By Rahul Desai
I was around 9 years old when I watched Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. My father insisted we watch it together on videotape – he wanted his only son to experience the phenomenon he did in theaters two decades ago. He anticipated every jump-scare and moment of slow-burning dread in the film. But to his credit, he stayed quiet and chose to enjoy the sight of his kid reacting to the live-action nightmare. My mother was not pleased. The timing was a tad off: I was learning how to swim in the colony pool that summer. My father thought it would be a funny test of character. As it turns out, I spent the next week treating our totalitarian coach as a “Great Brown Shark” who wanted to devour innocent children. I brought mud in from the garden to sprinkle it around the pool so that it resembled the beach of Amity Island. I’d encourage everyone to swim away from him, even dramatically ad-libbing the Jaws theme when he came closer. At one point, I even tried to rescue a 5-year-old he was training, but ended up alerting the child’s parents for the wrong type of predator. My father had introduced me to Calvin and Hobbes earlier that year, so Jaws had turned me into an imagination monster.
I rewatched Jaws as a teenager struggling to make friends in a new city. We lived next to a beach; I’d spend most evenings walking there introspectively and peering into the distant horizon. I suddenly started to see life from the lens of that lonely and misunderstood shark who drifted to human shores in search of food and shelter. I sympathized with the Great White every time I sat alone in the college canteen, inviting hesitant glances from groups who walked past the new “out-of-town” student. The shark was not the villain, I’d tell my father after coming home early every day. He took me for long drives around the city, playing my favourite songs and making up lofty stories about landmarks (like Calvin’s dad) even if he had no idea what he was talking about. Thinking about the shark’s fate made me emotional. There were times when I’d look into the bloodthirsty creature’s blank eyes – for instance, when it was chomping on an arrogant Quint – and fantasize about doing the same to all the classmates who never spoke to me.
My reading of Jaws came of age only during my mid-twenties. I realized that it wasn’t about me. This was a decade in which my father became a shadow of the person he once was. Unable to deal with life and pressure in the big city, he reluctantly moved back to our hometown: a place he had vowed to never retreat to. A forced rehabilitation stint for his alcoholism had made him bitter. He considered rehab to be a sign of his family – and the world at large – losing faith in his ability to be a responsible man. It was, for him, an act of abandonment. Despite losing one job after another, he insisted that he had more than one final hurrah in him; he kept applying to high-profile companies, determined to prove that he was a functional drinker who had only suffered the misfortune of working with the wrong people. It was never his fault. A persecution complex drove him forward at the cost of several friendships and blood bonds. Until then, I had always looked at Jaws as a story of external conflict: man v/s wild, human v/s water, shark v/s captors. But in my head, the film was slowly starting to morph into a tale of internal conflict and metaphorical demons.
This was when I stopped watching Jaws for its visceral elements, for its thrills and craft. It was no longer a movie for me. I began to see my father as the desperate human protagonist of the film. Police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) is leading a content life at the beginning of Jaws: loving wife, smart children, a community that respects him, a job that massages his ego. Once the shark attacks begin, Chief Brody enters a relentless cycle of mental turmoil, self-doubt and redemptive quests. He suspects it’s a deadly shark, but everyone else is in denial. The tourist town’s greedy mayor overrides his instincts so often that Brody loses the trust of his loved ones. He spirals out of control. He hits the bottle; his wife and kids become concerned for his psychological health. The locals look at him as a nuisance.
One specific scene would often move me. Brody goes to the beach with his family, hoping to have a quiet afternoon and reconnect with his children. But he’s so obsessed with the idea of being right – rather than being the protector society expects him to be – that he mistakes a school of fish for the giant shark. He raises an alarm, yelling at panicked vacationers, sending them scurrying out of the water. Once his gaffe is exposed, his wife and children look pained and embarrassed. They barely recognize him anymore. He is dismissed as a deluded man way past his prime. But Brody never stops believing. His troubles speak to the factitious relationship between my father and those who know him. He is so used to being written off by us that he reimagines himself as an underdog: as a victim who must single-handedly beat the odds to prove everyone wrong. Every time he gets ahead of himself and treats a job interview as a mere formality – one that precedes a life of chauffeur-driven cars, a plush salary and posh house – it’s like watching Brody mistake the tiny fish for the brooding predator.
Soon after that scene, Brody is proven right about a man-eating shark terrorizing the shores of the small beachtown. But this isn’t enough for him. Brody, a police chief who cares little for crimes on land, sets out in a hunting boat with two marine specialists. Brody’s journey on this boat hits close to home, too, because the two other men on the mission are emblematic of the opposing facets of my father’s personality; they are the two voices in his head. Quint (Robert Shaw), the rugged shark fisherman, represents the brash and lawless part of my father’s quest – the part that keeps rewriting a CV with fictional details and incorrect birth dates, the part that gets frustrated with HR professionals who fail to get him a meeting, the part that lies about his finances and credit card bills, the part that stops at nothing to capture a phantom future. In other words, Quint is the devil on his shoulder. In contrast, consulting oceanographer Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) is the angel on his shoulder. He is the logical and composed dimension of my father’s quest – the part that is genuinely passionate about marketing and branding, the part that impresses potential bosses with his knowledge and foresight, the part that walks the talk and doesn’t mind entering a shark cage for the greater good of his family.
It’s no coincidence that we see Brody swimming towards the shore with Hooper in the final shot of the film. It’s an image of Brody returning with his sanity and without his hubris. It reflects my wish where, over time, my father’s Quint gets eaten alive and his bookish Hooper pops up from the ocean bed to surprise everyone with his survival instincts. Perhaps he identified with the police chief very early in life; maybe he wanted me to identify the essence of Jaws while I was still learning how to swim. Because in many ways, much like Brody, my father was an amalgamation of the hunter and the hunted. At times, he chased work and the fragments of a failed marriage with the unerring courage of a man reaching deep waters in pursuit of redemption. At others, jobs and domestic crises chipped away at him and threatened to swallow him whole, like a Great White mauling the fragile fisherboat.
I didn’t know it then, but Chief Brody wasn’t the only one defined by the hunter-hunted duality of Jaws. My father was also the lonely shark I once resonated with. Every new position he landed was based in a different city, country and culture. His office conflicts were rooted in the hostility and passive aggression that local colleagues subjected him to. He was invariably labeled as the outsider: someone who was intruding on alien shores and preying on the livelihoods of those who stayed there. When he drove his brooding son around in a new city, perhaps he too was trying to distract himself from the sort of office politics that often triggered his drinking problem. The landmarks he made up for me were probably his devices of escapism, too. Evidently, the shark in Jaws is a potent metaphor for the modern immigrant experience. When seen from the beach, its fin looks ominous; but in the water, the fin is the only visible portion of a body engaged in a battle for survival and self-preservation. That the shark dies a gory death near a capsized boat in the middle of an ocean only drives home the haunting allegory.
The tragedy is that everyone, to this day, blames the shark for being too hungry and ruthless. Just like everyone – including myself – blamed my father for not quitting in the face of societal rejection. But the enduring beauty of my father’s life is that it has always been suspended somewhere between the jaws of victory and defeat. He never saved the day like Chief Brody did. But he also never perished like Bruce, the brave shark, did. My father is both and neither at once. As we paddle towards the twilight of our relationship while clutching onto a plank of broken wood, I’d like to believe that the nine-year-old and teenage me are waiting at the beach with bated breath. Hopefully, they won’t be able to tell the father from the son and the man from the beast. After all, a fin signals the presence of a shark just as a family reveals the capacity to love.