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The Advent of Societal Horror Cinema

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What Are We Afraid Of?

Be it the eerie silences, the keen sense of mystery that permeates every event, how light and shadow are balanced to create balanced environments, or the simple anticipation of something terrifying, horror movies have captured a dedicated audience. It is capable of gripping those even outside of its action, of making them feel one with its world, of drawing out their fears, and sometimes even their truths. Some of these films provide thrills in the form of jump scares, sudden visual revelations of monstrous creatures from some world below, yet tangible and localised sites of horror. And others create world’s eerily similar to our own, evoking fears that have all-too-real implications and consequences. While one is immediate in the sense that it provides moments of instantaneous fear, the other is immediate in terms of portraying the viewers’ immediate context. The fertility of this genre is beginning to be realised and used in fruitful ways for critiquing institutions and power structures. These films are asking us to think about what is monstrous, demonic, and dangerous. The answer no longer points to a single vengeful spirit or an individual villain: horror is in the everyday.

The Obvious Scare

But is there a more deeper horror to be explored?

Bulbbul

Bulbbul charts the life of a young girl married off in her early childhood to a Thakur (landlord). Running parallel to this story is the unsettling legend of a demoness committing gruesome murders of random men in the village. Flashbacks into the past show the early and later married life of the main character, Bulbbul, at present a much more outspoken, powerful woman, handling the affairs of the village as its landlady, being visited by her brother-in-law and childhood friend, Satya. This film questions what viewers find horrific and what they do not. Two figures are juxtaposed: the demoness and the patriarch. While the demoness has all the outward markers of horror, the patriarch has an appearance of dignity, power, and religiosity.

Screengrab from Bulbbul, Courtesy Netflix India

Bulbbul portrays the patriarchal figures incisively, showing their inner lives, while only showing the terrifying aspects of the demoness, the carnage she leaves in her wake. By the end of the film, it is evident that the horror is situated not in the murderous demoness, but in the way things are. Satya’s letter to his brother at the end states this in simple terms. Although he is not violent or ostensibly villainous, the film makes his hypocrisy apparent when he threatens to complain about Bulbbul’s friendliness to another man. At the same time, he seems to be romantically interested in her. None of the men in this film are innocent of iniquity, and the women aren’t entirely either. Binodini, Bulbbul’s sister-in-law, is also a sufferer of patriarchal injustice. However, she sabotages another woman in response, perpetuating the very system that has hurt her. This society gives rise to a demoness, a protector of those whom the powerful abuse. In Bulbbul, Dibakar Banerjee reverses roles as the supernatural becomes benevolent while showing the “protectors” of society to be heinous, violent, and malevolent.

A conversation in Bulbbul on the person behind the murders.

Ghost Stories

Ghost Stories is a collection of four short films, each exploring a particular type or aspect of horror. While the other three also deal with important issues other than the supernatural, Dibakar Banerjee’s is social horror at its best, a clearly allegorical story. The main character arrives at the scene of an apocalypse. In Smalltown, death and destruction prevail. People from Bigtown have devoured those from Smalltown, where the two remaining survivors remain silent, fighting for their survival.

Screengrab From Ghost Stories, Courtesy Netflix India

The associations cannot be missed. The blind Bigtown monsters consume ravenously, destroying the disadvantaged. Silence and endurance is tantamount to staying alive, creating an effective way of suppressing voices. No one from anywhere else seems to know that this is occurring – apathy and greed are the basis of this world. The ending concretizes the social aspect. All the monsters turn out to be human figures of power, but the horror does not end. The real world is the apocalyptic one, all the more frightening in how unnoticed it goes. Not only are there many Smalltown’s whose destruction goes unseen, but Smalltown is also wherever one is – exploitation and injustice, disguised and enabled by power, run afoul. Like Bulbbul, the field of vision is vast. However, both take very different approaches. Bulbbul begins by demonizing the protector and then reverses the equation. While Dibakar Banerjee does demonize the oppressors, he ends with making us question whether the apocalypse was real or not. The two stories step out of themselves and show the viewer that they must rethink horror. They play with our expectations of what the genre should be and overturn them.

In an interview with Puja Talwar of Good Times, Dibakar Banerjee had this to say about the meaning behind a ghost

Going Forward

It is promising to see experimentation within a genre that could have remained mostly static in terms of the large number of well-established formulaic elements it has used. Outside of India, movies like the Purge series and Get Out show this shift from typical to experimental and social horror. When horror steps out of its narrative, thwarts our expectations and mirrors our world so effectively, fear takes on an added significance. Everyday horror that masquerades under the garb of officiality, societal status, power, and privilege, is being made visible for all viewers to see. And if we do see our world even a bit differently due to this genre, it will have achieved its social purpose.

Experience Further

On the surface, the lyrics of this song only talk about a hurdy-gurdy player who sings “songs of love”. Yet it has something unnerving and eerie about it. When the unsettling instrumentals collide with the seemingly straightforward lyrics, it gives them undertones that are for listeners to interpret. Interestingly, the song was used in the film Zodiac, based on the unsolved case of the 1960s Zodiac Killer, whose identity is not known to this day. To me the hurdy-gurdy man seems oddly eternal, unknowable, and always elusive. 

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Anant Shah

Anant Shah- Founder

Anant Shah (just as his Instagram bio says) has always been interested in connecting people though their different cultures. He is drawn to this goal, given his background of a family of artists, as well as his work at several different organisations such as the People Tree with Orijit Sen, The Conflictorium in Ahmedabad and The UN (AIDS) Communications and Global Advocacy Team in Geneva. As a graduate of History and International relations at Ashoka University, he co-founded and set up the Ashoka Literature festival in 2019. Longing to increase this critical discourse on contemporary and traditional Indian Cultures he finally decided to start InCulture.

Kartik Sundar- Founder

Kartik Sundar loves nothing more than opining on cultural content. An avid writer for many publications, the decision to start one of his own came from recognizing a substantive lack of critical discourse around Indian culture today. He graduated Ashoka University with a degree in History & International Relations and wishes to complete further education with a focus on media and cultural studies.

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We at inCulture are looking to shed light on what we see as an emerging new Indian culture as well as paying dues to the traditions that have been integral in shaping the current space. We want to try and create a space where critical reflection on cultural events, individuals, works of art, or practices can be fostered. Rather than exist as a cultural news outlet that merely serves as a bulletin board for the latest releases, inCulture will look to curate multi-medium pieces that seek to inform readers about aspects of our culture that make you think beyond an immediate reaction. In particular, we strive to look critically at Indian culture by investigating it under four distinct categories – film & theatre, music, spaces, and society.

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