'Ghoul': If you cry 'anti-national' too frequently, one might just turn up

In a chilling scene halfway through the first episode of Netflix's recent original series, Ghoul, Colonel Sunil Dacunha (Manav Kaul), a senior government interrogator, shows recruit Nida Rahim (Radhika Apte) a glass cupboard in his office. The cupboard contains confessions tapes of, as Dacunha explains, "intellectuals, Opposition leaders, religious fanatics". The colonel, who takes pride in being a descendant of the Dacunhas who worked for the Goanese Inquisition, tells Nida that this collection is a result of the army's "interrogation technique and hard work". Soon enough, we get to see an example of what these techniques comprise -- barbaric rituals of torture befitting the Inquisition. Dacunha also explains to Nida: "Showing kindness to these people... it's a sign of weakness. We are not just doing our duty. We are delivering justice too." 

Written and directed by Patrick Graham, Ghoul is set in a futuristic totalitarian India, torn apart by sectarian violence. The opening text of the film makes the audience aware of it: "A military clampdown is in effect." Writing for The Wire, Tanul Thakur describes the miniseries, divided into three episodes of 45 minutes each, as "a terrifying picture of a Hindu rashtra". Thakur also writes that the narrative dismantles the character of a "good Muslim", as built by popular cinema, through Nida, a patriotic member of an anti-terror squad who shows no sympathy for Muslims arrested by the government, not even for her father, a professor of philosophy who hides "seditious" literature. While Thakur's analysis is spot on, the film is a little more intricate in its critique of a totalitarian state, which would obviously target religious minorities but not really care about one's religion if one is considered seditious.  

I watched Ghoul last Saturday; on Tuesday, five social activists and writers were arrested on charges of being "Urban Naxals" and plotting to murder Prime Minister Narendra Modi. While it is for the courts to decide whether the accused have at all committed any crime, the way the Maharashtra police has fumbled in framing the charges makes one sceptical about them. Shekhar Gupta, in an opinion piece for Business Standard ("Narendra Modi's 'Useful Idiots'", September 1, 2018), writes, "The BJP needs a new enemy. By adding Maoists to Muslims, the tukde-tukde thread will tie in nicely for 2019." With elections around the corner and the government facing criticism from many quarters for its decisions such as demonetisation, such a stunt might serve its election purposes. But, what after that?  

Torture as an instrument of state power is a central theme of this film -- as it is also of J M Coetzee's remarkable short novel, Waiting for the Barbarians. In the novel, the unnamed magistrate of a frontier town, on discovering how Colonel Joll of the Third Bureau has tortured two prisoners, explores the room in which the interrogation has taken place, and reflects on how the ritual of state power has rendered the place "holy". Much of the action in Ghoul is set in Meghdoot 31, a detention centre. While being given a guided tour of the facility, Nida is told that it was set up as an anti-nuclear bunker after "the first Emergency". (The 1975 one? I suppose so.) It is a secret facility, a self-sustaining city, not mentioned even in government records. Terrorists -- real and suspected -- are brought here for interrogation, and very often never leave. The similarities with Nazi concentration camps are obvious, with an execution chamber, an incinerator (like the one I saw at Dachau earlier this year), and classical music playing on loudspeakers. The music is supposed to have a soothing effect on the personnel posted there but can also be used as an instrument of torture, to prevent the inmates from sleeping. It is also soon to become an unholy place, thanks to a ritual performed by an inmate, summoning a monster, or the ghoul of the title.  

Space is important to the narrative of the film. It succeeds as horror not because of the monster but because of the space. Meghdoot 31, we learn quite early, has blackened windows -- to prevent anyone from looking in and to stop the prisoners from knowing what time it is. But, this also messes with the body clock of the soldiers. It is a claustrophobic space and the sense of claustrophobia, of being trapped, imprisoned, increases as the narrative progresses. In one scene, Nida is shown scratching the black paint on the windows to see what the weather outside is like, and in the climax, a black window is shattered to let in the blinding light (of realisation?). 

Describing the set design of his horror masterpiece, The Shining, Stanley Kubrick, in an interview with Michel Ciment, spoke of the importance of claustrophobia to the genre, how the inescapability of the characters on the screen reflects the inescapability of those stuck in the seats of a cinema. The ability of the makers of Ghoul to evoke a sense of claustrophobia is their sharpest political commentary. Yes, there are references to silencing of intellectuals that might seem very poignant at this moment. There are repeated mentions of wapsi -- a reference to ghar wapsi -- of dissidents, especially those from minority communities. There is book burning, random search and arrests, people driving in the night being stopped by security forces and asked if there are carrying the carcass of a cow. All this is obvious. What is subtler, and thus more interesting, is a sense of being stuck in this hostile environment. Meghdoot 31 is a microcosm of the totalitarian society outside its concrete walls and barbed wires. In such a society, one can only be a torturer or the tortured, the interrogator or the subject of interrogation. The ghoul, a reflection of our guilt, makes no distinction between the two; it is hungry and omnivorous. There is no way to exorcise it. The film is a cautionary tale for our undeniably divisive times. If you evoke the monster of an anti-national too many times, if you cry wolf too frequently, one might just turn up.      

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