By Priyanka Kapoor | Image: India Today
Recently, I booked a late night ticket for the Anushka Sharma starrer horror flick, Pari. Not to get scared out of my wits, but to get my share of laughs, having noticed that Indian audience often collectively laughs in horror movies. I entered the movie theater with skepticism and found my defenses drawn when heard people mumble, “How have they not censored this in India?”
Eventually though, the voices melted in the movie’s atmospheric downpour and I was completely lost in Pari’s intense folklore references as well as social commentary — something that many people cannot see because horror cinema, much like comedy, aims to diffuse reason.
Bollywood Horror is a genre which Indian audience doesn’t really expect much and usually, its true appreciation is reserved for Hollywood films with superior FX value and sharper jump scares. But as I mentioned,Comedy and Horror are sister genres, which is why, it becomes important to judge a Horror movie or its monsters from the standard of the uncomfortable social reality that they show us and not just the amount of well-timed jump scares. Guillermo Del Toro aptly puts it in one of his interviews:
“Monsters are simply outcasts“
Pari is an intelligent Horror movie. It does not indulge in the binary of good or bad and yet it does not leave the conversation of what’s evil either. Many Horror movies still stick to the divisions of good and evil and create the end battle / exorcism into an adrenaline-filled showdown of gore or glory, if not both. For instance, the ghosts of 1920 remain evil throughout the film – essentially coming from the genre of The Exorcist and The Evil Dead. However, for Pari, the writers cleverly create a labyrinth of questioning the film’s leaning of good and bad itself. This may leave the viewer confused at times, but will also leave the critic mesmerized. It is both an advantage and a setback.
The key to this ambiguity lies in the character of the Professor (Rajat Kapoor), the antagonist, who is introduced like a mafia-patriarch indulging his grandchild with food right before we see him forcing pregnant women into bathtubs as they scream, while their foetuses are aborted. It is only later in the movie that we are told that these women are believed to be vessels for demon-djinn babies and must be stopped from giving birth. On the other hand, the ‘monster’ Rukhshana (Anushka) is not just the protagonist, but also a victim rather than the victimizer. Her story begins as a release. Her mother had detained her in animal-like captivity and her love for Arnab (Parambrata Chatterjee) is a celebration of freedom which leans towards an idyllic childhood – something that she never had. Her sexuality is without shame in comparison to Arnab. His home becomes her rehab and she, an unpredictable monster-protector.
In the spirit of Let The Right One In, when Rukhshana leaps down from the morgue closet to bite the staff, the horror is not of a subtle revenge but a full-blown expenditure of exorcism-movie horror where the possessed leap on walls in madness. To an extent, it will be simpler to explain Rukhshana’s affliction as someone possessed by evil and yet, if we look closely, one will realize that the equation is much more nuanced. Like a werewolf, Rukhshana receives her afflicting power on the basis of moon cycles / menstruation, where the regret in her eyes flows in when her transformation leads her to bite into a street dog’s neck. The theme is borrowed from King’s Carrie where the blood remains a constant symbol and again, a meek character’s sexuality is transformed into monstrosity. But it will be more relevant to relate Rukhshana’s long hair and leaping through windows with the folk stories of Chudail, a curious legend that still turns up in Indian ghost stories for children and adults alike.
The folktales of Chudail target the real outcasts. According to the legend, these are women who ‘seduce’ men in the dark alleyways or die during ‘impure’ childbirths. They also live alone in the forests and enslave animals in large numbers. In Pari, the kutte wali aurat (Rukhshana’s mother) lives alone in a forest surrounded by dogs. The professor warns Arnab of the ‘web of seduction’ that Rukhshana has lain to bear his child. The theme of ‘impure childbirth’ in Pari is constant.
A Chudail is a woman who does not let her sexuality be controlled by men except the devil – and adheres to an alternate world order which revolves around the Devil patriarch rather than the God patriarch.
In Pari, Rukhshana’s body becomes the battleground for both orders. The Professor is no different than the villagers who had the woman raped by a devil in a bizarre ritual. The horror of impregnation is same as the horror of sadistic abortions where children’s head are cut off. The child in the womb is also the struggle of one order prevailing over the other. But as mentioned, Rukhsana is neither in the league with the devil, nor the exorcists. Her child is born of ‘love’ and is human.
These dynamics can be translated into a much darker social reality of sex trafficking, which the movie eventually points at.
When Arnab takes Rukhshana to an orphanage, both Rukhshana and the viewer turn away in disapproval as children are flogged and are in a place where no child remains a child for long. This is the same Indian orphanage world of Davis’s Lion. West Bengal records the highest rate of sex trafficking and the sub-human rooms of Professor’s prisoners are a reminder of that. In this context, Arnab is embodiment of every one of us privileged enough to wonder what would happen if we could help the beggar around our metro station by handing her over to the authorities, only to realize that there may be ‘evil’ within these shelter homes that secretly work as sex trafficking rackets. Look no further than the recent horrors of Bihar for a real-life example.
The forced abortion of these raped women, in order to keep them in circulation and trafficking, is yet another social reality that the movie touches. The children who are born in such horrid conditions lose their childhood early on and barely have time for fairy tales. ‘Pari: Not a fairytale’ is then a suitable subtitle.
Eventually, Arnab relieves himself of all social responsibility and gives Rukhshana away to the professor. As a result, Rukhshana’s defensive monstrosity is let lose like Carrie and just like Carrie, she too dies of her own zeher – anger which was initially against a world without refuge. Even in death and defeat, these anger fueled fantasies are important in the narratives of female body. Elaine Showalter refers to such fantasies as:
“The anger of a young generation of feminists who will not forgive, excuse, cover up, and accept male abuse”.
In this light, Pari is a feminist dialogue.
About the Author:
Priyanka recently finished her Masters in English Literature from Lady Sriram College, Delhi University. Her key research interest explores the Gothic and the ‘other’ in psyche and society.