Understanding Politics through Netflix's Ghoul
This year, Netflix’s India special series brought three landmark webseries for the world to binge – Sacred Games, Lust Stories and Ghoul. Patrick Graham’s Ghoul has become a sort of an obsession for me purely because it hits home with a political landscape, shades of which we witness in some aspects of Indian politics today. (SPOILER ALERT!) The story revolves around a fascist takeover of the Indian state, which is propelled by a backdrop of rising terrorism. The country soon becomes laden with detention centers where individuals with suspected terror links and, obviously, anti-government sentiments are sent for “cleansing” (read torture and murder). In the atmosphere of fear, most of the populace becomes a willing accomplice in the deeds of the government, oblivious, or at best, ambivalent to the reality of the centers.
The show’s protagonist is a young Muslim (her religion is important to the story and my analysis of it) girl, Nida Rahim who is a staunch believer of the government’s propaganda. Her beliefs are shown to the extent that when her father, a Democrat does so much as complain to her about the state’s excesses, she complains about him to the authorities and he is taken away to a gruesome end in a detention chamber. Her ‘sacrifice’ is soon recognized and she is recruited to participate in the interrogation of detainees as Meghdoot 31, her first subject is Ali Saeed, the TV series equivalent of Osama Bin Laden. From this point onwards, the story transforms into a horror series. During her interrogation Nida begins to realize that what she is dealing with is actually a demon – Ghoul – who can mask identities and can be summoned for casting repentance among one’s enemies. One after the other, the demon begins to cast dreams of their worst crimes among the interrogators, scaring them into madness. It reminds two of the interrogators of the time they killed a detainee’s wife and children to get him to talk. In the madness that ensues at the center, Nida realizes that the center is not just a terrorist interrogation camp, but a real torture center to contain political and ideological rivals where innocent people are ‘also’ murdered. She also realizes that the Ghoul had been conjured by her own father to get her to realize the lies of the state. As she escapes and alerts the higher authorities of the excesses, they mock her ignorance, and throw her into a similar center. The story ends, with Nida preparing for the ritual of conjuring her own Ghoul.
But what if I told you that the show is the very thing it is trying to fight? The show does a great job at showing us what would happen if Hindutva was on steroids. And it must be applauded for being brave enough to do so. But on the other hand, it could not move away from fetishising Islam and Muslims. The maulvi’s character being a typical symptom of such fetishisation. The professor/Abbu is in this sense a cynical take on Muslim academics; they may talk about philosophy, dissent, and questioning state power, but when push comes to shove, they will fall back onto blood magic, religious mumbo-jumbo and summon literal demons.
One may here be tempted to point out that such is the nature of most dystopian or futuristic societies. From Star Wars and Terminator to Mad Max and Hunger Games, most narratives rely on the deeds of a (Greek) Hero who fights his way up the ladder to defeat the powers that be. The modality of this resistance goes through discovering a loophole in either the system or (in most cases) a powerful individual. Seldom does one see an organised effort by the oppressed to voice their discontent, and rarely are they rallied together to fight against their oppressors.
This is a fair criticism of projects like Ghoul. Historical experience suggests that to every Revolution, there must be a Vanguard, and leading that Vanguard should be a group of talented individuals who are capable of firstly, leading the strike against the system, and secondly, translate themselves into leaders of the society that comes up with the fall of the old order. Otherwise one ends up with nothing but furore and a carnivalistic, even nihilistic, display of rage and violence, much like the race riots that occur in the US, or what we witnessed at Tahrir Square in Egypt in 2011, and recently, in Amazon workers’ protests in Europe on ‘Prime Day’. To translate this into film is difficult but I agree, translating this into individual rebellion defeats the larger goal. However, one must not forget, that Muslims in the world of Ghoul did organise themselves. The true political nature of that organisation remains rather vague. But the hints are towards the classic (fetishist) image of militarising Muslims through Islam. This marks an important feature of our resistance today against the spectral Fascism of Hindu Nationalism – where any Muslim involvement in legitimate political discourse against the ruling ideology is disregarded for being antithetical to India or equated with militant extremism #GoBacktoPakistan.
The truth we speak to power cannot escape the paradigms of either a 20th century conception of alternative ways of organising society, or a romanticised, elitist call towards a syncretism that never existed organically. But this is, I think, an essential aspect of the nature of Freedom itself. It is an elusive destination that we cannot possibly begin to delineate in the condition of un-Freedom. And once we (miraculously) arrive at this elusive destination, we find is little else besides a barren wasteland upon which to construct our new house. To put it in simpler terms, it is like coming up with a new word, or a new recipe; it will, more often than not, be derivative of what already exists; but despite that, one must move beyond and try to weed out all that is reverential to a past that was un-Free. That precisely is the goal of our generation today.
This thought is well embodied in this meme below:
A keen-eyed netizen may ask: but where is the Raptor in all of this? Another may interject and say that the creator of this meme doesn’t know a Raptor from a Triceratops.
But this meme is more metaphysical than one might think. Here’s a simple sentence that will turn this meme into an ontological truth for our generation: You are seeing the scene through the Raptor’s gaze. The T-Rex (read Netflix/Ghoul) is the old liberal establishment, indulging in fetishising tradition by continuing the age-old shooting-stars-fulfil-your-wish superstition (read summoning a Ghoul). The shooting star is the new authoritarian turn that Capital has taken (Hindu Nationalist regime in Ghoul). The triceratops are what remains of 20th century Left politics. All of them cast long shadows, away from the turned tide of Capital. The raptor’s reaction to the T-Rex’s neoliberal games is our millennial death wish, and yet it remains the only way we can find new ways to reinvent the fight against capital (now in its authoritarian form), and to imagine a new way to live beyond the scope of capital. That is the irony of left politics today, the new ideas we present (Obamacare, welfare state, Rahul Gandhi visiting temples), are merely extensions of the larger paradigm being set by the authoritarian overlords.
About the Author
Saarang Narayan is an academic of the left. He holds a Master's from Oxford University in Modern Asian Studies and is a graduate in History from Hansraj College. A closet cricketer, a home-based music producer and sound engineer, and a session guitarist, he is on his path to academic glory in the field of History.