Meat as metaphor

The films ‘Jallikattu’ and ‘Aamis’ deploy the desire for meat to explore the concepts of love, altruism, greed, aggression

Given a choice between the predictable and the prohibited, what would you go for? How far would you go to gratify your greed for the forbidden? Have you ever considered exhibiting your deepest desires uninhibitedly? Have you ever thought what you apprehend to be taboo might be a mere social construction, perhaps even the most normal thing to do in another time or place? What if it’s a desire for consuming human flesh? 

In Lijo Jose Pellissery’s 2019 film Jallikattu, a group of Kerala villagers go out to capture and kill a buffalo that has escaped from the butcher’s shop. The hunt descends into horror as, in their lust for the animal, the villagers themselves transform into beasts. 

In this moment, one villager asks another in a hushed tone, “Do you know which is the tastiest meat in the world?”

 “Which is it?”

“Human flesh.”

The yearning for buffalo meat, in that moment of orgy (from the Ancient Greek orgia, meaning “secret rites” for the God Bacchus), transcends into a yearning for the human flesh. This letting loose of the Dionysian impulse culminates in the formation of an esoteric geometrical shape resembling a pyramid. As both the beast and the butcher are sacrificed and buried underneath this human pyramid, the filmmaker juxtaposes and conflates the idea of the animal and the human, the prey and the predator, the society and the herd. In the film, meat is a metaphor of greed and gluttony, as  also the latent anarchy which lurks beneath and haunts our so-called civilized society.  

The word “cannibal”, in popular discourse, is attributed to Christopher Columbus. The origin is completely anecdotal. It comes from the Spanish Caribes meaning “Caribbean people”, who were thought of to be maneaters. The word, therefore, was meant to create a distance between the self and the other, the civilized and the barbarian, the European and the non-European. Not only were cannibals considered as the “others”, the “others” were believed to be cannibals. 

It caused quite a stir in mid-eighteenth century Britain, when Jonathan Swift, in his (in)famous Juvenilian satire, proposed selling children as meat to the English gentry as a possible remedy for Irish poverty. “I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection,” he wrote. “I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.”

This fleeting reference to Swift in Jallikattu is similar to another film, which uses the phenomenon of cannibalism quite explicitly in its portrayal of metaphysical love. In Bhaskar Hazarika’s Aamis, released last year, we find Nirmali, a middle-aged pediatrician, and Sumon, a much younger PhD student working on the meat eating traditions in the Northeast and a bona fide member of the “Meat Club”, indulge in a collective quest for the forbidden. Although in love, they refrain from even the simple act of touching each other and consider anything physical to be taboo. To quench Nirmali’s appetite for meat, the boy cooks every time with a piece of flesh cut out from his own body. And each time Nirmali devours the meat, she feels elated. The forbidden meat produces a kind of ecstasy, as we see in the film, running through her body. It’s only after a mishap that they are caught. This sudden discovery of the presence of a cannibal (a female Hannibal Lecter!) amidst the busy and mundane city life shakes everyone up from their complacency. A chill runs down the streets of Guwahati. It isn’t until the very last scene that we find the two lovers almost unflinchingly holding each other’s finger in front of a curious crowd. 

The quest for meat and, in this case the human flesh, thus, becomes a manifestation (or what Sigmund Freud would call “sublimation”) of hidden desires: of love which is beyond any kind of societal definition, of a relationship where the self sacrifices part by part to the other without expecting anything in return, of a feeling which cannot be articulated through language. As opposed to Jallikattu, meat is a symbol of selflessness and altruism in Aamis. Whereas in Jallikattu meat is a metaphor for hostility and aggression, in Aamis it is a metaphor for hospitality and tenderness. 

Jallikattu premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last year and is currently streaming on Amazon Prime. Aamis was premiered at Jio MAMI and is now available on Movie Saints.  n

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