‘Ghoul’ and the Spectre of Totalitarianism

Though Ghoul has been classified as horror, it extends the present political climate to portray an unsettling dystopian future.

As India’s first horror series on Netflix, Ghoul disturbs the audience by combining supernatural elements with a critique of the sociopolitical malaise currently prevalent in India. The show takes on issues like rising nationalism, Islamophobia and the myth of urban Naxals, head on. The opening title card provocatively informs the viewer that the show is set in the near future, in a country that has been divided and destroyed by sectarian violence. The first few minutes unleash some of the bravest filmmaking you will see this year. In Ghoul's India, those who dare to dissent or question the government are called "traitors" and "anti-nationals"—words that do not seem out of place today. When a Muslim man's car is being searched, the cop casually asks, "Are you trying to smuggle a cow?", making a direct reference to the cow vigilantism that has claimed many lives already.

In the web series, there is a crackdown on intellectuals, and people are made to believe that, “terrorists are among us.” This resonates with the coordinated raids that the Pune police conducted targeting 10 human rights activists in six cities (Chari 2018), leading to the arrest of five of them. The recent series of raids and arrests across India is clearly an attempt to torment writers, intellectuals and human rights defenders. Successive governments in India have been dismissing criticism and insinuating that individuals and organisation speaking in opposition against the government are funded by Maoists. It is interesting to see the newly educated, articulate Dalit assertion being dubbed as Maoist’s Dalit–Muslim alliance (Zee News 2018). Dalit voices which do not remain confined to identity politics and speak for the rights of minorities against the corporate–government nexus are called Maoist. The function of these raids and arrests, which are often supported by the over-excited "nationalist" media, is to silence criticism that arises beyond the parliamentary political sphere.

Critique of the Current Regime

Filmmakers like Vivek Agnihotri and those propagating the myth of the "Urban Naxal" seem to forget that dissent is the very essence of a democracy. Smriti Irani launched Agnihotri’s book with a glowing endorsement (Azad 2018) of his belief that Jawaharlal Nehru University and Jadavpur University are breeding grounds for anti-national sentiments because they refused to screen his movie Buddha in a Traffic Jam. Seminars are held on “Urban Naxalism” in universities where students are not allowed to ask questions. But, the same universities have seen other seminars being violently attacked by ruling party mobs. Television studios, aided by senior ministers, do their best to normalise terms like “Urban Naxal” and “anti-national,” and then arrests follow. The groups protesting historical injustice, demanding reparations, and creating avenues for marginalised voices to be heard are participating in an important, fundamental exercise that pushes the boundaries of the limited social spaces that are available to minorities. Ghoul channels this political atmosphere to present a cutting critique of the current regime, depicting a dystopian India that appears dangerously familiar.

Set in the backdrop of a security state which is heavily Islamophobic, in the world of Ghoul, sticking to the syllabus is the order of the day and any tendency to raise questions is dealt with iron fist. A soldier supervising the torture of an academic says, “It takes a while to explain things to intellectuals.” There are no distinctions between bombs, "bada" (beef), contraband and what is called anti-national literature. The series shows literature being burned, religious artefacts being declared illegal, and voices of opposition clamped down with cries of sedition. The possession of any unauthorised content is enough to be labelled a "terrorist" or an "anti-national". The show also reflects on how hyper-nationalism justifies and rationalises acts that no one will want to indulge in and are contrary to human nature. Everyone, from college professors to intellectuals, is taken into custody and "reconditioned" until they declare their undying allegiance to the government, failing which they are sent to what are basically concentration camps. It is a world where reconditioning is a process of torture and brainwashing that is referred to as waapsi. Ghoul uses metaphors to comment on matters that mainstream cinema mostly avoids. Its real victory is in how it works as an antidote to the neo-nationalist wave that seems to be slowly creeping into Bollywood with movies like Parmanu, Gold, Satyamev Jayate, Raazi, Raid, and Aiyaary. At least on the level of ideas, Ghoul sets itself up a counterweight to the soft-core nationalism that has washed over vast parts of show business.

The series comprises three episodes which tell the story of Nida Rahim (Radhika Apte), a cadet at the NPS's (National Protection Squad) Advanced Interrogation Department. Nida’s religion makes her a traitor in the eyes of her co-workers, that is, the Hindu soldiers at the facility. Nida’s father is a diligent professor, worried about the state of affairs in the country, and is teaching his students to question everything. On the other hand, Nida has aligned herself with the state and strongly disapproves of anything that might be perceived as anti-national—even children’s nursery rhymes. In the first episode, a Muslim man is stopped by the police who ask him for an identification card. The man flashes what apparently appears to be similar to an Aadhaar card, and later, we learn that India has transformed into a surveillance state run by a totalitarian regime. We are taken to a time and place where people can be judged without a trial, where criticism of the ruling party and ideology is conflated with disrespecting the country; where writers can be attacked and murdered in public, or made to feel like traitors if they do not subscribe to “us” versus “them” binaries.

The way Ghoul depicts what goes on in a totalitarian state and within the detention centres, and how all of it is rationalised by a nationalist rhetoric, raises a few important and uncomfortable questions for India. But, very cleverly, the country is not named even once, although the show is in Hindi and Urdu. Existing symbolism and political parlance that we have become familiar with, are used to make Ghoul a surprisingly potent show. It is not merely a critique of modern India, but a cautionary tale of where we might be headed.

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