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Of Animal Rights and a Champion Goat

Lending a Voice to Baahubali

The film Chopsticks initiates a conversation on where our food comes from, drawing attention to the commercial breeding and commodification of animals for human consumption.

Through his acceptance speech at the Oscars earlier this year, Joaquin Phoenix urged people to be compassionate and mindful in our relationship with all living beings, particularly those that are systematically ignored and marginalised, including animals. The essence of this message is reflected in Chopsticks (2019), a coming-of-age Netflix Original film in Hindi that follows the misadventures of a young professional whose new car gets stolen. Nirma Sahastrabuddhe’s path crosses with Artist (a con man), Faiyaz bhai (a criminal), and Baahubali (a champion goat). A central question that is masterfully woven into the narrative is: Do we truly treat animals as our friends while we continue to eat them?

Faiyaz bhai is the proud owner of Baahubali, the undefeated champion of 99 goat fights, and preparations are underway for Baahubali’s 100th fight. Baahubali adheres to a strict regimen that includes a non-negotiable diet. Inadvertently, he eats a piece of chocolate offered by one of his caretakers—an indiscretion that invites the wrath of Faiyaz bhai. At first glance, Faiyaz bhai’s rather unusual and possessive relationship with Baahubali may come across as vain. He anthropomorphises Baahubali with a name that he translates as “strong (bali) armed (bahu),” and pays homage to the hit film Baahubali (2015). This ascribing of human characteristics to Baahubali indicates that he is more than just a pet. At the same time, we can be certain that the director is evoking the phrase bali ka bakra (the sacrificial lamb).

The carefully constructed relationship between Faiyaz bhai and Baahubali resembles one between a father and a son, as opposed to a man and his property, which is quite similar to the characters Mija (little girl) and Okja (super pig) in Bong Joon-ho’s Okja (2017).

Baahubali’s birthday is celebrated with grandeur—with cake, live music, and a feast—and the entire community in attendance. In a scene that is as comic as it is a wake-up call of sorts, Faiyaz bhai realises that mutton is being served at the party. Both appalled and disgusted by the insensitivity of the caterers, he asks, “How is he [Baahubali] going to feel when he sees his brothers served on a plate?” It is here that, for the first time, Faiyaz bhai makes the connection between Baahubali, a sentient being, and the goat slaughtered and presented before him. Through absurdist comedy, the filmmaker takes us back to the question of whether a person who truly cares about non-human animals can slaughter and consume their meat.

Faiyaz bhai does not differentiate between Baahubali and the slain goat while he acknowledges both as sentient—conscious, living beings who have the capacity to feel pain. According to utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham in An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789), “The question is not, ‘Can they reason?’ nor ‘Can they talk?’ but, ‘Can they suffer?’” Peter Singer in Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals? (2009) furthers Bentham’s hypothesis, stating that it is imperative to include non-human animals inside the moral sphere of concern, urging people to abandon all practices that contribute to the perpetual pain and suffering of non-humans.

The dark underbelly of the animal agriculture industry is exposed in Okja, in which super pigs are raised and slaughtered in a factory farm in a graphic manner, laying bare the ethics and gruesomeness of breeding non-human animals for human consumption. In The Case for Animal Rights (2004), Tom Regan draws attention to factory farms which perpetually violate the individual rights of non-human beings as the system blatantly disregards the animals’ inherent value and moral right to life. The animal rights movement is often censured and mischaracterised as it employs methods that evoke strong emotional res­ponses to raise uncomfortable questions. Consequently, the movement is often mistaken as a means of passing judgment and infringing on another individual’s freedom of choice. But, the core objective of the movement is to fight the oppressive industry that continues to exploit animals for commercial gain, and to make consumers aware of the ongoing horrors within the confines of slaughterhouses.

Activists maintain that the only acceptable solution to end the continued enslavement of non-human beings is the dissolution of commercial animal agriculture altogether. On the other hand, welfarists endorse the idea of humane slaughter and wrangle with animal rights advocates, who reject this on the principle that any form of exploitation is non-negotiable. The novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, in Eating Animals (2009), writing about the increase in demand for factory farms across the world, particularly in India and China, had warned that it could lead to an increase in pandemics, food-borne illnesses, and antimicrobial resistance. Although there isn’t enough evidence pointing to a connection between the current COVID-19 pandemic and wet markets where animals are traded, we know that the previous bird flu outbreak originated in a wet market.

The ethical and moral implications of the commodification of animals are highlighted in Chopsticks. Nirma kidnaps Baahubali as a bargaining chip to get back her car. However, in due course, she realises that Baahubali is a sentient being and not an object to be traded. This epiphany leads her to take Baahubali back to his home. A publicity still from the film echoes this message, with a justice balance on Nirma’s head where Baahubali is placed on the right as the balance tilts towards him and Nirma’s car is placed on the left. The message that sentient beings are more than mere objects is aptly communicated.

Chopsticks shies away from making bold statements and toes the line, steering away from controversy. Nevertheless, the film succeeds in its attempts to draw the audiences’ attention to the breeding, transport, and consumption of non-human beings like lifeless commodities. The film thoughtfully initiates a conversation about where our “food” comes from and urges audiences to reflect on this point without being preachy and judgmental, or issuing ultimatums. The film ends with a shot of Nirma and her clients enjoying a plate of biryani, without lingering on or commenting on what is on her plate since food preferences are a deeply personal choice. At the same time, Chopsticks does give the audience some food for thought on the complicated, exploitative relationship that we share with animals.

 

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Updated On : 16th May, 2020

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