What is being political in 2020? Is it reciting "Sab taaj uchhale jaenge / Sab takht girae jaenge"? Is it taking to the streets with a glorious blood-red sunset from Rang De Basanti at the back of your head? Is it writing #Resist on Twitter? Or is it using an allegory to hit you hard, boht hard? Can a horror story be political? Ask filmmaker Dibakar Banerjee.
In 2012, this man made Shanghai and tore open a dirty urbanisation game. In 2019, he is here with a 'ghost' story. These ghosts are the kind we sit and get up with every day. These bloodthirsty zombies are the ones we go to work with and the ones in the higher echelons of power. Some of them have a red bandana and their religion scribbled on their foreheads. Others have just developed a taste for human flesh. If you don't move, they don't eat you. If you don't talk, they don't hit you. You need to cease to exist if you want to exist in this zombietown. You need to stop having an opinion if you want to exist in this period of time. Is it Twitter 2020? No. It is just a Smalltown that is being eaten up by a Bigtown. It is just a minority that is being pushed out by the majority.
Banerjee's parallels are hard to miss. His short in Netflix's New Year offering Ghost Stories is easily the best of the anthology for its sheer politics. Yet, he is not in your face. He leaves room for the plain-horror lovers to see this nightmarish story unfold as it is. For the rest, he weaves in layers and layers of references. The story-telling is crisp. A man, posted in this godforsaken Smalltown, calls up his wife and complains about this 'naukri'. He is accosted by a kid in a broken helmet, who makes him run to a house and hide. There's a little girl here. She asks him to lie low, else her dad will 'eat him'. The children can protect him. But will they too be pushed to taste human flesh?
What nonsense? Our protagonist asks. What nonsense? We wonder.
Soon, this 'nonsense' starts making sense. In the dialogues of the children. In the rings of onions and putrid milk that their diet comprises, in the roars of the beast from outside the window. Isn't this what our day-to-day horror also is? The rising prices of staple food, the wails of the kids whose parents have been dragged away for protesting against an Act - the Bigtowners?
Dibakar Banerjee blends the occasional element of comedy into this horror story. That also is a reflection of what our todays are. We stare in disbelief at IITs setting up panels to investigate a poem by a revolutionary; a poem written many decades ago and worshipped as the revolution anthem by the neighbouring country. We look at our WhatsApp and Twitter in disgust as people of one community are targeted, harassed and threatened. But Dibakar Banerjee's protagonist wakes up from his nightmare. Will we?
And when this bad dream ends, will we say, "Bas naam rahega Allah ka / Jo gaayab hai aur haazir bhi / Jo manzar bhi hai nazir bhi"? Oh wait.