Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine
Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine

Can you watch a child suffer or die?

The victimization of children in film and our response to it is a reminder that cinema is both seductive and terrifying

At a time when much of our public discourse centres on how to deal with humour that is jet black, offensive or tasteless—or some combination of the three—I think about the scene in the 2010 film Blue Valentine in which Dean (Ryan Gosling) asks Cindy (Michelle Williams) to tell him a joke. Without missing a beat, she begins: “So, there’s a child molester and a little boy walking into the woods…"

By the time she ends her monologue (with the punchline, “You think you’re scared, kid? I have to walk out of here alone!"), Dean is shaking his head in disbelief—but he is also smiling.

I thought the scene was very funny and I’m hoping that doesn’t brand me as someone who covertly approves of the rape or murder of children. Maybe it was the context: Williams’ dry, droning recital of the joke; our knowledge that Cindy is a depressive who has been at the receiving end of abuse herself; the fact that Dean is a stand-in for the viewer who is simultaneously repulsed, amused and gobsmacked by his own response. Or maybe it’s just a reminder that the synapses in our brains that respond to nasty, morbid humour live in separate compartments from the synapses that handle morality or empathy, and that both sets of things combine to make us the enormously complex clockwork oranges that we are.

It’s easy to see why child victimization is a taboo subject in situations that might be perceived as flippant. In the last century, images of ravaged children have typically been used as conscience-shakers: in documentaries about the Holocaust, for example, or those unforgettable photos of a baby being buried after the Bhopal gas tragedy and a scalded Vietnamese girl fleeing a napalm attack. But what if such images occur in a fictional film, as part of what is essentially a thrill-creating venture (even if it is mixed with compassion)?

“Making a child die in a picture is a rather ticklish matter," François Truffaut said, alluding to the climax of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1936 film Sabotage, in which the heroine’s adolescent brother is killed by a bomb he is unwittingly carrying around. “It comes close to an abuse of cinematic power."

One could say that the rules were different 80 years ago, and much less was permissible on screen. But the type of film, the intended impact, and the audience and culture it is made for matter too: Five years before Sabotage, in 1931, two iconic films—Fritz Lang’s M and James Whale’s Frankenstein—contained very effective child killings, one brutal and premeditated, the other accidental. And even today, such scenes can be provocative and can reveal a lot about cinema and its viewers.

Consider two manifestations of the theme in recent Anurag Kashyap films. Ugly ends with one of the starkest scenes you’ll see in a mainstream movie, one that includes an unblinking shot of the long-dead body of a little girl. Unpleasant though it is, the scene serves what most viewers would consider a moral function: Over the course of the film’s narrative, the adults who were searching for the kidnapped girl repeatedly got sidetracked by games of one-upmanship and petty ego battles; now, at the very end, comes a reminder of what was at stake all along and what the price of the distraction was. Innocence has been lost and sidelined, and our sympathies are entirely with the child.

Kashyap’s Raman Raghav 2.0 is a very different matter, an amoral work that employs the killer’s perspective, not to “justify" what he does, but to show us what the world might look like to a warped or nihilistic mind, how his actions might flow organically from his basic nature. The psychotic Raman (an outstanding Nawazuddin Siddiqui) massacres a family; the little boy, tied to a chair while his parents are killed, is dispensed with last. We don’t see this murder being committed (a reminder that some taboos still exist), but in the next scene, as policemen, clasping handkerchiefs to their mouths, discover the carnage days later, we see brief glimpses of the decomposing bodies—including a long shot of the child’s legs bent over the overturned chair.

As Mint pointed out in its review, Raman ultimately comes across as the less detestable of the film’s two villains (the other being the policeman, Raghavan), and this is remarkable, considering what we have seen him do to the family. Our growing fascination with Raman derives partly from the script, but in my view it also has to do with Siddiqui’s charisma and talent (and, to a degree, with the informed viewer’s subconscious rooting for this short-statured, dark-complexioned underdog who has made it big against all odds in an often non-meritocratic industry).

Weirdly, this is at least the third time in a recent film that Siddiqui has played someone who is involved in a child’s death (I’m not counting Aatma, in which he plays a ghost who tries to persuade his little daughter to jump from the balcony so she can join him in the sweet hereafter). In Te3n, his involvement was indirect and he wasn’t the bad guy. In Badlapur, Siddiqui’s character didn’t murder cold-bloodedly, but he was responsible for the death. And now, as if to take things to their logical crescendo, we have this grisly scene in Kashyap’s film.

Ugly, though full of solid performances, has no one actor or character who takes over the screen and holds us spellbound, which is one reason why it’s so easy for us to return our attention to the little girl. But when I think of the most compelling moments in Raman Raghav 2.0, the image of the tearful boy is quickly overridden by the memory of Siddiqui’s hypnotic gaze and wild-eyed storytelling. It’s a testament to how a great performance or sharp writing can temporarily suspend our ethical facilities, and a reminder of why cinema can be such a seductive and terrifying engine at the same time.

Above The Line is a fortnightly column on Hindi cinema and how it presents the world. Jai Arjun Singh tweets at @jaiarjun.