Hate and Horror-THE UNDERBUG
By Maribeth Thueson
It’s India’s Independence Day, and sectarian violence is raging across the countryside. A man (Hussain Dalal), his shirt covered in blood, stumbles through verdant undergrowth and comes upon an isolated bungalow, apparently deserted. He is frightened and anxious, and warily searches the house to make sure no one is there. There are clues that inhabitants have come to a bad end; lamps are overturned, the radio is blaring, and there’s a pool of blood on the floor. He settles in to wait out the riots.
Before long, another man (Ali Fazal) forces his way through the door. He seems unhinged and prone to sudden rage. The men square off against each other. “Who are you?” they shout. “Are you Hindu or Muslim?” By mutual consent, they decide that the only way to survive the day is not to answer; as long as they don’t know, they have no reason to hate each other, and no reason to kill each other.
They barricade themselves in the house and turn the lights off so they won’t be discovered. The house is dark, the atmosphere oppressive and tense, but they eventually relax enough to talk and reveal some details of their lives. But even then, the conversation is full of landmines — the issue of what each likes to eat with lamb, yogurt or pickles, threatens to upset the delicate balance they’ve established.
It seems they just might make it through the day, but then they become aware of another presence in the house, a shadowy figure that disappears into thin air when they try to capture it. They become so terrified that they are driven to madness.
The Underbug looks like just another low-budget horror film on the surface. It uses the familiar tactic of not showing the “monster,” which ratchets up the tension while saving on expenses, and it succeeds on that level. The way the camera follows the men through the house enhances the claustrophobia, and the score, full of spooky horns and cymbals, produces an eerie atmosphere.
But there’s a lot more going on here. Director Shujaat Saudagar wanted to explore why people hate and what makes them commit atrocities. The answer in the film is obvious — fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and hate leads to violence. And the prime motivator of fear is poverty and the formation of a permanent underclass who are looked down on and dismissed by the rich. At first we don’t know if the characters are perpetrators or victims of the riots, but we do know they are poor. “Have you ever seen such a large bathroom?” one of them says. “It’s bigger than my whole flat.” There’s also an interesting twist that involves guilt and the tricks it can play on the mind.
At one hour and eight minutes, The Underbug is a quick view that stays with you, a character study masquerading as a horror film. In Hindi with English subtitles, the film played at the Slamdance Film Festival. Watch our interview with director Shujaat Saudagar on our recent podcast episode.