Home / Opinion / Online Views /  Quentin Tarantino: a uniquely mad genius

Some weeks ago, I had written that a film like Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln could never be made in India: we have too many holy cows, and cannot allow anyone to know that our great men might have had a bit of clay in their feet. A couple of weeks ago, I watched Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, another film on black slavery in the US, and no two films could be more different from each other in every way, while dealing with the same subject. Except for one factor they share: Django Unchained, too, could never have been made in India. For all our lofty talk about social justice and upliftment of the backward and the discriminated-against, an Indian censor board would have to have testicles of the toughest alloy steel to let an Indian Django into the dark of a public cinema hall. And if they did allow the film to be released, our politicians would be on it instantly like a bunch of feral hyenas.

Tarantino, it is well-known, is a uniquely mad genius, and blacks in America (since this is about a Tarantino film, I am not using the politically correct term African-Americans) consider him to be a black film director. Films like Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill are filled with badasses of every skin colour, granting a sort of entertainingly twisted equality of malign intent. But Django is about the nauseating brutality of slavery, with slaves being ripped apart by dogs, their genitalia being sliced off with red-hot blades, slaves being forced to fight each other to death and, of course, the total dehumanization of human beings into movable property to be traded or junked—in this case, killed—at the whims of their white owners. And of course, this being a Tarantino film, when a bullet hits a human body, blood spurts like I have not seen in any other film, and pieces of flesh fly.

But it’s the characters and what they say and how they behave that makes Django, beneath all its fountains of blood and mutilated corpses, perhaps the most complex and honest film of all time on America’s eternal shame. It could also be the most recklessly courageous work of art ever made on race relations.

The storyline is simple, Dr. King Schultz, a bounty hunter of German origin, frees the slave Django since he can identify three men who are on the run with large rewards on their heads. After a winter of very efficient and profitable bounty hunting, Shultz and Django travel to Candieland, the Mississipi estate of the ultra-racist plantation owner Calvin Candie, to free his slave Broomhilda, who is Django’s wife. I won’t be giving away any spoilers if I reveal that matters end happily, with Django reunited with his love, after having slaughtered swarms of evil men and blown Candieland to Kingdom Come.

Take the dialogues first, for Tarantino is perhaps the greatest gutter-poet who ever wrote lines for cinema. Schultz explains what a bounty hunter’s job is to Django, and asks him if he would like to be one. Django’s reply—uber-cool and completely honest in the given context: “Kill white people and get paid for it? What’s not to like?" I doubt if an Indian censor board even if comprised entirely of Dalit activists would have let that line pass in an Indian film.

Schultz is horrified as he watches Candie’s dogs rip a slave apart. Django remains impassive. Comments Candie: “Your boss looks a little green around the gills." Django: “He just ain’t used to seein’ a man ripped apart by dogs is all." Candie: “But you are used to it?" Django: “I’m just a little more used to Americans than he is." That would have sent our censors into paroxysms of confusion. And rightly so. I can imagine political parties and governments falling over one another, asking for the film to be banned, because they cannot assure safety of cinema hall audiences.

About the only important pieces of dialogue that the Indian censors would have allowed if Django was an Indian film would be the white racist stuff, because that’s safe and politically correct social justice territory. Candie delivers a long monologue to Schultz and Django, holding the skull of a dead slave who served three generations of the Candie family, till the current Candie’s grandfather “up and kill’d Joe one day". Candie’s theory is that the area of the skull associated with servility is larger and more developed in an African than any other human being or animal. After all, this man shaved Candie’s father every morning with a very sharp razor for 50 years, and it never struck him to slit his “master’s" throat. None of our political parties would have had a problem with that.

What they would have had a big problem with, however, is one of the most hilarious scenes ever conceived outside a Marx Brothers film, which features a Ku Klux Klan gang, on their way to kill Schultz and Django. As per Klan ritual, the men have to wear bags over their heads with slits for eyes, but they can’t see too well through the slits. Much grumbling and acrimony ensue, with the man whose wife made the bags finally riding away, very angry: “Well f*** all y’all! I’m going home! You know, I watched my wife work all day gettin’ thirty bags together for you ungrateful sons of bitches! And all I hear is criticize, criticize, criticize! From now on, don’t ask me or mine for nothin’!"

A few of the Klansmen ask if they can do without the bags, to which their leader Big Daddy replies: “Oh, well s***fire! If you don’t wear ‘em as you ride up, that just defeats the purpose!" A more pragmatic member suggests: “I think...we all think the bag was a nice idea. But I’m not pointin’ any fingers. Think it coulda been done better. So, how ‘bout, no bags this time? But next time, we do the bags right, and then we go full regalia." Shortly afterwards, they attack, bags on, and are promptly butchered by Schultz and Django.

A few Indian reviewers have had problems with this scene. How can you make the Ku Klux Klan a joke? That’s simply poor taste. But in my view, this is the most intelligent and effective condemnation of these vicious cultists. By laughing at their ineptitude, Tarantino simultaneously achieves two things: he exposes the sheer banality of evil, and shows how the Klansmen were (are) just mundane everyday people—evil is an equal-opportunity employer. As any witness to the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi in 1984 will tell you, on those two or three days, ordinary middle-class Hindus rushed out of their homes and burnt Sikh families alive, and then went back to their average lives and petty jobs. And Tarantino knows that pure contempt is a much deadlier weapon than enraged raillery. Tarantino shames the racists in front of millions of moviegoers across the planet and what can be better than that? And then he gets them all killed too, just for good measure.

But what would have really got our politicians’ and censors’ knickers in a twist if Django was made in India, is the fact that arguably the most evil character in the film is a black man. In fact, as far as skin tone goes, expert make-up renders him the darkest among all the black people in the film. This is Stephen, who has served the Candie family for 76 years. He is more racist and anti-black than any of the whites. He is the sharpest of the villains and it is he who figures out Django’s secret plan and betrays him. While Stephen plays the half-senile slave perfectly in public and is insulted and abused “normatively" by his “master", in private, he behaves and speaks on equal terms with Candie.

It is Stephen who devises what Django’s punishment should be. With great relish, he tells a naked Django, trussed up, gagged and hung upside down: “Seemed like white folk ain’t never had a bright idea in their life, was comin’ up with all kinds o’ ways to kill your ass. Now mind ya, most of ‘dem ideas had to do with f****** with your fun parts. But when you snip a nigger’s nuts, most of ‘em bleed out, in, oh ‘bout…seven minutes, most of ‘em…more ‘n most. Then I says S***fire, the niggers we sell to LeQuint Dickey...And they’re still sayin’ Let’s whip ‘em to death, Throw ‘em to the mandingos, Feed ‘em to Stonesipher’s dogs. And I say, What’s so special ‘bout that? We do that s*** all the time! Hell’s bells, the niggers we sell to LeQuint Dickey Mining Company. And as a slave of the LeQuint Dickey Mining Co., henceforth, till the day you die, all day, ev’ryday, you’ll be swingin’ a sledgehammer, turnin’ big rocks into little rocks. Now when you get there, they give you a number and a sledgehammer, and say, Get to work. One word of sass, and they good at that too. Oh, they does that really good. They gonna work you all day and then they gonna hit you, throw your ass down the nigger hole. And that will be the story of you, Django."

Stephen is the last man Django kills, and the only one he takes time to kill. He shoots Stephen in the kneecaps, immobilizing him, and then blows the building up, so he is burnt alive. So Tarantino’s most brutal act of judgement is reserved for collaborators. But which Indian film-maker will be ever permitted to show that the worst enemies of an oppressed social class may sometimes come from that class itself? That will be too inconvenient for the heavy-handed social justice rhetoric that our political class spouts. Forget the pseudo-ideological politicians, I can well predict the exact nature of the Marxist analysis of Stephen as victim that our leftists will immediately reel out.

And lastly, Tarantino establishes his liberal humanist (I know, that’s a strange word to use for a man whose works revel in gore) credentials subtly and beautifully, in a way only those who have been following his films would get. The one good white man in Django Unchained is Dr. King Schultz and he is a German. In Tarantino’s last film Inglourious Basterds, the villains were brutal anti-Semitic German Nazis, and the scariest one among them was Colonel Hans Landa, the “Jew Hunter", played by Christoph Waltz.

In Django, it’s Waltz again who plays Schultz, a man who abhors slavery, who is willing to pay $12,000, an amount that will pauperise him, to buy back Django’s wife for him. And she is called Broomhilda, after Brunnhilde, the princess in Germany’s most popular mythological saga. So, Django is in a way Siegfried, the hero who must overcome great perils to rescue Brunnhilde from the castle where she has been imprisoned. Surely, this texture that Tarantino overlays his black Western film with, is a wonderfully gracious move from a man who clearly hates evil, but also believes that evil is not inherent in a race, class or creed. And of course, like almost everything Tarantino does, the gesture brimmeth over utter coolness. I, personally, would love it if Tarantino ever makes a sequel, or releases the original director’s cut of Django Unchained, which apparently ran to five hours.

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