Crows – dead, alive, or even in surrealistic human form – constitute a recurring image in Ghost Stories, the first Indian production on Netflix in 2020. It marks the comeback of the quartet who created the critically acclaimed Bombay Talkies in 2013, and the International Emmy-nominated Lust Stories in 2018 – Zoya Akhtar, Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee and Karan Johar.
The supernatural has been portrayed in different forms in this anthology – bad omens, the human subconscious, depravity and faith.
But it’s the third short by Dibakar Banerjee, ‘Monster’, which bravely stands out as a sharp critique of the current political apocalypse in India.
The story opens in a remote village where none but two kids and a scarecrow have been spared in a massacre. It soon turns into an incredible dystopia wherein you hear roars of man-eating humans from inside a shanty.
The cannibals in the village have distinct rules. They are organised into a hierarchy on the basis of whether they hail from the Bigtown or the Smalltown, and who they eat is based on the social order. Those who consume other people are not eaten by these cannibals: they do not attack their own kind, quite like violent groups in our society.
The internal hierarchisation among denizens of the village depicts that a constant process of othering is in place. The external hierarchisation between the binaries of rural and urban is evident in the deplorable conditions under which the children sustain themselves, in sharp contrast to how they refer to the Bigtown.
When the two kids and the protagonist are detected by the man-eaters, a faint outline map of India is visible on a blackboard in the backdrop. The image of the nation is again evoked at another point – the ‘blind’ principal stands on the dais with the national flag flying high in what seems like a post-apocalyptic zombie town.
In an encounter which may be described as jarring, creepy and gory, the girl-child is predated by her own father. It is a poignant reminder of the way bodies are violated under the custody of designated protectors in the real world. The kid then advises the man to smear the blood of the corpse onto his face, so that the man-eaters are deluded into thinking that they are one of them.
This construction of “us” and “them” based on what one deems edible is reminiscent of parameters of social stratification such as caste, religion and so on, which often have codified guidelines of commensurability.
Although the setting seems other-wordly at the outset, its rules get similar to our world sooner than we realise.
The blood on hands and face as a signifier of those supporting violence in the village social structure is a remark on the institutionalised violence perpetrated, by dint of which some groups lay claim to power over others. The silent supporters of injustice have blood on their hands. What may be perceived as cannibalism (since there are literally human beings consuming their own kind), later unravels as a more complex system of hierarchisation as the basis of the social structure in the village.
At one point, the protagonist exclaims that the ones devouring human flesh are animals. His subsequent “insane” moment after his nightmare ends, is much like the attempts of all those who have been cautioning us of the consequences of fascism and majoritarian rule. The Bigtown people who ultimately come to save him are the same monsters he had seen in the chaos.
Even though the metaphor of a blind person to signify the apathy of the majority to crimes against humanity may be the language of ableism, another metaphor is less problematic. The man and the child, immobile while watching another child being eaten alive, is an apt symbol for the silence of the majority in the face of injustice.
At the outset, it is clear that all adults will be eaten by the man-eaters. This is why children are somewhat safe in this anarchy. The outsider who is visiting this hamlet on account of his job, still idealistic and hopeful for change, reposes infinite faith in the bureaucracy. The film takes us through an outsider’s journey into the village. This is why the camera, which begins with the perspective of the protagonist, slowly shifts its gaze over to him. The cinematography closely follows his attempt to fit into the village by adopting their norms.
As he is chased by the man-eaters in the end, it is a spine-chilling image which motivates us to reflect on the experience of victims of mob lynching in a failing democracy.
Ghost Stories is hardly about ghosts as we understand them in common parlance; it is about the demons within, and social evils which go unchecked. At a time when the silence of Bollywood on crimes against humanity is almost deafening, this Netflix offering is a welcome step to remind us about the duty of art in awakening the collective consciousness.
However, the reach of Netflix is limited in India – while this means that the movie is free from the moral compass of the censor board, it restricts the audience to a privileged numerical minority.
Meghna Roy is a student at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
Featured image: Aditya Shetty in Ghost Stories/Netflix