Interrogating the Human-Monster Agency in the Film ‘Roohi’
By Saikat Chakraborty
This article would explore how the recent Bollywood 2021 horror film Roohi, directed by Hardik Mehta, interrogates gender discrimination prevalent in Indian society. The film is set in the village of Bagadpur where the girls are kidnapped against their will for marriage. This is known as “Pakdai Shadi” or Catch-Marriage in the film. Roohi, played by Janhvi Kapoor is abducted by Bhawra, played by Raj Kumar Rao, and Kattanni, played by Varun Sharma. Before Roohi’s forced wedding there is a casualty in the bride’s home and therefore Bhawra and Kattanni are forced by their boss Guniya Bhai, played by Manav Vij to keep Roohi kidnapped in their farmhouse. Later, it is revealed that Roohi is possessed by a demon called Afza, who is also known as the ‘Mudiyapairi’ or the twisted-feet-witch. On the day of the full blue moon, the Mudiayapairi fulfils her desire by marrying along with the human body she has possessed. If this marriage doesn’t occur, the possessed girl dies along with the Mudiyapairi. The rubric of the film problematizes when Bhawra falls in love with Roohi and Kattanni falls in love with Afza because they refuse to dispose Roohi according to Guniya’s orders. The lurking danger of police forces Guniya Bhai to send henchmen to kill Roohi but they instead are attacked by the demon Afza. Meanwhile, an old woman, previously possessed by the Mudiyapairi tells Bhawra that if the possessed girl is married to a man who is already married, the Mudiyapairi becomes a mistress and not a wife. Therefore, she leaves the body of the possessed girl. Towards the end of the film, we find that Afza while attempting to marry Kattanni, mistakes him for Bhawra, who had actually married a dog in order to frame ‘kapat kanyadan’ (faux marriage). Finally, Roohi embraces Afza and they marry each other.
It is important to understand, in the first place, horror as genre, why it is different from other genres, and how this particular film can be considered as horror film. It is well known that the presence of a monster and ghost, the representation of technocratic and futurist world order, and also the depiction of possible alternative societies have marked the genre since ages. However, according to Noel Carroll horror as a genre must be identified by the emotional affect it creates (17). However, thriller or suspense genre similarly produces the emotional affect. Thus, what differentiates horror from other genres is the perspective which a monster (any entity which is not natural) has been represented from. But science fiction also has a purview that includes monsters, though it always has emphasized the possibility of technocratic and futurist alternative society at the expense of monster. In other words, the monster always plays a second fiddle to the machinic future. Therefore, the centrality of the monster can be regarded as an important penchant of the horror genre. Though this also cannot be taken as a concluding remark since the fantastical world of myths and fairy tales also deals with the monstrous presence.
Therefore, the difference lies in the binarization of the ’self’ and ‘other’. The world of myths and fairy tales, according to Tzvetan Todorov is a world of the ‘marvellous’ which is in sharp contrast to our natural world. In an unnatural world, the monster is not posited as a radical other (Carroll 16). But in the horror genre, the world depicted reflects the human world where the monster becomes an unnatural and radical Other. This binarization of the ‘Self’ and the ‘Other’ posits the monster as an outcaste-something outside the natural order of the society. This Otherization of the monster creates a sense of unification between the audience and the human characters of the genre. The same emotional affect is felt by the audience as well as the human characters (readers) of a text. This mirroring of the emotions of the audiences could be observed both in Bhawra and Kattanni. Bhawra is afraid of Roohi’s counterpart Afza who is the monster in the film. Every time he confronts her, he has a feeling of fright that makes him shriek or even repulse. It is the similar emotion that the audience share with Bhawra in the beginning of the film. As the narrative moves forward, we see Kattanni falling in love with Afza or even share a sense of easiness with her. We as audience, also integrate ourselves into the story and understand that the monster is not harmful or threatening. Eventually we also feel a sense of easiness with the monster. This is where, we as audience are constantly differentiated between the emotions of easiness and eeriness. Apart from that, the old-woman, previously possessed by Mudiyapairi constantly helps Roohi and Afza to be together through her remedies of faux marriage or ‘kapat kanyadan’. Her assistance apparently seems to be in favour of Bhawra who wishes to free Roohi from the possession of Afza. The audience also feel convinced by her remedies just like Bhawra. However, at the end, the old-woman’s spectral disappearance allows Bhawra to perceive that he has actually been tricked, and the old-woman is actually helping the Mudiyapairi. Like Bhawra, the movie ends in a surprise for the audience who has been emotively connected to the narrative. Therefore, it can be said that the presence of the monster as the radical Other allows us to integrate with the human characters of the narrative and our emotions are also manifested in the human characters of the narrative.
My interest in the film, however, lies primarily in two places: the manifestation of gender discrimination and the representation of the monster which could negate the patriarchal domination. The age-old ritual of pakdai shadi, as showed in the film, is celebrated by the villagers and even accepted by the women. When a young girl seems attractive to a man, his family gives contract to Guniya Bhai’s company that has a hundred percent record in pakdai shadi. The most astonishing fact is when a young girl retaliates against this vice, the older women pacify her by saying that they had gone through the same experience. Thus, the females are shown to be an object or a property without agency, that needs to be possessed by the male counterpart. This particular conception brings the ‘subject-object’ dualism to the foreground. The idea of human body is embedded into the possibilities of possessing and being possessed. Phenomenologically a human body is both a subject and object at the same time (Tiukalo 78). However, in a patriarchal society, as argued by Simone de Beauvoir, man has always been posited as the subject while the woman as the object (Tiukalo 79). Thus, the woman becomes subjected to the objectification of the man. This particular kidnapping saga is just a resurfacing of this social vice.
Additionally, Guniya Bhai’s company runs on the transaction value of the kidnapped girls. He acquires monetary profit by accepting contract of kidnapping a girl from the bride’s family. Therefore, the girl’s body and her will to marriage is transacted and appropriated in a typical capitalist manner. The female body and her will to marriage become equivalent to a certain amount of money. In other words, the value of the woman’s body and her will to marriage is appropriated within the capitalist market of Bagadpur. This idea of capitalism aided by patriarchy often measures marriage and sexuality in terms of production value and procreation (Foucault, Power/Knowledge 55-57). For this production value system, the masturbating child, the homosexual, or even the queer is considered as a monster or Other.
The narrative becomes interested when Roohi is possessed by Afza, which can be considered as the site of resistance. Roohi refusing to marry Guniya’s bride would not necessarily interrogate the capitalist market because her marriage with Bhawra or even Afza’s unification with Kattanni would fall into the trap of procreation and production value. This is where Roohi’s marriage with Afza signifies a homosexual turn where the idea of production value is interrogated, and the idea of sexuality beyond procreation is resurfaced. Thus, Roohi-Afza agential unit is necessitated as monster or even as the radical Other. So, my paper would contend that the Roohi-Afza agential unit posits a sense of resistance aided by supernatural powers. Put simply, woman liberation is possible only when the woman becomes superwoman, a radical Other or even a monster. This is where, despite the woman liberation, the woman remains on the fringes of history and society either as a monster or as an Other. Thus, Roohi’s newly conceived powers through Afza allows her to attack the henchmen, dismantle patriarchal violence, and at the end marry each other. The marriage of Roohi and Afza and the merger of Afza’s supernatural powers into Roohi liberates her from the traumas of a forced marriage where her body is objectified. It allows her to make a choice as a subject. Her homosexual marriage challenges the norms of heteronormativity and sexuality attached to procreation. But she still remains as the radical other or in other words the monster in the society. So, even within the trope of woman liberation, there is a sense of Otherization. Thus, one can easily point out that the Roohi-Afza agential unit is monstrous, as something that is separated from the society. This is how the patriarchal sanctity is restored, and it almost becomes a manifesto that the one who doesn’t subscribe to pakdai shadi is a monster and therefore, the society sanctions this.
The Roohi-Afza agential unit challenges the patriarchal sanctity of the society because it is not the monster in proper generic sense or the radical Other. Instead, it is integrated into the human realm. Afza and Roohi respectively mean ‘augmentation’ and ‘soul’. Here, Roohi is the body who has the ‘Rooh’; or soul and her body is possessed by the spirit who is ‘augmenting’- thereby inculcating an organic turn. Thus, the body and soul are entangled with each other, making the agential unit all too humanly. Afza is also annoyed for being a mistress or the second wife of a man. This sense of jealousy and the craving for the status of a wife makes the monster a human. Apart from that, Kattanni falls for Afza, the monstrous agency in the movie. This human emotion and the bond between them integrate Afza into the human realm. Her powers become more challenging to the patriarchal society as she cannot be disposed outside the human norms just by marking her as ‘Mudiyapairi’ or the witch with twisted-feet. Afza is also capable of solving riddles given by Kattanni, which shows that she is very much integrated into the symbolic order called language. According to the structural and post-structural theories, language is a system within which the human exists through certain signs. Thus, the monster’s access to language makes her part of human order. The eating of ‘paan’ (betel leaf) as a delicacy is also an age-old practice in Indian societies. Thus, Afza eating paan from one of the exorcists and calling out for elaichi in it also integrates her within the society and makes her humanly.
Though there is also no denial of the fact that the Roohi-Afza agential unit is a monstrous presence from the visual perspectives. This is made conspicuous by Bhawra as he looks for a remedy to free Roohi from Afza. Bhawra himself is very much afraid of Afza that makes her a monster because the positive characters of a horror narrative, as suggested by Noel Carrol should be emotionally afraid of the monster (16). Yet he refuses to leave her because he loves Roohi. This dialectic of fear and fanfare signifies that the Roohi-Afza agential unit is neither a monster nor a human. Instead, it is a Foucauldian human-monster. Michel Foucault in his book Abnormal states that, the human-monster creates a certain sense of anxiety within the laws of the society because it violates and breaches the law while trapping it. It leaves the law with nothing to say. The law cannot exercise violence on the human-monster because it stands both inside-outside the law. Thus, there cannot be a complete demarcation through Otherization because it is very much human and there also cannot be a suppression or medical cure because it is a monster (56-57). Thus, the agency of Roohi and Afza leaves the patriarchal norms of the society in an anxious limbo. Thus, she neither marries Guniya’s bride nor accepts the heteronormativity of the society by loving Bhawra or Kattanni. So, at the end of the film, we are shown that Bhawra and Kattanni wait anxiously for either Roohi or Afza to turn back. If Afza turns back, Kattanni’s love will be acknowledged, and if Roohi turns back, Bhawra’s love will be acknowledged. However, we see Roohi looking at the mirror of the bike and the mirror image is of Afza who looks back at Roohi. It is almost like a ‘subho-drishti’ (a sanctified eye contact between a couple while marrying each other). The scene is significant because it portrays that Roohi is in love with her counterpart Afza. This relationship entails a two-fold resistance. First, she resists her objectification by rejecting to marry Guniya’s bride. Secondly, she refuses to subscribe to the heteronormative norms of the society. As a woman she asserts herself as a subject, as someone having an agency who makes a radical choice for her life partner. This is exemplified by the last comment of the movie where the old woman tells the police that Roohi has fled with herself (metaphorically signifying her other half, Afza).
Carroll, Noel. The Philosophy of Horror. Routledge, 1990.
Foucault, Michel. Abnormal: Lectures at the College de France 1974-1975, translated by
Graham Burchell, Verso, 2003.
—. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977 by Michel
Foucault, edited by Colin Gordon. Pantheon Books, 1980.
Tiukalo, Alicja. “The Notion of the Body and Sex in Simone de Beauvoir’s Philosophy”.
Human Movement, Vol. 13 (1), pp. 78-85.
Saikat Chakraborty is an integrated MPhil PhD Scholar in the Department of English, Kazi Nazrul University. He has submitted his MPhil thesis titled So much in a Name!: Reading Genealogies of Vehicle Inscriptions. His recent publications include “Cthulu and the snake: (Im)Possibility of posthuman ipseity in an international peer reviewed journal, Consortium. His paper titled “Breast and its surplus: Re reading of Mahasweta Devi’s ‘Breast Giver’ and Yogesh Pagare’s ‘Mulakaram’” is forthcoming from Lexington books, an imprint of Rowman and Little field. He can be reached at 9064525801.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.