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Knifing the Body – Depiction of Maiming in Cinema

October 1, 2018 | By and

Filmmakers have often relied on gore as a mode to make the audience uncomfortable with our very own physiology. Amitava and Shiladitya dig deeper into this genre.

Yeh haath humko de Thakur in Sholay

Much before Shylock claimed a pound of Portia’s flesh, the sly mentor Dronacharya took advantage of Eklavya’s loyalty by asking for his thumb as ‘Guru Dakshina’. The conspiratorial nature of his demand to maintain Arjuna’s supremacy in archery mutates into an aggressive war cry in the film Sholay with the now iconic dialogue: “Ye haath humko de Thakur.” And Hannibal Lector takes a satanic step in Silence of the Lambs by actualizing his penchant for human flesh by mutilating a guard’s face with his teeth and then, again, in the film’s sequel enjoys above all things the fried brains of his captor. To this diabolic series one could also add the way in which, breaking all codes of civility, a dead soldier is beheaded in an ominous display of victory during a real conflict involving two warring nations.

The human body, a sacred site in itself, has often been subjected to such odious insults and inexplicable wounds. What guides such impulses? In truth, maiming or mutilating the human body could be seen as markers of revenge, power, suppression, or in some cases a token to prove skewed loyalty either to the state or to one’s beloved.

Filmmakers have often relied on such gore as a mode to make the audience uncomfortable with our very own physiology. The violence typified by images of bodies hanging from meat hooks or the eyes being pierced with needles – excess staple in many contemporary Japanese or South Korean films – is however not the focus of this article. Instead, the accent is on those films that expressly employ mutilation as a fulcrum to turn the plot, underscore a character’s persona or bring forth a catharsis for the protagonist through a violent payback. In rare cases, a few auteurs have used the body metaphorically, depicting images of maiming layered with surreal and philosophical strains.

The slashing of an eye in Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou (Pic: Little White Lies)

Recall Un chien Andalou – a short by Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali, a work that salts the senses with its iconic moment – the slashing of an eye with a razor.

Nicking takes a horrific corporal turn in Nagisha Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses. In the climatic sexual scene, the protagonist Sada Abe slits the genitals of her lover Kichizo as an affirmation of their continuing passion for one another.  Her grisly impulse may seem as a figment of the director’s imagination, but it isn’t. Based on a true story, Sada Abe’s act in Oshima’s interpretation is synonymous with the breaking of sexual taboos in Japan.

In Takashi Miike’s Audition the widower Shigharu Aoyama meets Asami, a seemingly naive girl, through a phony audition staged by a friend. On discovering the photo of Aoyama’s late wife, she lets loose a series of torture on him that culminates with the cutting off his feet with a piano wire. “You can’t go anywhere without feet,” she observes as she slices off his limb with both precision and poise.

Asami prepares to slice off Ayoma’s limbs in Takashi Miike’s Audition (Pic: Blackark Magazine)

Within this genre of retribution, there is a subtext: self-mutilation, a defacing act ridden with more complex psychological, sociological and personal motives.

Cutting off of the tongue in Park Chan-wook’s Old Boy (Pic: Off-Screen)

In Park Chan-wook’s Old Boy, Dae-su cuts off his tongue as a gesture of penance for having ruined the life of his incarcerator Lee Woo-jin by gossiping about Lee’s family secrets rooted in incest. The harsh self-punishment stems not only from the urge of redemption though, but also to absolve himself for an incestuous crime committed unknowingly under his captor’s machinations – a sacrifice guided by a double guilt.

Erika’s behavior is more puzzling in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher. A stern faced music connoisseur, she harbors many fetishes, including self-mutilation that echoes sexual overtones, attitudes kept veiled under her self-contained, conventional bourgeoisie lifestyle, a sheen that breaks apart when she bonds with a young student whom she provokes to torture and rape her. In one scene we see her nonchalantly cutting herself with a blade sitting on the edge of a bath. While in the act, she responds calmly when her mother calls out for dinner. The nonchalance repeats when she impales her shoulder before she is set to begin a concert. The film is an ironic commentary on the way sexual repression finds fractured manifestations, despite the stranglehold of conservative and conformist attitudes.

James Franco in Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours (Pic: Opulence Studios)

Interestingly, self-mutilation becomes an act of survival in Danny Boyel’s 127 Hours, a film based on the real life tragedy of Aron Ralston, a mountaineer. While climbing the narrow Canyons at Utah, a boulder falls on his arm and traps him against the rock. After days go in vain to free himself, he amputates his limb with a small knife from his multi-tool kit.

Aron’s sacrifice evokes empathy among the viewers. But many contemporary films harping on dismembering arouse laughter. One wonder if such is the intention of a director. It may well be, going by Quentin Tarantino’s wry remark: “Violence is one of the most fun things to watch.” If this sounds odd, then Michael Winterbottom ups the ante. Following the criticism of his film The Killer Inside Me, he retorted “It’s more moral to make it unwatchable.”

Such smart quip, however, does not stop him or others from inviting censure from the feminists who argue that a women’s splayed body has often been used as staple for celebrating violence.

In this context, the film Teeth acts as a counterpoint. Dawn, a young student, discovers that her vagina bites off a man’s genitals whenever she is forced to have sex against her will. Premised on the folklore of Vagina Dentata, her bodily response is a far cry from the whimpering of a passive victim.

Bollywood lacks films themed around mutilation, despite its penchant for blood and nicked throats. In Anjaam there are fleeting images of cracked skull, slit wrist, chewed off flesh, but none is pivotal to the narrative. However, Prakash Jha’s Gangajal stands out for its shocking central image – pouring of acid in the eyes of the under trials by two policemen. Based on the Bhagalpur blinding incident, the film raises a crucial question: What drives the protectors of law to such cruelty?

A part of the answer may lie in the remark of Kim Ki Duk, famous for depicting on-screen brutality. “I always ask myself one question: what is human? What does it mean to be human?…violence is just a reflection of what they really are, of what is in each one of us to certain degree.”

More to read

In the Wink of an Eye

I’s Eyes: Exploring Use of Eyes in Films

The Mind Twisters (8 Movies No One Can Watch Just Once)

Sex And The Second Sex In Anurag Kashyap’s World Of Films

Creative Writing

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Amitava Nag is an independent film critic based in Kolkata and editor of Silhouette. His most recent books on cinema are Murmurs: Silent Steals with Soumitra Chatterjee, 16 Frames and Smriti Sattwa o Cinema. His earlier writings include the acclaimed books Satyajit Ray’s Heroes and Heroines published by Rupa and Beyond Apu: 20 Favourite film roles of Soumitra Chatterjee published by Harper Collins India. He also writes poetry and short fiction in Bengali and English – observing life in a platter. He can be reached at
All Posts of Amitava Nag
Shiladitya Sarkar is a painter and writer based in Mumbai. He has exhibited in UK, USA, Hongkong, West Indies, Singapore and in various parts of India. He has written two books: Thirst of a minstrel and Abstract Reality. He writes on Art and Culture in various magazines including Art India.
All Posts of Shiladitya Sarkar

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