Sunday, July 23, 2006

Train-stopping sadhoos, Perfect Man, imperfect honeymoon

Hannibal Lecter: And what did you see, Clarice? What did you see?
Clarice Starling: Ants. The ants were screaming.
Lecter: They were slaughtering the ants?
Clarice: And they were screaming.
Mohsen Makhmalbaf: Ants? That was the audience at the Siri Fort auditorium!

(Conversation in my head during the screening of Scream of the Ants yesterday)

Late in Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s bizarre new film Shaere Zobale-Ha (Scream of the Ants), there is a monologue spoken by a German tourist to one of the protagonists, the male half of an Iranian couple visiting India. With a goofy smile and a deadpan voice that suggests he’s spent much time passively inhaling whatever it is the Hindoo sadhoos smoke, this character directly addresses the camera and tells us that the universe is full of shit raining down on everyone. Different faiths, he explains, have different ways of dealing with this shit.
The Catholics say, “Shit happens.” The Protestants say, “The other guy is responsible for the shit.” The Muslims say “The shit is the Will of Allah.” The Jews go, “Why, oh why, is all the shit falling only on us? The Buddhists reply, “But there is no shit.” And the Japanese Zen masters whisper, “Listen closely and you will hear the sound of shit falling.”
I’m tempted at this stage to make an obvious snide remark about Makhmalbaf raining crap all over the Cinefan audience, but I’d like to cut the man some slack: he’s made some fine films in the past and maybe this one was just an elaborate joke. Really, it has to be an elaborate joke, because taken at face value Scream of the Ants is the most extraordinary bilge.

Short synopsis. An atheist and his wife, a believer, are in India for their honeymoon. They meet an assortment of characters including an unctuous south Indian journalist who tells them that most tourists who come to this country are foolish. “There are no such things as miracles,” he says to the wife. “To me, your beauty is a miracle.” They encounter a “holy man” who is reputed to stop trains with his eyes. The myth is debunked in an admittedly funny scene where the old chap admits that his “followers” force him to sit on the tracks with his arms stretched out, because when the train stops they get offerings of food from the passengers. “But after all, who can stop a train except for its driver?” he asks, not unreasonably. “Please save me,” he tells the couple, “I don’t want to spend my life sitting on tracks pretending to stop trains – I miss my family, I haven’t seen them in a long while.”

At night, the woman tells her husband the story of Gandhi refusing to have sex except to beget children. “Should we do the same?” she asks him. “I don’t want to be responsible for bringing someone into this crazy world,” he says (it’s unclear if he means the world of this movie or the crazy real world that the rest of us live in), and leaves her for a brief liaison with an Indian prostitute who speaks English in an impeccable French accent. (The liaison consists of the man requesting the prostitute to undress and bend over and pretend to be a table. It may or may not be important to mention at this point that the couple carry a chair around with them at all times; they appear to have no other luggage.)

The two Iranians wander about a deserted landscape looking for the Complete Man or the Perfect Man, which is apparently the reason the woman wanted to visit India. They meet someone who introduces himself as the Cow Man (no, not Amit Varma) but who eventually admits to be the Complete Man they are looking for. He writes something for them with invisible ink (onion juice) on a stone tablet. The wife is overcome by religious fervour. The husband is irritated: he didn’t come here looking for no Complete Man, all he wanted was a sex-filled honeymoon. They fight again. They go to the banks of the Ganga where the stoned German tourist speaks many sentences. Naked sadhoos materialise and bathe in the water close to where the woman is standing. Thus the film ends.

Sorry, I know that wasn’t a short synopsis, but there’s no other way to describe this movie. It must be allowed to speak for itself, or at least chant and blubber for itself. (While on speaking, most of the dialogue involving Indian characters is in very oddly spoken English or very oddly spoken Hindi. This is either the most brilliant naturalistic acting I’ve ever seen or incompetence taken to grand new depths, I can’t say which.)

I had a really hard time figuring this film out. Usually I don’t get hot and bothered about movies that “indulge clichés and stereotypes” by (for example) depicting poverty in India – clichés do after all have their roots in reality, and a filmmaker can chose any topic he pleases; the movie must eventually be judged on how it handles the subject. But there’s so much spiritual mumbo-jumbo on display here that it makes the conversations between Shashi Kapoor and Simi Garewal in Siddhartha seem soaked with meaning. (“What is it, Siddhartha? What are you seeking?” “I’m looking for Truth, Kamala. Not external Truth but the Truth that lies hidden deep within me.”)

Earlier in the Cinefan week, It Could Be You made a strong case for all NRIs everywhere in the world being deported back to India immediately. Now Makhmalbaf’s film convinces us that tourism to this country should be banned as well.


  1. well you certainly seem to have chosen your films with care!

    btw--meant to ask, did you watch Invisible Waves?

    and apropos of an old conversation, it wasn't Duck Soup that Monroe was in, but Love Happy:

  2. Nope, haven't seen Invisible Waves. And who ever said Monroe was in Duck Soup? She was six years old when it was made, it would have put her in direct competition with Shirley Temple!

  3. that was precisely your point when i --wrongly, i admit--claimed she was in duck soup. i meant love happy. couple of months ago. before you did your post on duck soup.

  4. To me religion has always been a perpetual "spiritual mumbo jumbo" as it is more to do with preaching than practicing. Interesting review.

  5. Space Bar: See, I don’t even remember that exchange now. Comment conversations are one thing, but I even find myself reading a post from a year ago and saying "I really wrote that?! When?" (Blogging makes it so difficult to go back on one's word, as I like to do.)

    Hiren: was meant more as a rant than a serious review, but guess it turned out reviewish anyhow.

  6. Hard luck man, I was fortunate enough to watch a better movie made by her daughter The Apple over the weekend. Also the Clarice Starling stuff was fundoo.

  7. the "shit happens" thing was a poster seen all over my freshman dorm.

  8. Heh. I knew it sounded familiar. And the guy spoke the lines as if he were reading them out from a poster.

  9. Out of an inane movie, an amusing review. See, you didn't waste your time - I was entertained in the few minutes it took to read the review!

  10. Got to cut a promo for this(screams of the ant) movie. Watched the movie and completely clueless. I've been doin this for six years, first movie i can't figure the angle out. Maybe i'm getting older. Any ideas?

  11. You wrote a very articulate review that demonstrates high proficiency in language, but perhaps lacks some thought or consideration. Apart from the anomalies of Indians with strange accents, which I also noticed, I do wonder why you seem so bothered by the film. In my experience it is the art, people, things, and incidents that bother me the most that while often are just trash are sometimes those that are most worth allowing to circulate a bit and settle down some place in the mind.

    Maybe the film is crap to you, but perhaps if you revisit it some time you will be open to it. I don't want to write a review here, but my reaction to this film was nearly the opposite of yours. At the very least I was intrigued, and on a different level was stirred and inspired.