Why an Army of the Dead can never step foot into India’s holy lands

No, it’s not our deities, but the ‘army of the moral police’ that keeps the devil and creative minds at bay from indulging into any ‘regional’ play

By Mayur Lookhar

Army of the Dead (2021)

Viva Las Vegas. The opening credits in Hollywood director Zack Snyder’s zombie heist drama Army of the Dead [2021] play out to gory zombie infestation visuals and Grammy winner Thomas Holkenborg’s version of Elvis Presley’s famous soundtrack Viva Las Vegas from the 1964 movie of the same name.   Jeez, viva Las Vegas? Here’s a city ravaged by flesh gobbling zombies, and you get to hear Viva (Long Live) Las Vegas!  Quite a paradox.

No, it isn’t entirely inappropriate though.  Dig into the etymology of the phrase and you are reminded about Spanish explorer Raphael Rivera who gave the land its name in 1829.  Thank God, there was no Donald Trump then.  Long Live Las Vegas though holds true for the millions of the undead in Snyder’s film.  The alpha Zeus [Richard Cetrone] is said to be a natural, an outsider, the one foul being who has turned the entire city into zombie land.

Metaphorically speaking, Snyder’s zombie land perhaps mirrors Las Vegas global image, a wealthy city, famous and notorious for its greed, lust, and countless casinos (gambling). Perhaps It’s a city that has lost its moral compass, encompassing the man-eats-man world literally. Sin City, as Las Vegas is popularly referred to, was apt to be destroyed, nuked in Snyder’s eyes in the film. America, Hollywood and nukes, phew!

Indian fans adore Western, now lately Korean, horror, thrillers too. But the special incentive here was to watch Bollywood’s unheralded talent Huma Qureshi in a pivotal role in the big banner Hollywood film.  The sad state of affairs of Las Vegas triggered a thought, what if an Army of the dead encroached on Indian lands?  Cinephiles would cheer at the prospect of Hollywood investing, rather infesting our lands with such armies. Given its cultural diversity, the zombies would come in all shapes, sizes, and colour too. 

If Synder’s film had a desi remake, which Indian city would it nuke? Don’t gyrate yet, for that is a long shot away. Not that we don’t want Hollywood setting up a film in India, but the big hurdle that confronts any desi Army of the Dead is where in India will you find a ‘SIN’ city?

Alright, Gurgaon and the state of Haryana can perhaps match Vegas in its greed for gambling, but regional pride would never permit the moral police to label any Indian land as sin. Though this obessiive regional pride smacks of hypocrisy, but in India, you simply don’t bring a bad name to any town/village/city.

Stonewalling, and in some part lynching, any army of the dead is India’s legion of moral police.  Such beings don’t mushroom without their political godfathers. Over the years, certain political, influential public figures have come down hard on Indian filmmakers who in their eyes brought a bad name to their region.

The current Indian government is dictating terms to social media giants to curb content that it deems as anti-national.  No, we will not call B.1.617.2 (a form of mutation of Coronavirus] as Indian variant. It’s unpatriotic, and soon may be punishable under the law.   Leave aside the pandemic, but a close look at India cinema’s history would suggest how Indian filmmakers often walk the tight rope when dealing with tricky, edgy subjects. Our long disclaimers remind us how this film does not intend to hurt any religious sentiments, nor project any community, caste, faith, region in bad light.

The moral policing has only increased its tentacles in the recent years.  Sikh political powerhouse, the Shiromani Akali Dal saw red when producers Ekta Kapoor, Anurag Kashyap, director Abhishek Chaubey named their social drama Udta Punjab (2016).  Effigies were burnt, fringe Sikh groups rallied in Punjab, threatening the film’s makers and the cinema halls owners to not  screen the film.  Chaubey’s film spoke about the rampant drug abuse in Punjab.  Maybe, they got their data  – 70 % of Punjab’s youth is into drugs wrong, but Chaubey had his heart in the right place.  The film industry rallied behind their own, and it took the courts to clear the film. Unfortunately, the film came back to bite Bollywood, when aggrieved Punjabis from 2016, mocked Bollywood for keeping quiet over its own drug culture, one that came into light following the death by suicide of popular actor Sushant Singh Rajput last year.

Members of Rajput Karni Sena protesting against the film Padmaavat [2018] in Bengaluru in 2017, Source: PTI

Udta Punjab [2016] though is no isolated case where filmmakers were accused of defaming a state, region.  Noted filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali was slapped, abused, and shooed out of Rajasthan by fringe Rajput groups who felt the film would project their community, state, and the much revered [but fictitious] Rani Padmavati in bad light. Imagine a scenario where the film certification board has to conduct a special screening for agitating people to allay their social, cultural fears.  Despite these assurances, Padmavati, later changed to Padmaavat (2018), didn’t release in Rajasthan and a few neighbouring states.

While fringe religious, political groups often use such controversies to jump into limelight, but it’s worrying when an elected member accuses a film of trying to tarnish a region. This unfortunate episode occurred in 2019 when Bhartiya Janata Party MP and Lok Sabha speaker Om Birla lashed out at Yash Raj Productions’ Mardaani 2. The Rani Mukerji-led crime thriller was a manhunt for a serial juvenile rapist.  While Rajasthan is among the states that has seen a surge in sexual crimes against women, children, but Birla argued that such films bring a bad name to Kota and the state of Rajasthan.  Anushka Sharma’s crime drama NH 10 [2015] faced similar criticism of demonising the state of Haryana.

Director Hansal Mehta’s Aligarh [2016] courted controversy as it was based on the life of professor Ramchandra Siras from the popular Aligarh Muslim University.  The film wasn’t banned but its content was bound to trigger homophobia. There was the familiar barb of defaming the city and the University.

Dr Jasim Mohammad, secretary, forum for Muslim Studies & Analysis and former professor at AMU had told Hindustan Times, “We are not demanding any ban on the film. We object the title of the movie as it sends out a wrong message about the city and AMU.”

Video streaming giant Amazon Prime Video is enduring a tough time after the web series Tandav [2021] was accused of hurting religious and political sentiments. And perhaps in a first, the discerning voices emanated from both right and secular ideologies. Director Ali Abbas Zafar, lead actor Saif Ali Khan, Amazon India were trolled heavily.  The makers made edits and issued unconditional apologies to calm things down.

Sentiments can run deep down in the south where the regional pride is reflected in their names. Amazon finds itself in a soup again after Tamils in Tamil Nadu, and on social media cried foul upon seeing the trailer of The Family Man 2 [2021].  Tamils have already objected to probable portrayal of LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam] in the trailer. The now discarded militant outfit had a long history with the establishment in Sri Lanka, who labelled them terrorists.  Director Santosh Sivan’s war drama Inam [2014], that touched upon the LTTE-Sri Lanka conflict, was pulled out from theatres after just three days.

Religious, regional, political sentiments. All ought to be respected. Indian filmmakers have ingrained these disclaimers, no go-zone’s into their psyche. And it’s not often films, but a casual remark can incite flames too.  Recently cocky Indian Idol host Aditya Narayan drew flak from the Maharashtra Navnirman Party over a callous remark that is deemed offensive to the inhabitants of the coastal town of Alibaug.  One doesn’t know how but for decades the town was often mentioned while mocking at one’s foolishness.  Similarly, people from the North East, South India, Sikhs have always been victim of stereotypes.  Celebrities like cricketer Yuvraj Singh, actors Shilpa Shetty, and now Randeep Hooda has drawn flak for casual remarks that is deemed offensive by a certain community.  Whilst we don’t condone any casual, racist remarks by celebrities or any one, but the outrage is sometimes unwarranted.

Hollywood, international cinema would perhaps empathise with Indian filmmakers.  The fear of the moral police, hurting sentiments dissuaded most Indian creative minds from indulging into any ‘regional’ play. Often city, town names were tweaked to avoid any trouble. In the past, the fear of litigations kept filmmakers away from biopics, real stories.  Maybe, their wariness drew them more towards formulaic, please-all cinema. However, Indian cinema, too, is guilty of stereotypes that often-irked certain communities.  Now, biopics, films based on true incident are more regular. The latter though tends to be more hagiographies than biopics.

In the current social, political environment, inviting an Army of the dead to Indian shores is akin to suicide. Not it’s not the deities, but the moral police that is more to be feared.  No Viva Las Vegas here. Zombie lovers in India will have to keep going to Go Goa Gone [2013].

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