagram are documenting what they want others to believe their life is like, and solitary loners are blogging about their solitary aloneness.  All this merely makes explicit what was true for humans all along: we’re putting on an act.

I thought of this recently while watching a masterpiece released in 1980: Cannibal Holocaust. This was one in a wave of Italian cannibal movies that came along in the late 70s and early 80s, and was directed by Ruggero Deodato, known to the French as ‘Monsieur Cannibal’. His work influenced directors like Oliver Stone, Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth. After Cannibal Holocaust, his ninth film, was released, Sergio Leone wrote to him to say: “Dear Ruggero, what a movie! The second part is a masterpiece of cinematographic realism, but everything seems so real that I think you will get in trouble with all the world.”

He did. He was arrested because it was believed that the murders that took place in the film were real ones, and it was a snuff film, such was the realism with which it was shot. The actors had to show up in court to prove that they were alive. The film was banned in more than 50 countries, before which it grossed US$ 200 million worldwide.

In the film, a group of documentary filmmakers go off into the Amazon jungle to make a documentary about cannibal tribes. They go missing. A rescue team led by an American anthropologist goes off in search of them. After numerous adventures, they discover the mutilated bodies of the filmmakers – and all the footage that they shot. They bring this back to New York.

This footage is like a film within a film within a film, because the filmmakers are like conceited millennials instagramming everything. Whatever you see on camera is a performance, and they record everything, even sex. They are stars of their own reality show. They will use only some of what they shoot, but they shoot almost compulsively. It feels like an addiction.

A few days into the trip, their guide is bitten by a snake. They record his pain. They amputate his leg to save him. They record the aftermath. They leave him to die. The camera is on all the time.

When they reach the tribes, they need spectacular footage, so they stage a massacre, forcing tribe members into a hut, setting it on fire and not letting them escape. This is for their documentary. (For a previous documentary, we are told, they had incited executions in war-torn countries so that they’d get some dramatic footage.) What happens next is not for the documentary.

They trap a tribal girl, and gang-rape her. Every detail of this is filmed, with one man handing over the camera to another when his turn comes. Later, they come across the girl impaled on a wooden stick, and find it hard to hide their glee at getting such a great shot. They do a pop-sociological explanation for the camera by saying she was killed because she lost her virginity.

Later, the tribe comes for revenge. As they scurry through the jungle, one of the two cameramen is hit by a spear. The director shoots him so they can get footage of him being mutilated by the tribals, and tells the other guy, “Keep filming, Mark.” They do, as the tribals cut off their captive’s penis, decapitate him, hack his body into pieces and then cook and eat him.

Then they are on the run again, the director speaking to the camera as they run. His girlfriend, the lone woman in the group, is caught and dragged away. He decides not to try to rescue her, with the surviving cameraman reminding him of his priorities. “Think of the film! Think of the film!”

They follow, they shoot. The girl is stripped, raped, hacked, decapitated. The tribals hold her head aloft and celebrate – and then notice the filmmakers in the bushes, who keep the camera on. The last shot of the footage is the bleeding face of the director besides the fallen camera, and you have to wonder at what point he snapped out of his filming state and realised that this was real. The horror of that moment!

The film was controversial for other reasons. Although no humans were murdered, six animals were killed live on film. With each death, the director cuts off the sound to play the elegant score by Riz Ortolani, and that repeats when the human deaths are filmed. This is also commentary.

Interesting trivia: years later, Deodato played a sophisticated cannibal in one of my favourite scenes in Eli Roth’s Hostel 2. He walks into the room, elegantly slices off a piece of thigh from a conscious captive, and then proceeds to sit at a table and eat it, as a theme from Bizet’s Carmen plays in the background.

Roth was inspired by Deodato, and I consider Hostel 1 and 2 to be great films as well. Isn’t this odd, that I find social commentary in horror films? No, it isn’t. Given what human nature is like, there is no genre more apt.

*

If you have the stomach for it, you can watch Cannibal Holocaust here. NSFW, trigger warning, etc etc.

The Baptist, the Bootlegger and the Dead Man Walking

This is the 35th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

Appearances can be deceptive. I saw two Bollywood films recently that evoked different reactions in me. One was supposed to be gritty, realistic and well-researched, but actually showed completely ignorance of the world it was set in. Another had a small story at the start of it that seemed outlandish, the product of an imagination gone wild, but was spot on. Sometimes the most obvious truth can be a falsehood; and the most surreal story can be true.

Let’s start with the believable story. Shah Rukh Khan plays a bootlegging gangster in Raees, a film directed by Rahul Dholakia, who had made the acclaimed Parzania ten years ago. Raees looks real, and some reviews called it well-researched, but this is a façade. The writers seem to have no actual knowledge of the criminal underworld and the political economy in Gujarat. While the film is full of implausible events, one particular arc gives it away.

You would imagine that a man who sells alcohol would be the enemy of the man who wants alcohol to be banned. So when a sanctimonious politician plans to carry out a Darubandi Yatra (pro-prohibition march) through Gujarat, Raees Alam, our hero bootlegger, warns him not to bring it through his area. He fears it will affect his business. This seems intuitive and natural. These men are working at cross-purposes, right?

Well, in the real world, these men are allies. Prohibition is the greatest boon to a bootlegger. It is the main reason he exists. And a politician who supports prohibition should be his greatest ally. He should support him to the point of funding him, and even share his profits with him. This is best illustrated, in economics, by the concept of Bootleggers and Baptists.

The regulatory economist Bruce Yandle first coined the phrase ‘Bootleggers and Baptists’. It describes how regulations evolve, and how the different interest groups that benefit from them become unlikely allies. For example, take a Baptist who preaches that alcohol is evil, and makes sure it is banned. Where there is demand, supply will spring up, so enter the Bootlegger.

Bootleggers and Baptists share a symbiotic relationship. In Yandle’s words, “Baptists flourish when their moral message forms a visible foundation for political action. […] Bootleggers, who expect to profit from the very regulatory restrictions desired by Baptists, grease the political machinery with some of their expected proceeds.” In other words, not only are their incentives aligned, they might sometimes be overtly hand-in-glove as well, with the Bootlegger funding the Baptist.

Look at the regulation around you, and you will see Bootleggers and Baptists everywhere. Every government regulation on free markets benefits a specific interest group at the expense of the common people. These interest groups then funnel some of their gains back into politics, in the form of donations to the very politicians who create, perpetuate and expand these regulations. It is a vicious cycle in which the common man gets shafted.

Let’s move on, now, to a better movie. Akshay Kumar’s entertaining Jolly LLB 2 gets a few details wrong about the legal system, but the most outrageous story in the film is actually true. Jolly LLB, played with impeccable comic timing by Kumar, takes on a case at the start of the film on behalf of a man who’s been declared dead by his family so that they can take his property. All government papers say he’s dead, and the judge refuses to believe that he is alive. He needs proof that he exists, and he eventually gets it by throwing a shoe at the judge. (This scene was censored, so you won’t actually see it, just the commotion afterwards.) The cops have to record his name as they arrest him, and boom, that becomes the proof that he’s looking for.

Surreal, eh? You haven’t heard the half of it. This story is actually all a true story – and if anything, understates it. Its inspiration is surely a gentleman named Lal Bihari, a farmer from Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh. Lal Bihari was born in 1951 – and was told by a government officer in 1976 that he was dead, and that his land now belonged to his cousins. “But I am here before you,” he said, as reported in Open magazine. ““You know me. I have met you before.” But nothing doing, he had no proof that he was alive.

That’s only where the story begins. Lal Bihari renamed himself Lal Bihari Mritak (dead man), and went about proving himself alive. To do this, he organised his own funeral (Munnabhai style), applied for compensation for his ‘widow’, threw stones at a police station so that he would get arrested and his existence would be recorded, kidnapped his cousin, and finally, stood for election.

He took on VP Singh from Allahabad in 1988 and Rajiv Gandhi from Amethi in 1989, but dead men don’t win elections, and he didn’t either. By this time, he found that there were many others in the ranks of the walking dead, and founded the Uttar Pradesh Mritak Sangh, an association of legally dead people. At last count, they had 20,000 members, of whom four had managed to come back to life. One of them was Lal Bihari. From 1994 he was no longer Mritak, and when he really dies, I bet the authorities will be, like, been there done that.

You can’t make this shit up, right? Bollywood filmmakers should learn this lesson from Jolly LLB and Lal Bihari Mritak: real life has all the great stories you need. Just dig into that.

Lost in the Shallows

So I finally saw ‘Dear Zindagi’ (after invoking it for the sake of my column last Sunday), and I was appalled. The one kind of Bollywood film I abhor is a shallow faux-serious movie, which is exactly what this is—give me honest escapism over this any day. Before enumerating what I didn’t like about it, here’s what I did like:

1. Alia is brilliant in the film, such an exceptional actress. She’s blown me away before in ‘Kapoor and Sons’ and “Udta Punjab’, the only two other films of her that I’ve seen. Unlike so many of her Bollywood peers—especially the men—she doesn’t emote or ‘act’ as much as she sinks into the skin of a role. That should be fairly basic, but in Bollywood it needs to be drawn attention to, especially given who our superstars are. Her friends and family are also well cast. And the film itself is slick.

That’s all, sadly. Now for the things I did not like:

1. I read somewhere that the film was being praised for acknowledging mental health issues. But the treatment of Alia’s depression is Bollywoodized. In the real world, no mental health issue can be explained purely by circumstances or cured by thinking differently. The cause of depression is never one flashback away, and the cure to it is never the kind of banal self-helpisms that Shah Rukh’s character unleashes. Which brings me to my second point.

2. Practically everything Shah Rukh’s character says is nonsense. 90% of it is banal—like Ravi Shastri talking about cricket—and the other 10% is downright wrong and dangerous—like Modi talking about economics. The kind of psychotherapy he is shown doing is basically quackery, and the way he talks you’d imagine he’s never read a book in his life and spends 20 minutes each week on brainyquotes and Wikipedia. Simply put, the guy’s a buffoon.

3. I’ve often maintained that Shah Rukh Khan is the worst actor in history. I know Amitabh was his idol when he entered the industry, and while Amitabh has done some monumental hamming in his time, Shah Rukh knocks him out of the park. Watching Shah Rukh ham it up in scenes with the wonderfully naturalistic Alia is as painful as watching Amitabh ham it up in Piku in scenes with the brilliant Irrfan Khan. Is the contrast not obvious to viewers? Am I the only one cringing?

4. The film is otherwise filled with predictable narrative cliches. The parents are cartoon characters, not real people. The conflicts are cartoon conflicts, even though Alia’s lovely acting manages to make it seem real. All loose ends are neatly tied up by the end. Barf.

What irritated me the most, though, was the shallow, ignorant treatment of mental health. It’s an issue that needs to be talked about and acknowledged, and films like this actually do a disservice to that end. To repeat: depression, or any kind of mental health issue, cannot be explained by circumstances, and cannot be cured by the barrage of banalities Shah Rukh unleashes in this film. I wish the director-and-writer, even if she didn’t actually know any people with mental health issues (which itself would be astonishing, given how common it is) had at least bothered to research the subject. A pity.

What a Fix!

This is the 19th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

CRICKET MATCH

Anurag Thakur was in a fix.
Although a master of politics,
One day he told the press,
“I simply must confess,
That man Lodha has hit me for six.”

FILM FESTIVAL

Mumbai’s havaldars were in a fix,
As movie lovers scrambled for tix.
One cop said, “What drama!
They would call me ‘Mama.’
Why is there a ‘MAMI’ in the mix?

How This Nobel Has Redefined Literature

This piece was published today in the Times of India.

It’s rare that when a prize is given to someone, it is the prize that is elevated, not the recipient. That is exactly what has happened with the Nobel Prize for Literature this year. Bob Dylan is an artistic legend who needs no validation – but the Nobel Prize itself has taken a lurch towards relevance.

The first thing to note is that Dylan did not get the prize for his ‘poetry’. Instead, according to the Nobel Prize citation, he got it “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” The Nobel committee did not force-fit his lyrics into an existing category, but accepted that literature exists outside the conventions typically assigned to it. This renders criticisms of Dylan’s lyrics from a poetic standpoint moot, because they weren’t written as stand-alone poems, but as songs set to music. The Nobel Prize citation recognises them as literature, nevertheless—and that’s spot on.

What is literature? Definitions are troublesome, but I love Franz Kafka’s description of an ideal book as an “axe for the frozen sea within us.” For more than half a century now, Dylan has been wielding that axe and reaching into millions of frozen seas. His songs range from the political to the deeply personal: he captured the spirit of the times with the same acuity with which he wrote about his own existential struggles. His art evolved as he aged, and some of his meditations on ageing and death (listen to ‘Not Dark Yet’) are as powerful as any literature you will read.

Dylan’s impact is incomparable: He changed the landscape of popular music in America, influencing generations of songwriters, but his influence goes beyond the world of music. He is the most cited songwriter in US judicial opinions, showing how deeply his songs permeated into the culture. No previous winner of this prize has moved so many people to tears or rage or joy or wonder.

If you Google a definition for literature, the first one you will come across reads: “written works, especially those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit.” This is the crux of much criticism of this award: Dylan wrote great songs, but they’re not primarily written words, so how are they literature? Here it must be asked: Why “written words”, and not just “words”? Long before printed books existed, epic poets wrote their poems to be performed. We consider them literature today. William Shakespeare, in fact, wrote little that was meant for the printed page; and yet, if his plays are not literature, nothing is. Writing or print is merely one medium for words: surely the medium does not matter, and the words themselves do.

I am going to stretch that argument further. Shakespeare’s plays were basically screenplays for theatre productions, so how are they different, in terms of category, from screenplays for movies? The most powerful art form of our times, in fact, is the TV series, so what about those? Would Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull), William Goldman (All the President’s Men, The Princess Bride) and David Simon (The Wire, Treme) be future candidates for a Nobel Prize for Literature? What about stand-up comedy? The greatest artistic genius of our times, in my opinion, is Louis CK. His masterpiece, the TV series Louie, cracks open my frozen sea time and again. Is his work literature? Could he win the Nobel some day?

The merits of specific artists are irrelevant to this discussion, though. What matters is that the Nobel Prize Committee, with this bold award to Bob Dylan, has acknowledged that literature exists outside the narrow confines of past conventions. For this, they must be congratulated.

In Defence of Tanmay Bhat

I have four quick comments to make on the Tanmay Bhat controversy. (The first two are trivial but need to be repeated, I think.)

One: Our laws are still screwed up. The repeal of 66(a) of the IT Act was rightly celebrated as a win for freedom, but there are already laws in the IPC, like 295(a) and 153(a), which can also be used to strike out against Free Speech. (Here’s an ancient piece of mine on the subject: Don’t Insult Pasta.) The last I heard, people were planning to file a case against Bhat using those laws. I hope they don’t. And those laws should really not exist. As long as he is not directly inciting violence, Bhat should have the right to say whatever he wants, however offensive, however obnoxious.

Two: By the same token, others have a right to react to his comedy in whatever way they please, as long as they’re not trying to force him to shut up. So someone who says his comedy is disgusting is not attacking Bhat’s right to free speech unless he follows up by filing a case or trying to get him banned or whatever. And we can react to their reactions in the same way, and so on recursively. That’s what social media is for, isn’t it?

Three: The quality of Tanmay’s humour is less important to me than the context of it. Standup comedy in India is relatively young. (We have a great, centuries old tradition of humour, actually, but not this specific form, so don’t hit me with history and tradition, please.) And we are too quick to get offended. So it’s important to keep pushing the envelope, to keep stretching those boundaries. Nothing should be sacred. No holy cows.

Now, because our standup ecosystem is nascent, all the stuff that floats to the top won’t be of the highest quality. But that doesn’t matter. I didn’t enjoy all the humour in the AIB Roast, but boy, am I glad they did it. These guys are putting themselves out there, unlike many of us armchair observers. That is admirable in itself. And while doing it, they’re also taking giant steps forward for Indian standup comedy. (In these early days, all steps are giant steps.) That, in itself, deserves applause.

Four: Sit back and think for a moment about the nature of comedy itself. When Bhat says that Mangeshkar’s face looks like it has been kept in water for eight days, or he invokes the bitterness of a notional Sachin Tendulkar, is he really talking about just them? I don’t know Bhat personally, but I’m pretty sure he is under no illusion about his own good looks, or his mortality, or his importance to this world. Very few comedians are. If anything, comedians are people who’ve realised the essential tragic nature of the world, and certain fundamental truths about the human condition, such as a) our mortality, b) the huge role of dumb luck in our lives and c) the self-delusions which we need to survive, and with which we convince ourselves of our own importance. (I’m sure Bhat doesn’t think about it in these precise terms, but you get the drift.) Once you figure this out, the only appropriate reaction is laughter.

So when Bhat subverts the notion of Sachin and Lata as hallowed figures who cannot be made fun of, he is really just telling us to laugh at ourselves. ‘Look at us, we’re so funny and pathetic. Hahaha.’ I think he does it really well—that Mangeshkar ‘face in water’ joke is observational genius—but even if you don’t, it should not matter. More power to him regardless.

I just hope, after all this, he doesn’t end up apologizing.

The Halo of the Last Candle

The Monday Poem:

ADAGE
by Billy Collins

When it’s late at night and branches
are banging against the windows,
you might think that love is just a matter

of leaping out of the frying pan of yourself
into the fire of someone else,
but it’s a little more complicated than that.

It’s more like trading the two birds
who might be hiding in that bush
for the one you are not holding in your hand.

A wise man once said that love
was like forcing a horse to drink
but then everyone stopped thinking of him as wise.

Let us be clear about something.
Love is not as simple as getting up
on the wrong side of the bed wearing the emperor’s clothes.

No, it’s more like the way the pen
feels after it has defeated the sword.
It’s a little like the penny saved or the nine dropped stitches.

You look at me through the halo of the last candle
and tell me love is an ill wind
that has no turning, a road that blows no good,

but I am here to remind you,
as our shadows tremble on the walls,
that love is the early bird who is better late than never.

The Mountain That Remains

The Monday Poem:

IMAGINARY NUMBER
by Vijay Seshadri

The mountain that remains when the universe is destroyed
is not big and is not small.
Big and small are

comparative categories, and to what
could the mountain that remains when the universe is destroyed
be compared?

Consciousness observes and is appeased.
The soul scrambles across the screes.
The soul,

like the square root of minus 1,
is an impossibility that has its uses.

This Word Has Relatives

The Monday Poem:

STARTING A POEM
by Robert Bly

You’re alone. Then there’s a knock
On the door. It’s a word. You
Bring it in. Things go
OK for a while. But this word

Has relatives. Soon
They turn up. None of them work.
They sleep on the floor, and they steal
Your tennis shoes.

You started it; you weren’t
Content to leave things alone.
Now the den is a mess, and the
Remote is gone.

That’s what being married
Is like! You never receive your
Wife only, but the
Madness of her family.

Now see what’s happened?
Where is your car? You won’t
Be able to find
The keys for a week.

*  *  *

This poem is from the collection ‘Talking Into the Ear of a Donkey’.

The Damp Forbidden Musk

The Monday Poem:

EVOLUTION
By Eliza Griswold

Was it dissatisfaction or hope
that beckoned some of the monkeys
down from the trees and onto the damp
forbidden musk of the forest floor?

Which one tested his thumbs
against the twig
and awkwardly dug a grub
from the soil?

What did the tribe above think
as it leaned on the slender branches
watching the others
frustrated, embarrassed,
but pinching grubs
with leathery fingers
into their mouths?

The moral is movement
is awkward. The lesson is fumble.