Cutty Snark: Hopeful Monsters and Kedarnath

An edited version of this column was published in today’s Hindusan Times.

At first glance, artist Rohini Devasher’s wall print “Genetic Drift: Symbiont II” looks vaguely floral. It seems to burst out of the gallery Project 88’s wall, making the plaster pucker and crack in places.

Rohini Devasher’s  Hopeful Monsters  is currently on at Project 88, Mumbai.

Rohini Devasher’s Hopeful Monsters is currently on at Project 88, Mumbai.

Come a little closer and the ‘flower’ reveals itself to be an unnerving tangle of plant and animal parts. There’s an eye near the centre, teeth in another place, membranes curving like petals, fragments of skeletons pushing their way out. It’s delicate, violent and beautiful – a perfect centrepiece for a show titled Hopeful Monsters.  

Devasher has borrowed the name of her show from a proposition made by 19th-century geneticist Richard Goldschmidt, who thought mutations could yield individuals that deviate radically from the norm. In the right environment, these mutations could become fixed, creating an entirely new species of “hopeful monsters”. Inspired by this idea, Devasher splices together different, varied elements to make the mutants in this show. “Symbiont II”, for instance, contains bits and pieces of snakes, frogs, chameleons as well as numerous flowering plants. The six video works, also titled “Hopeful Monsters”, use layers of video feedback to show butterflies, moths and other insects mutate, shimmering between alien, bizarre and familiar. The print version of this work shows a dizzying collection of unstable hybrid insects against a fractal. Alongside these sharp-edged, brightly-coloured mutations are prints that look like pages from old notebooks. In them we see what looks like pressed samples of shape-shifting flora and fauna (“Atlas Phaenogamia: The Atlas of Mimetic Flowering Plants”). Leaves look like moth wings, the petals of flowers reveal themselves to be insect limbs, the shine of dragonfly moths can be glimpsed in flowers.

Detail from Atlas “Phaenogamia: The Atlas of Mimetic Flowering Plants”.

Detail from Atlas “Phaenogamia: The Atlas of Mimetic Flowering Plants”.

On the facing wall, there’s a quote from the final book in Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy (the first part, Annihilation, was adapted to a film that’s on Netflix), signalling Devasher’s interest in ecology and speculative fiction.

Hopeful Monsters subtly interrogates our understanding of what is normal and natural. Every element in each of the works in the show is from nature and originally wasn’t man-made. The images of them that Devasher has used to create these works, however, are very much man-made and the way she’s brought disparate bits together, forcing them to morph and become new, fictional, fantastic and unreal species is entirely woman-made. Yet they look ‘natural’ and who’s to say they aren’t? After all, this is Devasher’s response as a natural being to the changing environment. Who’s to say that nature isn’t doing the same?

The nature in Hopeful Monsters is not the benign, passive subject of postcards, holiday albums and screensavers. Rather it’s the unpredictable subject that repeatedly outwits those who study it, only for the latter to redouble their efforts. The pages in the “Atlas” as well as the “Hopeful Monster” cabinets are all attempts at pinning nature down through study, to monitor it so that it can be understood and predicted. This is the nature you hope for in the age of climate change and environmental decay because in nature’s ability to evolve lies the hope that all the gloomy forecasts may end up being proven wrong. It’s also the nature you fear because it is monstrous and it goes against the grain of the rules and patterns that we’ve deciphered and used to establish what is normal and natural.

Hopeful Monsters pushes you to think about the changes that are being enabled by progress and those being wrought by forces beyond our control and understanding. While Devasher’s focus is upon the natural world, it’s tempting to wonder what kind of hopeful monsters we’re mutating into as humans, tweaked and twisted as we are by everything that we consume both literally and metaphorically.   

Speaking of consumption, who’d have thunk that in today’s day and age – when just placing the word “Muslim” next to the word “Hindu” may be seen as incitement to riot – there could be such a thing as a bland Hindu-Muslim love story? Give it up for director Abhishek Kapoor, who has managed this feat in Kedarnath.

Even though the film teeters between mediocre and bad, there are two things to be said for Kedarnath. It turns out Sara Ali Khan, who must romance her grandfather’s namesake in this film (fortunately there’s no confusing the two since even a dusty, black and white photo of MAK Pataudi has more charm than Sushant Singh Rajput’s Mansoor in Technicolor), can act and has crackling screen presence. The other remarkable achievement of Kedarnath is that it manages to be escapist while tipping its hat (or in this case, its basket) to current affairs.

A Hindu woman and a Muslim man fall in love in this film, and Kapoor doesn’t make light of the religious fundamentalism and other power structures with which they must contend. Kedarnath is set in a divided society in which a woman is first her father’s property and then her husband’s. In this town, Hindus and Muslims keep their distance from one another as do the rich and the poor. Mansoor’s money shot is when he stands up to a prosperous Muslim-hating Hindu and asserts his right to voicing an opinion in a public meeting despite being poor and a Muslim. He reminds anyone who is willing to listen that Muslims belong as much to Kedarnath as Hindus, and hopefully no one who watches the film is short-sighted enough to think this isn’t true for the rest of India. (Never mind that Rajput delivers his fiery monologue about inclusivity with about as much passion as a frozen potato.)

Every character that is not narrow-minded suffers in Kedarnath. One is physically beaten up, some inflict self-harm, a few are psychologically scarred. Even before the floods devastate the pilgrimage town, the open-minded people become victims because society has decided that the way they think is in violation of the norms that have established what is natural. Which is particularly ironic since the floods that destroy Kedarnath show humans don’t really have a handle on nature.

Incidentally, while it’s idiotic and shameful that the film is banned in Uttarakhand, if the rivers are indeed sentient being as Hinduism suggests, it might be in all our best interests to not have an open-air screening of Kedarnath on the banks of the river Mandakini. Because if Mandakini sees the appalling CGI version of herself in which her waters look vaguely like a compound of saliva and gelatin, the river has every reason to be extremely upset. Of course, this is not the reason Uttarakhand doesn’t want Kedarnath showing in the state. Its tourism minister said the film is “completely against our beliefs and tradition”, which is baffling. Is he claiming fathers in Uttarakhand don’t decide who their daughter’s will marry? Or that there are no Muslim porters? District magistrates in Uttarakhand were asked to decide whether they thought the film would cause law and order problems, and apparently, they decided that Kedarnath had the potential to do so. There’s no report that these bureaucrats came to this conclusion after watching the film. All it takes, apparently, is the idea of a Hindu and a Muslim falling in love.

Yet, despite all this, Kedarnath is entirely unprovocative and completely inoffensive (unless you’re the river Mandakini. Then you have every reason to feel offended). Should we be disappointed that watching Mukku and Mansoor’s love story doesn’t light anyone’s fire? Or does Kapoor deserve a standing ovation for being able to defuse the idea of “love jihad” and make it as benign as any other story about star-crossed lovers? Is it a failure of Kedarnath that Mukku and Mansoor feel like any other pair of star-crossed lovers in fiction or a victory that Kapoor has been able to depict a love story as just that, rather than a political tirade? Kapoor is one of the few Bollywood directors to let reality inform the fantasy world of his films occasionally. Much like in Kapoor’s Kai Po Che, which didn’t shy away from showing the communal riots of Gujarat, communalism is an ugly reality in Kedarnath, but it’s an ugly reality that is overshadowed by a simple, uncomplicated, traditional romance. Whether or not you like his work, at least Kapoor attempts to platform issues that most avoid with a vengeance. In a country consuming and consumed by fear, this is worth a round of applause (even if the film he’s made isn’t).