By Rahul Desai
You fear what you can’t see. That’s the golden rule of horror films. You sense it. You feel it’s lurking around the corner. The invisible ghost is scarier than the visible villain. But this “ghost” isn’t necessarily a supernatural being or blood-thirsty creature. The darkest stories of our times end with “orders from above” rather than begin with “it was a dark and stormy night”. The bleakest tragedies are institutionalized. The horror – of an establishment, a government, a system – is real but intangible.
Some filmmakers understand the mute dread of the individual v/s system narrative. They get that true horror lies in the narrative being controlled – not just by a shadowy organization, but by the all-pervading hierarchy of life. Injustice is the jump scare, and lack of accountability the creaking door. For instance, note the “look” of Anubhav Sinha’s Article 15. When IPS officer Ayan Ranjan takes charge of a ghastly Dalit rape case in a remote village, you can sense the system squeezing him. You sense the decades of cultural conditioning that resent his fresh-faced presence. The murky nights suggest that he is up against the unknown. Phone calls from Delhi – from scrambling superiors – feel like menacing extensions of the booming score (which in turn resembles a slowed-down Jaws theme: the sharks remain unseen). Suspension orders appear out of nowhere. A condescending CBI officer is the voice of a faceless system. The power machinery is sensed in the actions of jittery local cops. The fathers of the slain girls deliver false confessions.
Ava DuVernay replicates this atmospheric hopelessness in When They See Us, a Netflix miniseries based on the 1989 Central Park Jogger case in which five male suspects of colour were wrongfully convicted of the rape and assault of a woman in New York City. As soon as the cops take the five boys into custody, you can sense that their parents have hit an impenetrable wall. A larger force is at play. Their fates are sealed. You can almost see the puppet strings. The boys are forced into fake confessions. The pressure on the detective (Felicity Hoffman) and public prosecutor (Vera Farmiga) is insidious. The pressure of the “State”. Of unidentified people in high positions camouflaging the loopholes in America’s security and justice systems. Of ministers, presidents. A full episode is dedicated to 16-year-old Corey Wise and his hellish stint across three prisons. He is tortured by different wardens and inmates – there is no single perpetrator of his suffering. For every tear he sheds, for every door closing on the future of the other four, you sense the workings of a cagey system designed to preserve the ego of an entire race. Caste and racial bias are merely murder weapons; the corporations that produce these weapons, unchecked, are seldom revealed.
This is why Craig Mazin’s HBO miniseries Chernobyl succeeds as a dramatized version of storytelling, despite the jarring license of language accessibility. (The Soviet-based series is shot in English, with British and European actors playing Russian characters). Both the villains – of nature and human nature – are abstract. Like in Article 15, foggy skies become an allegory for mental contamination. Leading the commission investigating the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster is an atomic scientist named Valery Legasov. On one hand, Valery is the superhero who deduces just how serious the invisible threat of radiation is. The leak cannot be seen, but it kills, slowly and steadily. On the other hand, Legasov is the upright idealist who realizes that the State is the biggest invisible threat of the show. Their power cannot be seen, but they kill the truth, slowly and steadily. The danger is twofold: toxins in the air and fear in the wind.
Even though the system is represented by a KGB chief, there is a sinking feeling about Valery’s pursuit of information. Some camera angles replicate the terror of being followed. The poisonous atmosphere holds particles of radiation and secrets of a country paranoid about their reputation. While the former only destroys a human body, the latter destroys a human life.
Few can withstand the force of agenda. A journalist can do nothing once the “big bosses” decide that stories on certain politicians are banned. A family can do nothing once a superstar runs over their members in a fancy car. Nobody can trace the ominous BCCI call that made Sourav Ganguly go from criticizing MS Dhoni in one World Cup match to unabashedly praising him in the next. Nobody can pinpoint the precise moment the fascist system turned against whistleblowing Gujarat ex-cop Sanjiv Bhatt. Nobody can see the ominous decision-making that unleashed a CBI probe onto filmmaker Anurag Kashyap after he voiced his dissent against the oppressive CAA-NRC bill. Nobody can trace the bullying hierarchy of the government that sent a German student home for taking part in India’s anti-fascism protests.
The ‘powers that be’ is the most dangerous – and unfilmable – antagonist of modern civilization. It is the sole reminder that horror is the most socio-political emotion of life. The ghost that goes ‘boo!’ emerges in top-down fashion.