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Temple of Womb

image by imp kerr

India’s mid-1970s state of emergency and its ghoulish “family planning camps” inadvertently spawned a particular kind of horror film, and the underground infrastructure to match.

On October 31, 1984, Indira Gandhi was shot and killed by her bodyguards, ending one of the most controversial careers in modern Indian politics. Today, Gandhi is remembered as the only woman to have served as Prime Minister. Less prominent is her role as the only Prime Minister to have suspended India’s democratic process. On June 26, 1975, she imposed a state of emergency on the country, a 21-month period of exception in the world’s largest democracy. Dissidents were jailed, the press was heavily censored, and the poor were subjected to violent developmentalist fantasies concocted by the political elite, including mass demolition drives and resettlements. Most nightmarishly, the Emergency featured a “voluntary” sterilization campaign, which offered the urban poor money, land, and trinkets in exchange for their fertility.This essay appears in Vol. 18: Family Planning. Subscribe for $2 and get it today. 

Eclipsed in memory by Indira Gandhi’s bloody assassination and its aftermath, the mass violence of the Emergency has never figured prominently in histories of India. Its traumatic effects can still be traced, however, in a legacy of black-market video parlors and B-grade horror films. These remained an outgrowth of the grotesque visions of family planning and cinematic control enacted through state violence. A residue of the infrastructure for a new way of seeing stayed in place after the Emergency ended. ­Audiences the state had created to imbibe propaganda now demanded more video, and the technologies deployed to teach them were repurposed to avoid the film censors’ decency regulations. In this climate, the new genre of low-budget horror film resonated with dispossessed audiences, linking the Emergency “plan” with the era of unplanned emergence that followed.

Less than two weeks before Gandhi was killed, Purana Mandir (“Ancient Temple”) by Shyam and Tulsi Ramsay opened in cinema halls in Delhi and Bombay. In Purana Mandir, a monster curses an aristocratic family: Every woman descended of this family will suffer a horrible death in the process of giving birth, her body doomed to lacerating, instantaneous implosion. Will the latest inheritor of the curse overcome it? How will she and her lover vanquish the monster? As audiences lined up to find out, Purana Mandir unexpectedly became one of the biggest hits of the 1980s and threatened to bring the traumatic moment of the Emergency back to the forefront of Indian life. But the film, its makers, and its audience are lost in the shadows of Bollywood’s big-budget star-driven melodramas.

In the summer of 1975, faced with intensifying opposition from trade, student, and government unions—and the stench of a court conviction over electoral ­misconduct—Gandhi had a state of “internal emergency” declared. In middle-class memory, the next 21 months are recalled as that rare time in postcolonial India when the streets stayed clean and trains ran on time. It was the last gasp of truly centralized state control, the climax of Big Government, the paroxysm of the plan—with the poor at the receiving end.

Among the many technologies unveiled during the Emergency were “family planning camps” across India. Here, citizens (mostly lower class, mostly male) were encouraged, pressured, and often forced to undergo vasectomies. This coercion—the preferred term was “motivation”—occurred in more than one way: Sometimes whole villages were rounded up and hauled to these camps; other times, men were offered “gifts” in exchange for sterilization.

In cities, family planning dovetailed with slum demolition. The poor were promised plots of land if they agreed to move out of the slum and submit to “voluntary” sterilization. In the paper trail of official documents left behind by this black market, Emma Tarlo, in her Unsettling Memories: Narratives of the Emergency in Delhi, finds “documents in which ‘family planning’ is defined as ‘sterilization’ and ‘sterilization’ is defined as voluntary even before the person has begun to fill out the form. What we find in this small piece of paper is a fragment of the dominant Emergency narrative—a token of official family-planning euphemisms in action at a local level.”

Families would vacate their slum dwellings, which would be razed by bulldozers roving the city. Fathers and young men from these families would enter makeshift tents to have their tubes tied up and leave with pieces of paper in hand. Often the very poor would sell these promissory notes to interested parties in exchange for cash once outside the tent. It has been estimated that millions of men were drawn into this urban black market.

Meanwhile, different technologies were being operationalized for use on the rural poor. During the Emergency, the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (or SITE) began using satellite technology to disseminate rural-development programming to thousands of television sets in villages across the country. While television had been around since the late 1950s, the small number of terrestrial transmitters had limited the reach and range of TV signals to Delhi and its surroundings. SITE’s success positioned television as a tool for uninterrupted mass schooling, literally and figuratively from above. Long after the Emergency, Gandhi’s government was keen on furthering its pedagogic agenda; in the early 1980s, it championed the introduction of video­cassette technology into the country as a cheap and easily reproducible medium through which to synchronize rural education. The state was the one to detonate the information bomb of the 1980s, but it couldn’t control the force of the explosion or see past the smoke of its own grand plans.

Consumer video became internationally available the same year as the declaration of emergency, 1975. Between then and 1982, when the Indian government loosened its restrictive trade regime, the first VCRs reached early adopters through the region’s black-market network. They were status symbols, signaling affluence to one’s guests and neighbors, and predictably sparked a ­middle-class rush for VCRs from whatever source possible. Eventually, local manufacturing would enable a domestic supply of machines at lower prices, but VCRs remained out of reach for the majority. For the poor there were video parlors, small rooms outfitted with a VCR, a projector and a screen, with 30 or 45 seats at two rupees a show. By some estimates, Bombay alone had 50,000 video parlors by 1985, all of them illegal.

India’s mass market for video from its beginnings was a black market. VCRs and videocassettes were assembled using supplies smuggled from Southeast Asia or made by unlicensed local manufacturers. Video parlors, along with video vans, video coaches, video clubs, video coffeehouses, and video snack bars, operated in a zone unmapped by copyright law, censorship, municipal authorities, or the technocratic elite. The state had long administered its hostility to popular cinema by censoring films before exhibition and taxing them after. Video’s contraband images irritated the state, which had officially introduced the technology into the country but was now watching it unspool into a zone of untaxed, uncensored, and ­unmonitored sensation.

Neither, for that matter, did the cinema hall seem to be able to compete with the pleasures of the video parlor. In big cities, inflation and price gouging were driving audiences to video. In small towns, which had been at the bottom of the traditional film-distribution pyramid and were often years behind in the fare they screened, video parlors replaced movie theaters. In smaller villages still, video created audiences where theaters were yet to arrive.Video moved into India’s temples, factories, restaurants, hotels, homes—and slums: at least 30 video parlors were sighted in Bombay’s Dharavi slums in 1984.

Ordinances and amendments were enacted to manage the images, bodies and monies set into motion by video. Failing these measures, there was always the handy battery of police raids, assaults, and confiscations to try and maintain state control. But it was too late. Video had broken the state’s monopoly over what, when, and how India consumed moving images, and cultivated a new appetite for unchecked cinematic sensation.

Almost as a reflex, the 1980s witnessed the rampant growth of B-grade cinema in the Bombay film industry. Action thrillers and horror films retailed sex and violence not usually associated with the idea of Bollywood and its song-and-dance melodramas of love, marriage, and family ritual. This was a B-cinema not only in its subject matter but also in the circuits it travelled, addressing the masses who were previously trapped within technocratic fantasies. The Ramsay brothers were pioneers of this B-cinema circuit—seven siblings who rose to prominence writing, directing, lensing, and financing a series of inexpensive horror films. In their biggest hit, the Ramsays took audiences back to an ancient curse—and the recent past—of unplanned families.

In Purana Mandir, the monster Samri is about to be executed by royal decree when he makes a makes a vow to return to life once again and curses the King’s female heirs with horrible deaths incurred in childbirth. Centuries pass. The latest descendant in the royal line is an attractive girl of college age, Suman (Arti Gupta), in love with the strapping, poor Sanjay (Mohnish Bahl). The two can barely keep their hands off each other, which sets alarm bells ringing for Suman’s father, the Thakur. At first he feigns objection to Sanjay’s lower class status and his “sheher key kisi naali”, his “in-a-city-sewer” origins. Failing to break them up, the Thakur reveals the shraap, or curse, that has followed their family.

"Go and look!""No!"In a pivotal moment in Purana Mandir, the Thakur revisits the horrific night of Suman’s birth, flashing back to the hospital where his wife has gone into labor. As he paces the hall outside the emergency ward, nurses and doctors come running out. Presumably horrified by what they have seen, they suggest the Thakur go have a look for himself. He discovers his wife in a state of postpartum pustulation, oozing warts and all. She lumbers out of the bed and towards him, then collapses and dies, leaving him a baby. This monstrous (double) birthing is the traumatic past of the film. But convinced that the curse is nothing they can’t overcome or explain, Sanjay and Suman leave the city to return to the rural backwoods. Here, they encounter and overpower the living corpse of Samri; in short order, Sanjay burns the monster at the stake, the shraap is lifted, the couple is married, the film ends.

It ends! Purana Mandir doesn’t close with the joyous birth of a child but with Suman’s marriage to Sanjay. Strange, because the shraap never prevented the lovers from wedding in the first place. The curse presiding over Suman’s womb is effectively revealed as a euphemism for the true horror: Sanjay’s seed, which threatens to divert the aristocratic bloodline into a city sewer. In ­displacing his agency from the realm of heterosexual productivity, Purana Mandir ventilates the Emergency-era imagination of the urban-­underclass male as a figure of threatening virility that must be checked. In classic ideological fashion, the film gives him an action-hero narrative and a villain to emasculate. But it also confusingly recirculates the figure of the urban-underclass male as traumatized by the technologies of the Emergency.

The curse is utterly contemporary; right next to where it says “Emergency Ward” hangs a calendar. The flashback to monstrous birth is not remote: The year is 1984. In the years following the Emergency, the promises of land often came to naught for the men who had been sterilized; many were left childless and homeless, their futures emptied out. Once he has vanquished the monster, Sanjay gains a family. “I’m proud of you, my son,” the Thakur sniffs, as he marries them off. Purana Mandir recovers the promise of spawn from the curse of sterility as it elliptically projects fertility beyond the end credits.

And proliferates off screen. So popular was Purana Mandir that it was diverted to the black market the week of its release. Police recovered copies in a raid on a video parlor in a Bombay slum, along with the rudimentary technology being used for exhibition. The film had already been certified “Adult” by the Central Board for Film Certification, so imagine the surprise of the police when they entered the parlor to find that “many children were seeing the film at the time of the raid.” The state may be out to “save” our families, but the unsupervised child of the slum emerges alongside the unplanned copy of the film. Like the journey into the Emergency Ward, the raid on the Bombay video parlor uncovered a horrific scene of unseemly reproduction.This essay appears in Vol. 18: Family Planning. Subscribe for $2 and get it today. 

Purana Mandir was packing audiences into theaters and video parlors across the country when, four days later, Indira Gandhi was assassinated on her front lawn in Delhi. Tulsi Ramsay, the director of Purana Mandir, was in the city when it happened: “There was a hold on film exhibition. But on Friday the film resumed. By then the city was burning. But I was ignorant, I was happy with my success.” Purana Mandirwould end the year as the second-highest grossing film nationally, an accomplishment that barely figures as a footnote in 80s history. But in its onscreen and offscreen itineraries—its many virtual and material reproductions, its unplanned family—one can discern a perverse pulse for profusion at odds with the State’s sterile imagination.

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