One of the things missing from my childhood was a visit to a circus. My parents took me to fairgrounds, to zoos, to all kinds of odd shows and places, but never a circus, or at least not one that I remember anyway. My understanding of circuses, the fairground freaks, the bearded women, the strongman etc. etc. are essentially derived from the movies.
The most powerful example of course is Tod Browning’s delirious and beautiful Freaks (1932). This film, beloved of Bunuel, Ophuls and Herzog, began as an attempt by MGM studios to cash-in on the horror film craze of the early 30s but they instead got something truly strange and wonderful. Tod Browning cast actual “freaks”, who today would be called all sorts of PC-friendly phrases I imagine, in these roles and the film is fascinating for its documentary quality. It’s a movie not without its problems but the sincere humanism and the way it articulates the notion of “The Other”, the imagined enemy to a perceived idea of normal behavior, makes it one of the most radical films of American Cinema. In Browning’s film, it is the normal people who are the real freaks and they end up becoming “One of Us”, that is a true freak rather than a freak in denial.
The Indian oral tradition and daily life has long held a fascination for freaks, people who can breathe fire, light cigarettes within their jaws, impossible piercings, faces covered in boils, people who eat bricks and so on. The much loathed Western stereotype of India as the “land of snake charmers” undoubtedly has its roots in our native freak tradition. Beggars with disabilities, who roll around in wooden boards with wheels have always garner a specific expression of pity that you have to be from Mumbai to really recognize. And it is this freak-appreciation, in my view, that forms the true source of the half-reluctant, half-pitying giving of petty coins or token notes to beggars. A similar mix of shame/pity/curiosity drives the interactions between urbanites and eunuchs and cross-dressers.
Indian life abounds with a strong attraction-repulsion towards freaks, not usually from the part of the freaks themselves, but among the people who call them freaks to begin with. The presence of freaks and the discussion of what is freaky define our idea of normal behavior. When I say “our” I mean of course, the self of the middle-class, the Brahmin, the Merchant, the young professional, the concerned mother and the domineering father who must always, in our movies, learn the message of tolerance while incurring no social or personal consequence from the realization of the same. In life and the media, this represents the well-meaning politically correct perspective of people who profess tolerance from the height of educated enlightenment and cosmopolitan exposure, a sincerity that regards the freakshow without ever having to accept that theyare freaks themselves.Take for example say, the Punjabi Miss World Beauty Contest Winner, Priyanka Chopra, playing the Manipuri World Amateur Boxing Champion Mary Kom.
As a movie, Mary Kom is expectedly amateurish, lacking in ambition and, this is the bane of the genre of sports movies, not really compelling as a film narrative. Had the film cast a Manipuri or North-Eastern actress, it would not be improved by any great measure. Just as casting a real Sikh to play Milkha Singh would not improve Bhaag Milkha Bhaag.
However, as a freakshow, Mary Kom is fascinating.
To lend poignance to the experience of growing up poor and marginal in North-East India and rising from these circumstances to be a sportsman of international renown, Priyanka Chopra creates a certain spectacle. She dons make-up and slanted eyebrows to look Manipuri. She trains and bulks her muscles to show, yes, women can be just as just as strong as men do. She achieved this, undoubtedly with the best training regimen available at her considerable resources, with a fair bit of personal investment and hard work on her part.
Why do I say it is compelling as a Freakshow? What makes a freakshow a freakshow is the manner in which it invokes a certain living reality, what the writer Roland Barthes would describe as its “structuring absence”.
In the same light in which we commend Priyanka Chopra for her effort in building her muscles, for applying her make-up, for her daring in changing her image from a romantic comedy actress to an action movie star, let us consider the effort it would take for a Manipuri girl to be Miss World or an actress who appears in anything other than ethnic parts in Indian films, say a romantic leading lady opposite Hrithik Roshan in a film by Yash Chopra or his family concern?
Now, that would be the true Freakshow. For one thing it would depict a greater social acceptance of diversity than actually exists in India.
The best Freakshows are compelling because they ultimately remind us that the real freaks are the people who come to gawk. In that light, Mary Kom with the generally uncritical acceptance by the industry, the lack of insight or dialogue on representation in Hindi films and the middle-class horror of being accused or judged racist makes it pretty entertaining, even if it reinforces that North-East tribal women are not really “one of us”.