Julia Kristeva, in The Powers of Horror states that horror is a form of abjection, a confrontation with the unrecognizable other that cannot be assimilated, that lies beyond the scope of “the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable” […] and which “beseeches, worries, and fascinates desire, which, nevertheless, does not let itself be reduced” (Kristeva 1982: 1). Kristeva’s reading of horror relies on a subversion of the Lacanian understanding of the ‘lost object’, the lack that defines the symbolic, language, the ‘other’ of all that is comprehensible and translatable, a part of the semiotic, a form of language that escapes and lies ‘before’ symbolic language. For her, the abject, a repelling of all that is repulsive, unassimilable in the symbolic is definitive of identity but a confronting of the same undoes identity, for the object of abjection is neither a part of the unconscious nor the conscious, but always-already liminal. In such a theoretical context, the horrific object/subject forms part of all that is in excess of the symbolic order and deeply connected to the maternal, non-differential order prior to language but not of the imaginary, bringing to focus the role of the interstices, the liminal in thinking about subjectivisation.
Suspending for the time being feminist philosopher, Judith Butler’s critical reading of Kristeva’s theorization of the semiotic as an attempt at essentialising femininity, reproductive motherhood and the phallic order, instead of reading in it the already present politics of heteronormative patriarchy perpetuating its culturally produced binaries and exclusions as natural and ontological, to which I shall have to return to invariably, one may see a powerful resonance in the way in which both Kristeva and Butler speak about the abject as the very limits of symbolic discourse and thus productive of desire and threat simultaneously (Butler, 2006). For Butler, the abject is not related to horror but nevertheless forms the limits of understanding, the untenable boundaries of differential subjectivity, whose unviability is a product of power and the fixed classification of categories of identity which the abject resists with her un-categorizable body. Hence, in Butler, abjection is a failure to be socialized, a “failure to comply with the law”, thus a form of (non) being that poses a resistance to the law by its unwillingness to be ‘read’ by it (Butler 1993: 105). Thus it is that ‘in-betweenness’ of the symbolic produces abjection, for Kristeva through an expulsion that founds, and for Butler a non-repetition that confounds. Both read this space as a site of resistance to the heteropatriarchal laws that govern and reproduce subjectivity. This paper takes its cue from that shared but uneven site to think about the question of horror, abjection and feminist justice –seeking and/or subversion in a contemporary Bollywood film that foregrounds these conjunctions even as it orders them through ‘masquerade’ as a tool of revenge and horror.
Masquerade is a term that the paper, and my research on cinema at large, employs to signify a central feature of Bollywood cinema that incorporates bodily performance as well as gender ‘performativity’ that is central to this cinema. ‘Masquerade’ in this sense, is deployed in Bollywood cinema (even before it came to call itself ‘Bollywood) as a tool of comedy, resolution and inter-subjectivity that needs critical attention. The term, as it is used here, draws deeply upon Judith Butler’s deployment of it as performative gender subversion that critiques normative identity but extends its ambit to include tropes and uses specific to Bollywood films that are embedded in a destabilization of rationalist and singular subjectivity. Instances of this ‘other’ form of subjectivisation include double roles, mistaken identity, twins, cross-dressing, re-incarnation, re-birth and disguise, all concepts and tropes that have endured through cinematic history. ‘Masquerade’, I argue is both trope and tool in Bollywood cinema that enables a theory of cinema, and the body/identity politics therein, from an insider’s perspective foregrounding a very specific form of ‘doing’ identity that is structured around multiplicity, splitting, confounding and repetition that are anti-foundationalist and hybrid and need to be contextualized within the intersections and interstices of a variegated cultural and aesthetic history. This paper focalizes the relationship between masquerade and horror in the construction of feminine subjectivity, an intersection where aspects of horror such as madness, abjection and pretense become powerful tools of gender subversion. It argues that reading feminine horror as a genre and ‘concept-metaphor’ in popular cinema, through the lens of masquerade opens up the critical intersections between cultural liminality, abjection and re-writing of the ‘other’ from a feminist and post-colonial perspective that rejects the possibility of reading Bollywood through theory produced ‘outside’ of its semiotic territory.
Horror in Bollywood cinema has many ends and beginnings but there is a stark relationship between women and horror that both occupy that position and subverts the laws of the symbolic by inducing, suffering and becoming untenable and abominable. The paper reads the film Ek Hasina Thi (dir. Sriram Raghavan, 2004) as a text that engages with the politics of horror in relation to masquerade and feminine subjectivity even as it moves through other films that present the question of fear, phobia and avenging or subversive femininity. The title of the film is a deliberate reference to a self-reflexive cinematic inversion as it is taken from a song from the film Karz (1980) which narrates the story of a murderous young woman who kills her lover and the film deploys the masquerade of reincarnation and past life memory to seek revenge. Given its self-contextualisation through repetition, within an existing narrative of revenge, it is also significant to note the layers of masquerade the film, like most Bollywood cinema is engaged in. For whom, is revenge being sought, beyond the immediate story and what aspects of cinematic memory and disguise are being brought to bear upon the present narrative through the name, are questions worth interrogating.
Loosely resembling a Hollywood noir style with low-light shots, femme fatale tropes and non-frontal camera angles, and narratively closer to the avenging woman mode of films, Ek Hasina Thi is not a stereotypical horror film, falling in the ambivalent territory between horror, thriller and the revenge film. It is for that reason a deliberate choice as a text that opens up and confronts the layered, complex and multi-faceted uses of the tenacious relationship between feminine subjectivity, horror, revenge and, most significantly, the politics of resistance located therein, bringing even the question of genre as a mode of structuring and containment into a “productive crisis”(Butler 1993: 10).
Read through the politics of ‘masquerade’ brining to bear upon it a feminist theorisation of abjection in Kristeva and Butler, the film is read as an instance of a feminist re-writing of the ‘avenging women’ genre. While the film drinks deeply from conventional cinematic approaches to revenge and reclamation of agency by ‘occupying’ or raiding the masculine law, a “theft of the paternal phallus” but introduces newer post-modernist aesthetics calibrated around socio-economic changes in the narrative of feminine revenge that beg unpacking (Gopalan 2002: 55). The re-writing that goes beyond rape narratives, or becoming a vigilante or law-abiding figure mimetic of masculine corporeality, articulates a desire to map the avenging woman against a climate of neo-liberalism and globalization where markers of modernity and its relationship with women’s freedom, mobility and agency are foregrounded as sites of threat and in need of a newer language of personal vindication. Horror and criminality offer themselves as objects that create new gestures of disguise and impersonation that subvert, often by strategically essentialising or hyper-activating essentialist subjectivities (Spivak, 1990:51).
The paper finds Kristeva’s engagement with horror from a psychoanalytic and feminist stance critical to understanding the way in which suspense and horror are signified via the body of the ‘terrified woman’, who in turn is object of horror as she takes the matter of her revenge into her own hands. This is particularly significant when regarded through the star body of the actress Urmila Matondkar who is known to have constructed an identity that veers around the tropes of horror and noir (having essayed the roles of psychopath, obsessive lover) and most importantly within women-centric roles that have challenged the normative hetero-patriarchal romantic structures of Bollywood films (Kaun, Pyaar Tuney Kya Kiya, Naina, Rangeela). The paper also engages, albeit briefly, with the question of ‘abject’ as theorized in the work of Judith Butler in her reading of ‘drag’ and expressions of self in transgender identity, placing it in dialogue with Kristeva’s work, even as it deploys Butler’s immensely productive linking of the idea of abjection to masquerade in order to read the film as a moment of deploying masquerade against the law of the father (in the form of lover, state and the police) to seek forms of justice that focalise the body as site of resistance. Further, the foregrounding of the masquerade of horror (including madness, obsessive behaviour and psychopathy) as productive of feminine subjectivity and resistance will also be read for possibilities of a feminist, queer and anti-rationalist way of thinking about identity, the body and cinema in the way it destabilizes several boundaries that forge identity.
Fear and Abjection as Site and Strategy of Subversion
Fear, is inextricably connected to the unknowable rather than the unknown, that which exceeds rational and symbolic expression and that which is often denied or erased, returning to disgust and/or intimidate, in its irreducibility. In cleaving the story of a young woman’s life between a protected past and a resistive future/present marked by rupture, the film EHT engages with trauma as producing a form of unknowability and the way in which the traumatic body resignifies horror and becomes perpetuator of horror from being horrified.
Such a logic cannot be explained through the Lacanian notion of a repressed or lost other returning to haunt the symbolic through nostalgia or distortion of reality (Zizek 1992: 13). Kristeva’s reading of horror interrupts and contests a conservative psychoanalytic approach to horror, as the return of the repressed in the cultural or social imaginary and reads it instead as an exclusionary, repulsed and rejected otherness that is both definitive of and shares territory with because of the ambiguity in the binary between self and other, in our construction of subjectivity. She defines the abject as that which has been repelled and rejected from the body and forms the liminal space between ‘self’ and ‘other’, marking the very lines that sustain a sense of self. Thus ‘horror’ or the ‘abject’ do not belong to a (problematic) a priori of consciousness but rather exist in an in-between space, marked by the memory of a painful separation from the mother’s body. The abject, because it is, not unlike masquerade, a corporeal sign of ambivalence and liminality, contains within it the power to subvert the law and demonstrate the fragility of the law. There is a parallel between such a reading of abjection as a marker of fragility and subversion of the law and the narrative of the film at hand that locates the tool of revenge primarily upon bodily masquerade and subversion of power. Yet, the binary structuring of the film, mimetic of Bollywood’s own need for resolution through duality is problematic in the way it attempts to organize the disorientation of masquerade and murder, attempting to frame the subversion within heteronormative terms, which the paper will address shortly.
When the film opens we are introduced to Sarika (Urmila Matondkar), a young woman working as a travel agent with a desk job, living alone in the city of Mumbai, who seems attached to her parents with whom she is shown to be speaking on the phone several times, and someone who seems excessively harangued by a mostly unidentifiable sense of threat owing to, presumably, her life alone in the city. She is excessively nervous as the phone or doorbell rings, represented here as modern signs of intrusion and surveillance of her anonymous and deracinated lifestyle. A leery looking neighbour is shown to enter her house under the pretext of delivering clothes and tries to make verbal sexual advances which she wards off categorically, even though with the same shaky demeanour. Having established Sarika to be a ‘good girl’ who is uninterested in exploring the city or her anonymity for pleasure, and as someone who is well aware of the sexual threat that the city presents, the film introduces Karan (Saif Ali Khan) a suave looking young man who pays her attention and stalks her under the pretext of wanting to get to know her better. Here the film shows the young woman to be initially weary of him but soon extremely vulnerable to his lies and manipulation as he proceeds to win her heart in love, playing upon popular myths about women being unable to discern or take care of themselves in the city. It also indicates the presence of globalisation as a greater threat in the way it masquerades through language, class and other endemic hierarchies, leaving a woman vulnerable to the charming ways of an English-speaking educated young man while she is able to ward off working class or unpolished men who intrude upon her space.
The film has Karan use the oft repeated construction of masculine heroism in popular films, of paternalistic protectionism to both seduce and confound Sarika, thus feminizing the audience and exposing this attitude in itself to be a form of middle-class disguise with the potential for harm. Karan’s false demonstration of care and protection reveals the way in which the perpetuation of this myth of the threat of the big city is itself a cause of harm to women and more significantly shows protectionist masculinity to be a garb, a form of violence produced and coded as romantic love and courtship. Soon enough the protagonist begins to trust this man and is framed in a murder case that lands her in jail to serve a life term. There are layers of manipulation involved as both her boyfriend and his lawyer trick her into ‘owning’ up to a crime she has not committed. The police led by a woman inspector (Seema Biswas) is shown to be convinced of her crime and her parents rendered shocked and helpless. In jail, the young woman finds protection and solidarity with an older woman, the wife of a gangster who saves her from violence from another inmate and helps her reclaim her strength.
This mentoring leads to a complete transformation in the young woman, whose attitude takes a final turn during a visit by her lover while she is in jail, at the precise moment that she catches him glance at the lawyer he is in cohorts with, and smile knowingly while locked in an embrace with her. This moment dramatizes a form of ‘knowing’ that fragments and self-reflects perception with the help of the mirror as a prop, an early indication of the eerie splitting of identity that the young woman will soon inhabit even as it reminds us of the doubleness of normative masculinity and civil society that will lead her there, challenging the feminised audience’s cognitive assumptions around (cinematic) subjectivity. The young woman escapes from prison to avenge her injustice and finally returns to the same space, having completed the radical overturning of identities, of becoming her own ‘other’ and finding justice and freedom in a space designed to punish and incarcerate for breaking the law.
The moment that the turn in attitude occurs for the young woman, who is already militarised by her life and tutelage in prison, is a significant one as it demonstrates through her gaze the operation of a male concentric alliance, literally through and against the body of a woman where her lover winks and smiles knowingly at his corrupt lawyer friend after having convinced her of his innocence and good intentions even as he holds her in an embrace, behind her back. Except that, by being placed next to a mirror, which allows the young woman to catch a glimpse of the ‘other’ face of her lover, she confronts the alliance and the duplicity simultaneously and we are given the radical shift in her face thereafter through a close-up. In a Levinasian moment her understanding of her lover relays her to us in abject pathos, with empathy rather than through the gaze of knowledge or the male gaze that had thus far seen her as naïve, vulnerable, foolish and a pawn in the larger scheme of things. This may also be Bollywood’s own self-reflexive take on the possibilities of pleasure and power encased in cinema.
It is in relation to the other, particularly pertinent in the placing of the mirror, which returns her an answer rather than a reflection of preconceived knowing, that we ‘see’ her as irreducible to the gaze and this rupture in perception is definitive of the process of revenge, empathy and subjectivisation that occurs from this moment onwards, where mask and reality merge in a transformative relationality that allows for justice (Levinas: 2007: 8). From here on the film tells the story of her revenge through a corporeality that deploys innocence as a garb, as “strategic essentialism”, where the essentialisation of a heteronormative feminine identity (confusion, softness, vulnerability and delirium) is knowingly used to seek revenge (Spivak 1990: 51). Sarika uses her invisibility as an unassertive middle-class woman to snoop, climb walls and murder unnoticed and unsuspected. She pretends to still be in love with Karan when she sees him, taking delight in role-playing her own previous naïve and lovelorn self as he trusts her with his life which she plans to take. The loss and recalibration of identity, the literal climbing of borders, fences and walls, the moments of pretended madness and bewilderment, the utter disrespect for the law shown by Sarika in the second half of the film renders her abject and simultaneously endows her with subversive power.
As Kristeva explains,
It is thus not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite. The traitor, the liar, the criminal with a good conscience, the shameless rapist, the killer who claims he is a savior. . . Any crime, because it draws attention to the fragility of the law, is abject. (Kristeva 1982: 4)
In framing the workings of the mafia and its downfall through the eyes of a single woman seeking revenge, the film interrupts the legacy of mafia films, another form of patrilineal law, that place women at the periphery of the narrative, such as the cult classic, The Godfather trilogy (1972, 1974, 1990). The phallic distribution of characteristics such as passive, doubting, loving and naïve are not just reversed but made into façade thus turning intrinsic and embedded signs into floating signifiers or by reproducing the feminine through a corrosion of the law, her abjection becomes a site of resistance to the law. Sarika literally ‘enters’ through windows and guises the male concentric spaces and ‘understands’ the working of the alliances before toppling them, a visual manifestation of entering and decoding the symbolic, before raiding it. She uses her mind as much as body to not so much attack her abusers as let them crumble on their own using the same breakdown of trust that she is made subject to, thus making vulnerability to lies, naivety and doubtfulness into signifiers of masculinity.
While there is a rich body of work in Bollywood, Hollywood and other cinematic traditions, such as Japanese and Korean anime and Manga, of the female avenger and this film draws from those multiple genres, it differs from many of the normative narratives such as Kill Bill (2003) and Khoon Bhari Maang (1988) by steering clear of avenging some form of patriarchal honour (particularly outside of the family as a structure of oppression or convention or love/honour) by taking revenge solely for a deeply personal and singular emotional betrayal. This isolation is both structural and thematic given the relationship of the narrative to narratives of globalisation, urbanisation and the fast emerging ‘small-town girl’ trope. Of particular interest to this paper is the woman-to-woman mentoring and affection that occurs inside the prison. The young woman, with the help of the prison matriarch figure, escapes to avenge her wrongs and sets in motion a chain of events that allows the carefully stacked pieces of this structure of power and money to crumble, falling on each other in mutual anger and distrust. It is the gaze of this quasi-maternal, quasi-mentor figure that Sarika comes into being, nurtured within a space that is on the fringes of civil society, the women’s prison cell.
Abjection and Cinematic Liminality
Cinema, in a way, is also the mirror that ‘invokes’ rather than ‘understands’, a Levinasian face because of its fundamental structure as a moving-image, one that does not give itself to a totality but only gestures towards realities (Deleuze 1986: 1). The narrative progression is now situated in a non-male gaze, a gaze of ambivalence and mostly empathy and it is through the eyes of the young woman, who has thus far appeared as a helpless pawn, that we learn of the deep nexus of blood and money which is the seedbed of the underworld/mafia corporation that the man is a part of. Cinema as a mirror, a border between spectator and spectacle, real and unreal is also reconfigured when the audience is kept in the dark about Karan’s intentions (achieved through the camera following him beyond Sarika’s gaze to reveal sincerity in his behaviour) and then discomfited when the innocent young girl turns murderous, keeping her innocence as a pleasure-inducing masquerade. The scopophilia of the film lies in a mirroring of male desire back to itself in a way that is horrific and empties the gaze of pleasure while assigning pleasure in parodying the presumed fixity of woman as object desirable, fearful or in some way enabling of masculine transformations. And yet, it is never enough to say that the spectator is feminized for one must ask after the politics of that femininity that the spectator is now passing as.
In his theorization of simulation, Baudrillard argues that in a world of hyperreality the borders that sustain binaries such as ‘truth’ and ‘false’ are threatened and traditional psychology which relies on a distinction between ‘real’ and ‘unconscious’ must rethink its capacity to explain human conditions (Baudrillard 2006: 2-3). While a Lacanian theorist such as Zizek would argue that cinema presents a sequence of events that in losing such distinctions, in defamiliarisation, in the looking differently at reality confronts the repressed or the ‘lost object’, it is significant to note that either way, simulation and cinema (as a form of simulated reality) are credited with a dissolution of normative boundaries of identity and often self-reflexively mirror this anti-rationalist play of differences or the loss thereof (Zizek 1992: 4). In this film for instance, Karan plays a game with Sarika, when he attempts to undermine her confidence in her own ability to discern between lies and falsities, and he speaks a series of truths which are so alarming to her that she chooses to call them lies and he neither denies nor confesses. Sarika’s raiding of this always-already unstable symbolic order, where language and truths are shown to be a question of power by ‘becoming other’, is cinema’s self-reflexive moment where it foregrounds its mode of mirroring or disturbing mimesis as inherently threatening to finite distinctions between ‘true’ and ‘false’ and a scoping of pleasure in the ambivalence and subversive possibilities of that liminality.
Feminine Paranoia as Masquerade
Before venturing further into Sarika’s transformation one must enquire about the nature of horror generated by the excessively anxious, paranoid female body, constructed and undercut by an all-consuming male gaze. Who/what is this body, and whether it is a product of fantasy but one that limits the productive power of the consuming and controlling gaze, which seeks to often eroticise this terrified object of the gaze, in being excessive and exaggerated requires thinking through. EHT, falling more into the genre of a thriller, has a complex gaze through which the character of Sarika is represented and the subversion is less a twist and more a dramatization of trauma, a narration of transformation and then a strategic deployment of the ‘innocent young woman’ façade by a femme fatale figure. The split that the transformation occasions creates an excess, an otherness in identity, an uncontainable multiplicity by ‘becoming’ two in oneself.
Kristeva writes of non-mimetic logic that where one is not like someone else, when one is lost or seeking, the self can be said to experience ‘jouissance’ the ‘I’ that the self is, is heterogeneous precisely when ruptured from its anchor (Kristeva 1982: 10). This, for Kristeva, is the power of horror, the power of the ‘abject’ which is always marked by an excess, a liminality and even jouissance in the dissolution of differences. Abjection, an exclusion from the accepted symbolic order, is not ‘the repressed’ or the ‘lost object’ so much as an exclusion, a rejection or a repetition that occurs at the limits of consciousness. It is, among other things a “corporeal sign” (nutritive, sexual) that is neither in the “realm of the unconscious” nor in a space where consciousness has “assumed its rights either” (Kristeva 1982: 11). The re-writing of the avenging woman through the unstable, paranoid woman renders that subjectivity abject in precisely this manner, through expulsion and/or ambivalence. Her fear and murderous desire for revenge is perverse, a loss of integration in the normative circulation of signs, her corporeality a bringing to crisis of an unsustainable femininity, parodic, perverse and horrific in its shaky, clammy excess. If there is a power to be claimed in this it must be through a breakdown of femininity but never beyond or outside the recognizable signs of that subjectivity – its power resting in a liminality that draws from the body in crisis. This liminality of horror is also precisely what the film extends to a revenge-seeking Sarika, where her ‘real’ identity is no longer real and she can use innocence as a masquerade to wreak havoc in the life of her culprit. The spectator too is drawn into the same ambivalence and liminal space, not mimetically but in a way that allows them pleasure in the abjection and in the reclaiming of power by the abject, all framed within a narrative of crime and punishment outside of the law.
This is reminiscent of Butler’s argument against taking masquerade to mean a literal mask, for that assumes an essentialism in the ‘I’ that is separate from the performance or performativity of gender, an ‘I’ that can choose, or as she argues in “Lacanian parlance assume a sex” or discard at will their gender (Butler 1993: 12). Rather, for Butler gender is a routinisation of norms, a subversion of which demonstrates the way in which repeated citation of certain norms and ideals produce, according to the workings of power, a semblance of essentialism and as she asserts, it is indeed possible to use the category ‘woman’ “tactically” without fixing its contours (Butler 1993: 29). The body’s materiality, according to Butler, has a history and is far from being natural or essential; it is historically contingent and produced through power. Unlike Kristeva, then, for Butler even a theorization of the abject is produced by the phallic order that seeks to erase and repel it, hence without the false binary of an absolute outside. Butler demonstrates the ways in which this very act of repulsion and abjection is an effect of a productive power, contingent upon histories of bodies that have, over time, created the effect of a material truth. The forms of ‘masquerade’ discussed here often involve a deliberate choosing of the impersonation but in the repetition and significance of that choice, in the splitting of identity that it produces and in the ambivalences and bodily transformations and subversions it generates there occurs a Butlerian critique of the essentialism assumed in identity.
If cinema, as argued earlier, is always already masquerade as mode, what boundaries of the body and subjectivity are dissolved or re-written in the act of turning an essentialist identity formation as strategy by citing it as differently, as this film does, as an object of play is a question worth deliberating over. Why masquerade works as a tool of subversion in this film is in the way the film reveals middle-class paternalistic masculinity in itself to be a masquerade thus placing forms of masquerade against each other to generate a mimetic construction of femininity that is reminiscent of the philosophical stance of French Feminism, particularly Irigaray and Kristeva, in the way in which it suggests that if feminine identity is phallogocentric, a male construct then miming it differently ought to produce a subversive effect. To that effect, the splitting of feminine identity into two clear halves, is metaphorically redolent of Irigaray’s assertion that female body is in itself double, located upon a poetic and anti-phallogocentric reading of the female genitalia as cleaved or divided into two halves in perpetual proximity, self-sufficient and self-pleasuring leading to a “disruptive excess” (Irigaray 1985: 78).
To that effect, the avenging woman mode is a ‘feminist’ mode, not only, as Gopalan has argued, as a theft of power from the phallus but also in negating the power of the phallus to fork identity by claiming that women’s identity is already forked and marked by a multiplicity, an excess that is not reducible to the centricism of the masculine or heteronormative order1. The avenging woman mode is also a form of feminist masquerade in that it locates a split not within the phallus, the lack or split that is definitive of masculine and feminine binaries, but rather renders the very notion of a singular feminine identity a myth, always-already split, as Irigaray argues through the female body which is already double or two (Irigaray 1985: 23). Thus, in the film too revenge and abjection are re-materialised according to a tactical parody of mimetic feminine corporeality that is no longer marked by male envy and hence appropriates the phallus as seen in revenge films that deploy the law or brawn to avenge wrong-doing, but mimes its own sex in becoming dual and de-centred. This is also what feminist masquerade in film presents us with, the idea of a non-binary duality which rejects the idea of absolute difference and questions the centrality of the phallic law and primal/maternal/oedipal loss as founding of identity. The loss, it seems in this genre stems from a rejection of the paternal law to accommodate the very femininity it produces thus generating its own excess or subversion and ultimately, as in this film, this loss is cultural and performative, an aesthetic and political site that allows for a re-signification of corporeal myths around femininity.
Horror as Inversion of Space: Home and the Prison
Houses play an important role in both films, as they are seen as the last sanctuary for women within the sexist formulation that curbs women’s corporeal movement and freedom by insisting on the rewards of domesticity and surveillance, a myth that perpetuates more violence against women by circumscribing their freedoms, crippling them against resisting harm within homes and domestic situations and depriving them of a necessary participation in public life, justifying chaperoning and paternalistic protection.
The threat ushered in by urbanization and neo-liberalism is located upon the possibilities presented to women in anonymity and a possible breaking away from the ‘law of the father’ configured as the husband, father or joint family network. The loss of authority over female autonomy is intimidating to patriarchy, so horror must return this Lacanian ‘lost object’ in the form of a breakdown of the isolation and protection provided by the home, in locating a pervasive threat in the figure of the masculine stranger, constructing female autonomy through the male gaze that reproduces the law through the horror of the punishment for breaking the law or simply as alienation and/or isolation. Here too the house is produced as a site that contains at its threshold the ‘other’ which threatens to break through, disturbing the symbolic order and separation of private and public, a separation intrinsic to language. Stammering, loss of cognition and breakdown of speech in the protagonist are markers of this fraying of boundaries, given the systemic connection between domesticity, order, purity and the law of the father. The house is produced as a site that is erected upon the repressed and bounded by the expelled, always-already threatened by its possible subversion.
The prison on the other hand, a site of modern disciplinary mechanism as Foucault (1995) has argued, is constructed in the narrative as a space of camaraderie, rather than the isolation of middle-class modernity and urbanization, thus locating at the periphery of the harshest forms of modern corporeal disciplining a re-calibration of the body and a home in a space of anti-home. While Sarika’s educated friend from work is shown to be completely ineffectual in her support for Sarika, chaperoned as she is by a controlling brother who takes her away as she attempts to testify for her in the police station, the women within the prison are shown to offer greater support to her, to form alliances that are not filial or based on class allegiance but formed through their abjection and antithetical position to the law. The logic of this inversion, where the spaces believed to be protective, communitarian and sacrosanct are shown to be facades of freedom and solidarity and those meant to be illicit, punitive and harsh shown to be liberating and compassionate is in keeping with the way in which middle-class ethos stands critiqued as a false persona in the film. A sense of distrust that, can be understood as a reflection of a changing demographics and urban-rural dynamics due to liberalism and urbanization, pervades the film but instead of containing it within a meta-narrative of morality, the film locates resistance in a play of opposites, over-turning binaries and forming Deleuze and Guattarian rhizomatic conjunctions that are anti-hegemony (Deleuze and Guattari 2005: 19). Thus the film enacts an extreme turnaround, becoming its own other; the innocent is/becomes terrible, the criminal is/becomes compassionate, prison is/becomes home to where Sarika finally returns after leaving Karan alone in a desolate cave full of rats, the very creatures whom she feared as a marker of her middle-class well-bred femininity and so on.
Ek Hasina Thi, provides a particularity of being for its protagonist, in spite of following a similar technique in representing single living, this exaggerated portrayal a sign of the threat it presents to the hetero-patriarchal imagination and/or society. The home as site of terror also arrests the idea of domesticity as site of melodrama and conjugal romance or conflict and re-produced liminally as phantasmagoric site of threat (Mulvey 1989: 64). There is a scene where Sarika, after making love to Karan enters the kitchen and screams with horror at a rat scuttling past. Karan rebukes her horror and traps the rat while she pleads with fear and pity to not kill it. The rat as a repulsive object/abject of domestic order which is meant to keep the threat of ‘outside’ from reaching ‘inside’ returns as the weapon of choice used by Sarika to avenge her exploitation. In the penultimate scene, she leaves Karan trapped inside an isolated cave filled with rats that begin to climb all over him as he screams and writhes and the camera fades out. The domestic and the abject are both inverted completely here as Sarika does not kill the rat but allies with it to kill, having turned the outside inside by leaving Karan to live (and die) alone in a cave, a metaphorical and parodic return to an Oedipal fantasy and a subversion of the outside into horror-filled and womb-like inside/home.
Unlike the religious and mythological stereotypes associated with avenging woman tropes, such as ferocious and avenging mother goddesses such as Durga or Kali, which the final chapter of this thesis engages with at greater length, the trope in this film, as in the film Kaun, is masquerade itself. There is a foregrounding of the idea of mutability that, as has been argued, has to do with the promises and exhortations of liberal capitalism as much as it has to do with anti-rationalist traditions that carry traces of mythology, particularly re-incarnation and repetition, oral traditions, forms of colonial and post-colonial bio-power and unresolvable desires of a nationalist imaginary and a ‘global’ consumerist spectatorial politics.
The transformations in the economic and the geo-political terrain of the nation and their collusion with hetero-patriarchy are brought to bear on narratives around women and their autonomy (seen in other horror film narratives such as Phobia and 15 Park Avenue both films that examine the relationship between mental health, ‘madness’ and sexual violence). The home as sanctuary of middle-class heteropatriarchal aspirations is now invaded and invasive, just as feminine corporeality is cast as expelled and lost powers reclaimed through the loss of intelligibility that abjection brings. These films seek to produce the feminine body as an object of horror and subversion specifically configured through psychology, modernity, urbanization, new-found autonomy and the city, in other words a modern, global imaginary that is marked by traces of anxiety, conflict and desire that is always in excess of this mapping. Placed against the backdrop of the male prerogative of masquerade in Bollywood films, this shift is a complex resignification of the trope and powers of horror as masquerade and a confrontation with, and co-option of, erasures such as ensuring little or no violence and creating familiar moral circuits within which to place the narratives. Nevertheless, this film allows for a poignant critique of masculinity itself as façade – a destabilization that opens up identities as political constructs, open to resignification but not without erasing the complexities and risks involved in the act of destabilisation. It serves as a powerful reminder of the possibilities located within the idea of masquerade, one that includes the liminality of abjection and the performative undoing of the boundaries of essentialist identity, embedded within a cinema that routinely enables impersonation and fluidity of identity for men even as it seeks to fix the feminine.
Ek Haseena Thi. 2004. Dir. Sriram Raghavan. Perf. Urmila Matondkar and Saif Ali Khan. R. R. Movie Makers.
Baudrillard, Jean. 2006. Simulacra and Simulacrum. Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.
Butler, Judith. 2007. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.
------1993. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex. New York and London: Routledge.
Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. 2005. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Robert Hurley et al. London and New York: Continuum.
------1986. Cinema 1: The Movement Image. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. London and New York: Continuum.
Foucault, Michel. 1995. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. 2nd ed. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage.
Gopalan, Lalitha. 2002. Cinema of Interruptions: Action Genres in Contemporary Indian Films. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Irigaray, Luce. 1985. This Sex Which Is Not One. Trans. Catherine Porter. Ithaca and New York: Cornell University Press.
Kristeva, Julia. 1982. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press.
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Žižek, Slavoj. 1992. Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture. Cambridge and Massachusetts: MIT Press.
1 This is of course the point of movement away from the biological essentialism of French Feminism into post-structural critiques of hetero-patriarchy, where theorists such as Judith Butler, whose reading of ‘masquerade’ as a strategy of performative parody that contests the foundationalist myth around identity by reading the workings of power in the generation and sustenance of these myths, this thesis relies upon, have delivered the most lucid responses to the dangers therein. As Butler has argued, taking recourse to the idea of a singular feminine body is mimetic of a phallogocentric logic and thus even in its resistance it is productive of the very law it contests. As Butler rightly demonstrates, Lacanian theorization of the Symbolic and the pre-Symbolic (Imaginary) are founded upon myths of essential, primal and universal bodies and bodily experiences that are indeed culturally organized thus never ‘outside’ of the Symbolic order that they are meant to determine. If there has to be feminist resistance then any repetition of these fallacious structures is a reassertion of the productive power of heteronormativity and hence must be found through revealing the workings of this power in the theories of identity rather than by accepting them wholesale and finding instances of resignification, as Irigaray may be said to be doing by resignifying the feminine body without exposing the idea of a single (biological, natural) feminine body in itself to be a myth, a product of hetero-patriarchal power. However, if Irigaray’s theorization were to be read as a form of strategic essentialism, one that is aware of its own limitations and dependence on cultural constructs such as the very language it is given in, it is possible to find in it powerful tools of parodic subversion of the phallic law, a theatrical celebration of the feminine body that particularizes and opens up ways in which a speaking back may be possible in an already given language. If popular cinema is also an already given language to some extent as others have argued, its desire for spectatorial pleasure and nationalist self-censorship its Symbolic, then a strategy of repetition and subtle resignification has its own array of possibilities, as does reading them as forms of bio-power that produce both obedient bodies and pleasurable, horrific or insurgent bodies within and against that order (Gopalan, 2002: 37).
Issue 85 (May-Jun 2019)