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.