The Politics of Transgressive Horror
Horror is a genre that enables the suspension of rational techniques of storytelling due to its transcendental nature. It lends itself easily to symbolic meaning-making and epic metaphorical language, while enhancing the scope of social commentary veiled in mystery and intrigue. From the nocturnal wanderings of the condemned to eons of myth-making wrapped into neat storylines - the world of Indian horror is as diverse as it is terrifying.
For decades, Indian horror movies have disproportionately focused on the psychosexual anxieties about the innate evil that resides within the feminine body. Plot devices that associated women’s sexuality as a magnate for evil forces (Ragini MMS, 2007), the return of the dead for vengeance (Stree, 2018), ghosts of old-lovers-torn-apart (Bhool Bhulaiyaa, 2007) have been popular. From Kamal Amrohi’s Mahal (1949), to Vikram Bhatt’s 1920 (2008), the general formula has been to combine tragic love plots with the demonic force of the female. The possession or haunting is often followed by exorcist rituals employing religious symbolism carried out by an occultist or a caste priest, reinforcing the inherent power of divinity to resolve the ‘unknown’ or ‘irrational’ in the human realm. For a short stretch of time, the likes of Raaz (2002), Hisss (2010), Alone (2015) gained momentum in the low-effort sub-genre of soft porn masquerading as genuine horror. The intertwining of female sexuality and fear does not bode well without layered representations, for it can enable a lens of the “monstrous-feminine” quality of picturization. This is a concept given by Barbara Creed that refers to the role of gender in the construction of monstrosity; moving beyond victimhood or subservience in classic horror, towards a Freudean framework where the male fear of castration is palpable due to shifting power dynamics. The traversing of conventional morality by the non-paranormal woman and the fear of the “otherworldly” woman’s ability to destabilize the normal has interesting intersections. However, recently, other trends have taken over.
This push towards bringing more parochial narratives in Indian horror movie culture is an ambition we need to dissect with care. In order to avoid the deepening of surviving superstitions, movies need to steer clear of climaxes that get resolved primarily through conservative methods or without a call to disarm ourselves of archaic notions of power. Infusing an “indigenous flavour” does not have to necessarily make stories about salvation through reliance on myths, illusions, the not-so-harmless old wives’ tales passed down from generations. By turning towards the form that religion takes in people’s lives rather than its exclusivity over the supernatural entity’s redemption is a good start. Recent envisionings have made a head start towards avoiding these outdated tropes, to their merit.
Set in twentieth-century Maharashtra, the folk-horror film by Rahi Anil Barve, Tumbadd (2018), tells the story of an ancestral fortune guarded by a sinister monster. Tying together themes around caste-greed, godly wraths and familial ties, it carves a space for showing regional dynamics and localizing the genre. Marginalized identities and the genre of horror films have an interesting dynamic psychologically as well. The lingering fear that pervades a good horror flick is not unlike the everyday realities of those among us who live in precarity - be it social, physical, psychological or financial. Horror can also serve as a safe space through which one can process long-suppressed fear, often bringing parallels by establishing the familiar (the home, the spouse, the family village) as the primary site of terror. While research on the genre’s ability to inculcate critical empathy through visceral fear and paranormal abuse is limited, it opens up new avenues for generation of social commentary.
Think of the parallels between a person traumatized through intergenerational abuse (Pari, 2018), or about entire communities decimated for the gains of capital (Betal, 2020). Pari humanizes the demon-blooded woman, disoriented by the trauma she has undergone by shifting its gaze towards Auladhchakra, the satanic cult that summons the devil to rape women and perpetuate its bloodline. It creates a background to her ‘madness’ as a possessed victim vying for some semblance of normality, of love. The strange combination of her vulnerability and terror-inducing antics make for a textured cinematic representation of complex trauma. It also does well to introduce multidimensionality to the revenge-seeking trope that is supposed to deliver catharsis. Betal, on the other hand investigates the violence against indigenous communities and the legacies of colonial-style capitalist expansion in a far-off village. The zombie horror thriller series explores not just the realm of the living dead (where the counter-insurgency units’ barracks are protected through the Indian tadka of turmeric, ashes and salt - to ward them off), but also the corpses mounting at the expense of the state’s excess in resource-rich regions of the country. While critics have rightfully deemed the four-part Netflix series as convoluted and woefully underwritten, the postcolonial scholar Johan Höglund has argued that the “zombie pandemic that erupts in Betaal is an attempt to render the apocalyptic violence and death that unregulated capitalism performs on ecology and precarious communities.”
A fine example of straddling between these ideas is the comedic horror movie Makdee (2002), a masterclass in dispelling tropes and combining elements of horror to local adaptations that drive home change in an innovative way. A simple backstory (the local witch residing in a haunted mansion) combined with a hilarious twist that delivers a social message styled as a gut-punch to unshackle the plot. Without meaning to, it also carried an implicit messaging that brought a rationalist bent to the film’s ending. In a country where we have the ability to reach uncharted lunar territories, we still have states that partake in witch-hunting practices. While there is definitely a place for action-horror and formulaic survivalist visions within the genre, social critique has carved a unique space of its own in this arena. Between the spectrum of calculated jump-scares and social introspection through the camera, there is a whole lot of space waiting to be filled.
Yusra Khan is a writer and digital policy enthusiast based between Lucknow and Delhi. Her interests are versatile, but she is particularly fascinated by the intersection of politics, labour and technology studies.
Currently, she works at Nvidia as a prompt-writing specialist, bringing human creativity to AI-generated outputs. A film addict since childhood, she is rumored to have rewatched Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na over sixty eight times till date, and doesn't plan to stop.