Last Saturday, I booked a late night ticket for the Anushka Sharma starrer “Pari”, to get my share of laughs (having noticed that Indian audience often collectively laughs in horror movies), if not scares. I entered the movie hall with scepticism but found my defences drawn and heard people mumble, “How have they not censored this in India?” Eventually, the voices melted in the movie’s atmospheric downpour and I was completely drawn into Pari’s intense folklore references as well as social commentary – something that many people cannot see because horror, like comedy, aims to diffuse reason.
Bollywood Horror is a genre from which the Indian audience does not really expect much and usually, the true appreciation of horror is directed towards Hollywood films with agreeable FX effects and smarter jump scares. But as I mentioned, comedy and horror are sister genres, which is why it becomes important to judge a horror movie or its monster from the standard of the uncomfortable social reality that they show us, and not just the amount of well-timed jump scares. Guillermo Del Toro, in one of his interviews, simply puts it as, “monsters are simply outcasts,” the rejects of the society.
“Pari” is an intelligent horror movie. It does not indulge in the binary of good or bad and yet it does not leave the evil-doer out of the conversation either. Many horror movies still stick to the divisions of good and evil and turn the climactic battle/exorcism into an adrenaline-fuelled showdown of gore if not glory. For instance, the ghosts of “1920” remain evil throughout the film – essentially coming from the genre of “The Exorcist” and “The Evil Dead”. For “Pari”, the clever thing that the writers did was to create a labyrinth questioning the film’s understanding of good and bad itself. This may have left the spectator confused, but the critic mesmerized. It is both an advantage and a setback.
The key to executing this ambiguity is through the character of the professor (Rajat Kapoor), who is first introduced like a mafia-patriarch, indulging his grandchild with food right before we see him in action. Without any introduction or reason, we are made to watch a rape-anxiety torture, where the professor forces women into bathtubs as they scream while their babies are being aborted while he sadistically imposes the smell of incense like cigarette butts in order to ‘calm’ them down. In this dingy room, lower class men in chains surround this spectre where the ‘professor/doctor’ becomes the ‘exorcist’ of women who are normal enough and are trying to escape the harassment of their bodies. It is only later in the movie that we are told that these women are vessels for demon-djinn babies and must be stopped from giving birth.
But this narrative of the doctor is irrelevant because we know that the protagonist Rukhshana (Anushka Sharma) is a victim rather than the victimizer. Her story begins as a release. Her mother had detained her in animal-like captivity and her love for Arnab (Parambrata Chatterjee) is a celebration of freedom which leans towards an idyllic childhood—as she adorns herself with paper flowers— something that she never had. Her sexuality is without shame in comparison to Arnab. His home becomes her rehab and she, an unpredictable monster-protector.
In the spirit of “Let The Right One In”, when Rukhshana leaps down from the morgue closet to bite the staff, the horror is not of her act of subtle revenge for him having hurt her lover, but a full-blown subversion of exorcism-movie horror, where the possessed leap on walls in madness. To an extent, it will be simpler to explain Rukhshana’s affliction as possession by evil, and yet if we look closely, one will realize that the equation is much more nuanced.
Like a werewolf, Rukhshana receives her affliction/powers on the basis of moon cycles/menstruation. The regret in her eyes is evident when her transformation leads her to bite into a street dog’s neck. The theme is borrowed from King’s “Carrie” where the blood remains a constant symbol and where, again, a meek character’s sexuality is transformed into a monstrosity. But it will be more relevant to relate Rukhshana’s long hair and leaping through windows with the folk stories of the ‘Chudail’, a curious legend that still turns up in Indian ghost stories for children and adults alike.
The folktales of the Chudail target the real outcasts. According to the legends, these are the women who ‘seduce’ men in the dark alleyways or die during ‘impure’ childbirths. These also live alone in the forests and enslave animals in large numbers. In “Pari”, the “kuttewali aurat” (Rukhshana’s mother) lives alone in a forest surrounded by dogs. The professor warns Arnab of the seducing ‘web’ that Rukhshana has lain to bear his child. The theme of ‘impure childbirth’ in “Pari” is evident.
The Chudail is a witch of a woman who does not let her sexuality be controlled by any man except the devil – and exists in an alternate world order which revolves around the devil patriarch rather than the God patriarch. In “Pari”, Rukhshana’s body becomes the battleground for both the orders. The professor is no different than the villagers who had the woman raped by a devil in a bizarre ritual. The horror of impregnation is the same as the horror of sadistic abortions, where children’s heads are cut off. The child in the womb is also the struggle of one order prevailing over the other. But as mentioned, Rukhsana is neither in the league with the devil nor the exorcists. Her child is born of ‘love’ and is human.
This dynamics can be translated into a much darker social reality of sex trafficking, which the movie eventually points at. When Arnab takes Rukhshana to an orphanage, both Rukhshana and the viewer turn away in disapproval as children are flogged and are in a place where no child remains a child for long. This is the same world of Indian orphanages depicted in Davis’ “Lion”. West Bengal records the highest rate of sex trafficking and the subhuman rooms of the professor’s prisoners are a reminder of that. In this context, Arnab is the embodiment of everyone privileged enough to wonder what would happen if we could help the beggar around our metro station by handing her over to the authorities, only to realize that the ‘evil’ are these authorities and NGOs/Gurukuls that secretly work as sex trafficking rackets. The forced abortions of these raped women, in order to keep them in circulation and trafficking, is yet another social reality that the movie connects with. The children who are born in such horrid conditions lose their childhood early on and barely have time for fairy tales. “Pari: Not A Fairytale” is then a suitable title.
Eventually, Arnab relives himself of all social responsibility and gives Rukhshana away to the professor. As a result, Rukhshana’s defensive monstrosity is let loose like Carrie, and just like Carrie, she too dies of her own ‘zeher’ – anger which was initially against a world where she had no refuge. Even in death and defeat, these anger fuelled fantasies are important in the narratives of the female body. Elaine Showalter refers to such fantasies as “the anger of a young generation of feminists who will not forgive, excuse, cover up, and accept male abuse.” In this light, “Pari” is a feminist dialogue.