Why we must watch Pari - it could have been so much worse

In true Bollywood fashion, it goes ahead and sacrifices everything at the altar of romantic, heteronormative love.

 |  6-minute read |   29-03-2018
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Guillermo del Toro, the current toast of Hollywood, knows a thing or two about fairies. Which is why one of my favourite scenes in his entire oeuvre is the gross, disgusting, absolutely blood-soaked encounter, in Hellboy II, between a snooty high society gathering enjoying an auction - and carnivorous, other-worldly entities that del Toro chose to call "tooth fairies".

You see, they fed on mammalian flesh: they liked every bit of us really, but were partial to teeth. Hence the name "tooth fairy"; del Toro understands that the fairies of children’s fiction are only pleasant in appearance because of their "glamour", that is, illusory power or magic. Without glamour, there’d be little to separate them from del Toro’s tooth fairies.

A similar, revisionist, wish-fulfilment philosophy underpins Pari, the recent Bollywood horror film directed by newcomer Prosit Roy - and headlined by Anushka Sharma, who’s also the producer. The tagline says "Not a Fairytale". And while this is not as (grimly) funny as del Toro’s tooth fairies, Sharma’s bruised, blue-lensed, no-nonsense face makes sure that the audience realises the deadly seriousness of intent.

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Pari has a lot of things going for it - a strong and charismatic lead who also financed the film, a solid supporting cast, some nifty writing in the first half, and a cinematographer who has experienced, first-hand, Kolkata’s endless reservoir of spooky buildings. However, as this piece will argue, it fails its central power fantasy with a cop-out of an ending.       

Pari, in a way, is an elaborate allegory about the bodily autonomy of women. The central character Rukhsana (Anushka Sharma) is actually a demonoid, the daughter of Ifreet (a demon, hinted to be either Satan himself or Satan's favorite underling) and a mortal woman who he raped. (She is, therefore, Rosemary’s baby.) Physiologically, she is a mongrel and has to release "Ifreet ka zeher" (Ifreet’s poison) once every month (by biting into a warm mammalian body: dogs, cats, nerdy young men: it’s all good), otherwise the poison starts to consume her from within. (This, of course, refers to the demonisation of menstrual blood.)

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Oh, and a demonoid, an Ifreet-ki-beti, cloaks her true, crone-like appearance with the help of glamour (Guillermo and I warned you).

Here’s the zinger: All Ifreet’s daughters want only one thing, biologically speaking, to entrap a man, have sex with him and deliver another demonoid child in a month (as opposed to nine months). These demonoid children are born without belly buttons (like test-tube babies). We are shown how a vigilante group headed by professor Qasim Ali (Rajat Kapoor) hunted down the raped women (raped by the demon Ifreet, that is) and forcefully aborted every one of them - except Rukhsana's mother, who escaped. 

Up until this point, which is to say, three-fourths into the film, I found the film’s atmospherics to be on point and its symbolism, impeccable. Of course, Rukhsana was feasting on the bodies of young men. Of course, she was killing whoever sought to trap her body again. We are presented two political extremes: both Ifreet and Dr Ali exert control over a woman's body, in polar opposite ways.

The cruelty of Dr Ali's "heroic" acts (he is, after all, a demon hunter) is highlighted very cleverly, with well-chosen shots of a hacksaw in the corner as Dr Ali is taunting a raped woman, (a nod to victim-blaming "commentators") telling her that “the pain will be over soon”.

Is the hacksaw used to decapitate the newly born demonoid daughters?

We are never told this explicitly, but Rajat Kapoor’s face does the talking, with its chilling normalisation of unspeakable acts (remember Tej Puri from Monsoon Wedding?).

As a revenge fantasy hurtling towards a suitably gory climax, Pari has historiographic righteousness on its side - a hard-fought victory at the best of times. And then, in true Bollywood fashion, it goes ahead and sacrifices everything at the altar of romantic, heteronormative love.  

In the closing moments of the film, we are told that because Rukhsana fell in love with a man, Arnab (Parambrata Chatterjee), their sex produced a normal human girl with a belly button, not a demonoid. And of course, after the hetero-normative sex was over, Rukhsana prefers to let her body’s poison consume her rather than bite her paramour.   

Reproduction and hetero-normative romantic love, therefore, is presented as a "solution" for witchcraft/demon parentage/basically every female transgression. This is in line with a string of horror/supernatural/thriller films down the ages where this fertile/barren (and therefore good/evil) binary is presented; Rosemary’s Baby being among the earliest of them. These films benefitted from the paranoia around thalidomide and the deformed-at-birth babies of the 1960s, sure. But anybody who has seen these films will attest to their ham-handed, and quite brazenly propagandist screenplays.

And it’s not as if the passage of time improved things significantly. Come the 1990s, and while Tom Hanks helped kick-start the conversation around AIDS, when it came to reproductive rights, we were still stuck in the dark ages. 1992’s The Hand That Rocks The Cradle (hilariously remade in Hindi the following year, as the so-bad-it’s-good Khal-Naaikaa, starring Anu Agarwal, Jeetendra and Jaya Prada) is a good example of the kind of cliché-fest I’m talking about: lonely nanny risks basically everything in order to experience the bliss of having your own child to boss around - because of course she does.

In fact, the messaging around this topic is so convoluted that even propagandist filmmakers sometimes find it difficult to stay on point.

The Aussie film Red Christmas (2016), for instance, is directed by Craig Anderson, a pro-choice man, as he has mentioned several times in interviews. The movie is about a failed abortion where the now-deformed baby (bandaged and in robes, a la Griffin Hawley, HG Wells’s The Invisible Man) grows up with Down Syndrome, and later hunts his family down, lecturing them on pro-life arguments and threatening them in the same breath. And yet, somehow, the most disagreeable person in the film seems to be the pro-choice mother (horror goddess Dee Wallace), who instigates her children to violently evacuate their bandaged-and-bleeding stepbrother.

Similarly, the supposedly pro-life movie, The Life Zone, features women literally bound to their beds and being forced to give birth - call me crazy, but not the ideal way to change people’s minds about a red button topic.

Which is why we must, in the final equation, be grateful for Pari. Yes, the last 10 minutes were a bit scatter-brained. But it could have been so much worse, as movies like Red Christmas remind us.   

Also read: CBSE's re-exams for Class 10, Class 12 papers are a nightmare for students

 

 

Writer

Aditya Mani Jha Aditya Mani Jha @aditya_mani_jha

Writer works at Penguin Random House India. The views expressed here are his own.

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