Animal and online outrage
The Internet expects everybody to condemn the film or get cancelled. A look at how, despite easy access to brutal material, we demand sanitised cinema
“George: Be careful, Martha… I’ll rip you to pieces.
Martha: You aren’t man enough…you haven’t the guts.”
Edward Albee wasn’t accused of promoting toxicity for this conversation from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.
“If you truly love me, then lick my shoe,” says Vijay to Zoya, the mole, who he has no reason to trust. But when she bends to do so, he moves his foot away.
This is from the recent controversial film Animal by Sandeep Vanga Reddy.
Like news anchors badgering people to condemn Hamas in the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict, the Internet is expecting everybody to condemn the movie or get cancelled. Despite access to all kinds of brutal and carnal material, we still seem to suffer from shame and guilt and, therefore, couch them in righteousness.
Fortuitous violence and sex, and misogyny, are indeed problematic, but why are only creative works held up to such standards? We are live streaming video clips of torture, of women paraded naked, of people being set on fire and hung from trees. Can we forget the graphic recounting of the Nirbhaya gangrape or of women’s bodies chopped and stuffed into suitcases? Why are these not considered gratuitous? The reasoning is that they are in the news, they happened.
Why do we need evidence of it, then? By playing such images on loop the helplessness of the victims becomes even more manifest. The subtext is that not only can you torment people, you can even display them and have an audience pat itself for social consciousness.
Pugnacity and prurience in cinema as well as literature are not mere devices to convey an artistic version of realism; they are also a reflection of the predatory nature of the perception of it. How the two mediums depict them vastly differs, though.
Would Jawaharlal Nehru speak up for a banned film with sexual content as he did for Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita that Morarji Desai had termed “sex perversion”? He defended it thus: “The book is certainly not pornographic in the normal sense of the word. It is, as I have said, a serious book, seriously written. If there had been no fuss about it, no question need have arisen at all of banning it or preventing its entry. It is this fuss that sometimes makes a difference because people are attracted specially to reading books which are talked about in this way.”
What if Animal had been a book? Would the protagonist be dismissed as an “alpha male” as he is for the film portrayal? Or would he be given a broader identity? In Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche DuBois describes Stanley Kowalski as “sub-human — something not quite to the stage of humanity yet! Yes, something ape-like about him, like one of those pictures I’ve seen in — anthropological studies”. While it is an unflattering description, it isn’t a reductive label that pits him against the metrosexual who is a feminist, and nobody cares anymore that this too is appropriation.
There are beasts outside and there is a beast within us. A man who asks a woman to lick his shoe is, quite obviously, unstable. Obsession might convey volatility but for the obsessive person it is single minded devotion. As Shakespeare’s Romeo sighed, “O brawling love, O brawling hate!”
Instability may not be the norm, but those who are otherwise sensitive to “special needs” seem impervious to social and psychological instability, when we still have instances of people being forced to genuflect only because of the caste they belong to.
The indignities had prompted Dalit poet Namdeo Dhasal to write:
“Smash the bones of your critics’ shanks on hard stone blocks to get their marrow,
Wage class wars, caste wars, communal wars, party wars, crusades, world wars
One should become totally savage, ferocious and primitive…”
Cultural historian David Brion Davis writing about the surfeit of fighting and killing in American literature had observed that it is not necessarily proof of an unusually violent society, but “literary treatments of violence have reflected certain historical conditions and circumstances. The ideal of social unity might conflict with the ideal of a self-sufficient and self-relying individual, but later writers projected the image of the individualistic hero into the vacant spaces of the West, where his violent acts were devoid of social consequence”.
The proclivities of characters give them an identity that defines them. We remember a violent death more than a normal one. But potent depictions of battered bodies and minds are not always seen to be mirroring events. The viewer/reader might perceive them as a sublimation of aggression.
Society imbues the violent culture warrior with a higher calling even if he goes on a murderous spree. For the film audience, it acts as mass catharsis. Perhaps the “we are together in it” sort of empathy makes one feel it right in the bones and, although we might not like to admit it, the flesh as well.
A nude body in a film is reflective of our own form, but as a description in a book it is about somebody else. That leaves us free from identifying with it and, therefore, without guilt.
Interestingly the Kama Sutra, written by a celibate sage, is referred to as a definitive treatise on sex, but a filmmaker or writer producing a confessional work with rough edges will be accused of exploitative angst.
“I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash’d the brains out”
Lady Macbeth was using the sadistic imagery of killing a baby to taunt her husband to proceed with the murder they have planned together. Macbeth is regarded as one of Shakespeare’s finest works.
The depraved or idiosyncratic individual, attractive as he may be, is seen to pursue ideas that send out conflicting signals outside of our comfortable, predictable world. We are not living in the Beatnik age where free love meant making love without inhibition rather than the naked transaction of sensual experiences. Orgiastic pleasure is essentially a battleground and it would be questionable to conjecture that such excitable expression would soothe the violence within.
However, as observers, our brains are partitioned to “enjoy” what is going on without endorsing it.The over-emphasis on a “moral of the story” trope is that it often destroys the story. The good wins-bad loses binary does not always work in real life, so why should it in our artistic endeavours?
Violence is not only powerplay. Self-harm, suicide and trauma are violent too. The filmmaker would need to show it happening and make it appear tactile and, therefore, more disturbing. A writer would describe it and yet leave room for the reader to imagine it.
From epics like the Mahabharata to Greek tragedies, from Russian and American literature to those from the subcontinent, books have tried to capture social and personal upheavals of wars, racism, domestic abuse, divisiveness, rebellions, and self-examination.
Mythologies have looked at these subjects without a puritan prism and because they are distant and, more importantly, symbolic we do not, or dare not, use politically-correct yardsticks to judge them. Although some contemporary thinkers did try to portray Draupadi marrying the five Pandava brothers as a feminist statement.
It is one thing to reimagine recognised works and quite another to sanitise them.
Roald Dahl’s books are being altered in the latest British editions. The publisher appointed “sensitivity readers” who changed a gluttonous character from being “enormously fat” to“enormous”, and a sorceress posing as “a cashier in a supermarket or typing letters for a businessman” will henceforth work “as a top scientist or running a business”. Clearly, sensitivity readers have no respect for cashiers and typists.
The freer we are, the more constricted we seem to become, thereby transforming into assembly-line flawless products in echo chambers.
Farzana Versey is a Mumbai-based writer. She tweets at @farzana_versey