Sunday, 9 September 2018

Review Of "Ghoul" - An Allegory On The Danger Of Summoning Up Spirits We Cannot Control

[Spoiler alert]

The 3-part Netflix serial "Ghoul" is scary, and I'll tell you why.

Not because it's a supernatural thriller (there are no such things as ghouls, after all), but because it's an allegory for something that is already happening in India, and in a few other places in the world.

The trailer predictably focuses on the superficially scary, and tempts the viewer into uncovering its deeper chills over its three episodes

The premise is simple, and not much of a stretch from what we see today. Set in the near future, this is a dystopian tale of the Indian state that has turned hypernationalist, seeing enemies around every corner, and cracking down hard on every hint of dissent, terming it sedition and treason. In this story, Muslims are the natural suspects, but so are those who merely exhort others to reason and question. India here is a society that has placed itself under siege.

The main character is a young woman, a Muslim, who nevertheless accepts the official narrative about enemies of the state, and goes as far as to turn in her own father for his seditious activities. The father is no terrorist, merely a professor who strays from the officially approved syllabus in order to make his students think for themselves. But in the kind of country he happens to live in, that is a treasonous act. The young woman belongs to a quasi-military law enforcement agency, and she is summoned to join the team at a special interrogation centre, for reasons she uncovers only later. All the prisoners here are Muslims. With the exception of the protagonist, none of the law enforcement officers is Muslim. The lines are drawn quite starkly.

The superficial storyline deals with the interrogation of a new prisoner who turns out to be something other than human. In the torture chamber that is euphemistically called the interrogation room, he turns the tables on his captors, and unleashes a bloody trail of horror. However, that's the predictable part - the shadows, the suspense, the running, the screaming.

But here's the secret to unravelling the allegory. According to the serial, the ghoul (or ghul in the original Arabic) is an evil spirit that is summoned by someone who draws its symbol using their own blood. But after the ghoul appears, it has a will of its own. It is not subservient to the will of the person who summoned it. It often devours them, then assumes their appearance and walks among their kind, striking at them when they least expect it.

It's fairly easy to decode the allegory once we start looking for it, since the best stories usually weave a deeper tale beneath the one they are ostensibly telling. The ghoul haunting the entire serial is the spirit of hypernationalism. The viewer cannot miss the irony in the dialogues. Once summoned, the spirit of hypernationalism takes on a life of its own and cannot be sent back to where it came from. It will exact its price in blood until it is sated.

This, in fact, is not the scariest entity in 'Ghoul':

These are:

The rigged interrogation of an innocent man

The official who knowingly has an innocent man executed, and still maintains that he has done no wrong

What is especially scary about 'Ghoul' is that it is so topical, so close to reality. The demonisation of Muslims in India is complete. They can be lynched with impunity, and their killers walk free even when there is clear video evidence of their crime. Hindu members of the public march in numbers in support of rapists and killers. Ministers and officials greet them with garlands, and pay their respects to them when they die. The families of their Muslim victims are further harassed with trumped-up charges.

The prevailing culture has turned hypernationalist. Those who do not stand up for the national anthem are punished. Those who don't toe the nationalist line are called traitors. Fake news is circulated about opponents, and they are vilified as enemies of the state. Critical journalists are murdered.

What can a demonised minority do when the slightest resistance will be seized upon as an excuse for a harsher crackdown? 'Ghoul' is both a warning and a kind of wish-fulfilment. It is of course a warning to those who think that summoning the spirit of hypernationalism is without risk. The evil spirit will devour those who summon it as well as those it was originally meant to devour. But there is wish-fulfilment here too.

After all, the supernatural being who wreaks bloody havoc among the oppressors is not a rakshasa or asura from Hindu mythology. It is a ghul from Islamic mythology. For a community that is helpless to fight back against injustice, a cultural twist to an otherwise karmic revenge can be the only grim satisfaction.

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