“What kind of a world is this?” a student was quoted as saying after the latest high school shooting in the US. The date was November 14. The place was Saugus High School in Los Angeles. A student – reportedly on his 16th birthday – had pulled out a handgun from his backpack and shot indiscriminately at schoolmates before shooting himself in the head. Two students, a 16-year-old girl and a 14-year-old boy, died after being taken to a hospital. At least three other students were injured. This was the 31st High School shooting in US in 2019 alone – not counting dozens of other mass shootings.
“What kind of a world is this?”
I imagine the student who asked this question to be about the age on my older children. I imagine the question is aimed at us, the generations in jobs and, hence, in power. I suspect that my generation will ignore this question or scoff at it, just as we often tend to ignore or scoff or smile in a superior fashion at the climate activism of young people like Greta Thunberg.
But what kind of a world is this?
I was reading about the Saugus High School shooting online. I thought I would investigate. After all, the internet, they say, brings the world to your desk. But even before I could key into Google or some other search engine, an ad popped up: it featured the DC film, The Joker, which was running in town. My older children had just seen it and recommended it to me, but I had hesitated to see it. My hesitation had to do with two matters. I have known mentally and psychically disturbed people, and I have always found popular Hollywood depiction of personality disorders deeply troubling: they seem to milk the disorder for all possible shock effects, in a way that repeatedly reminds me of the way “non-European” people were categorised as “cannibals” and “savages” in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Yes, people with personality disorders are different from “us”, just as Santhals and Maoris and Hausa were different from Germans and Scots. But to turn that complex difference into a menacing thriller – which is what seems to happen every time mainstream Hollywood ventures into this territory – is exactly the same as talking of the difference of non-Europeans in terms of savagery and other such shocking-thrilling matters. That was one reason I had no desire to be entertained by The Joker.
The other reason was violence. Now, I confess that I have appreciated films with a dose of violence. Not just films that examine the horrors of violence, such as the best war films, but also those that offer a more aestheticised version. For instance, I still love good Westerns. Usually not films starring bossy John Wayne, for I never took to him even as a child, but, say, spaghetti westerns. Think of the vast spaces and the haunting music of The Good, The Bad and the Ugly: it was undoubtedly a violent film, but it was violent in a way that recent “cartoon-based” Marvell or DC films and other fantasy films simply cannot be. And the difference can be explained with reference to the evolution of Bollywood films in this case.
My father, who grew up watching Sunil Dutt, Dev Anand and Dilip Kumar, initially did not take to Amitabh Bachchan, the superstar of my generation, though later, like the rest of India, he got addicted to his mannerisms and baritone. My father’s initial objection had to do with violence: he found Amitabh Bachchan films violent. The idea of heroes beating up villains to pulp was new to his generation: Prem Chopra and Pran usually repented after a slap or two or were carted off to prison in the films that he had watched. Not these endless blows and kicks and somersaults, any single one of which could kill a normal human being.
But even here, looking back, there was a difference.
For instance, that path-breaking action film, the Salim-Javed scripted Amitabh-starrer from 1973, Zanjeer, still presents violence as having an impact on the body. The figures are not fantastic in it. As the action film developed in Bollywood, working its way past the chapatti-Western, Sholay, violence got more and more stylised, more phantasmatic, so to say. Now, you have the hero, and sometimes the heroine, laying a dozen villains low, or being beaten to pulp, and then bouncing back intact, unscarred: it looks, today, as if violence has almost no effect on the body. On the other side of the globe, Hollywood films, based on comic books and fantasy novels, with great computer effects and unbelievable creatures, are another example of it: even as violence has exploded on the screen, its sheer bodily impact has been denuded.
I thought of all this, as I clicked my way past that ad of The Joker, and tried to look up information to answer the boy who had asked: “What kind of a world is this?” I increasingly saw this boy in the US as a version of my 18-year-old son. I wanted to answer him.
As I surfed through recent articles and events online, this is what a gleaned about our world: A child born today will live in a world that will be four degrees warmer than in pre-industrial times, a change that has the potential to seriously undermine our health systems, one article stated. Fires were burning across Brazil and Australia, and at least in the case of Brazil the government seemed more interested in making money from the land than in protecting nature. There were untimely floods and cyclones in other parts of the world, including Bengal and Venice.
The military had ordered the leader of Bolivia to resign, and this had been celebrated as a victory for democracy by USA. The death toll in Syria was rising again, though no one seemed to have been counting the dead in Syria since April 2016, as far as I could see online, when it had crossed 150,000. Both the UK and the USA were selling ammunition, weapons and related items to Saudi Arabia, which was actively involved in shelling civilians in Yemen.
Israel had killed a militant Islamist leader in the Gaza Strip, inducing the Islamists to launch rockets into Israel, inducing Israel to fire back, killing 32 Palestinians. Rohingyas, currently forgotten, were still stateless. Kurds, once indirectly assured of support in a bid to have their own state, had now been abandoned (this time by USA) once again. Pro-democracy protestors were out in places, like Hong Kong and Lebanon, and mostly being policed into order. Many other protests, especially by aboriginal peoples, were not even being fully reported.
Just a 100 km from me, in a neighbouring town, Neo-Nazis had desecrated a Jewish cemetery on the 81st anniversary of Kristallnacht, the first major pogrom against Jews in Nazi Germany. An Amnesty report noted that the top 100 arms companies made an estimated $398.2 billion worth of sales in 2017 and USA accounted for 36 per cent of world military spending in 2018. The list was long. And I had only looked at articles that popped up in one go.
This, son, is the kind of world we have made.
Entertainment, whether from Hollywood and Bollywood, is part of this endless and needless violence that our world often defends, sometimes celebrates. The shooter at Saugus High School, a quiet and inoffensive boy according to his classmates, had stepped out of this world. He had stepped into this world. Reportedly, a day earlier, he had posted on Instagram: “Saugus have fun at school tomorrow.”