Peter Benchley’s novel Jaws was published in 1974. In 1975 it was turned into a film. For years various cultural critics, most famously the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, have deconstructed Jaws to mean more than just a story about a fictional tourist spot, Amity Island, being tormented by a shark.
Peter Biskind in his 1999 book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls writes that, since the novel and its film adaptation arrived during a particularly severe economic and political crisis in the US, Jaws immediately struck a chord with an audience disoriented by the apparently indefinable nature of the crisis.
In 2012, Žižek saw the shark as a combination of prejudices and fears that are encapsulated into a single definable entity, so that a bemused polity is able to clearly perceive it as the cause of society’s dread. To Žižek, the shark of Amity Island can thus be understood as a metaphor of any community seen to be existing outside the homogeneity of the majority community and is thus suspect. These can be immigrants such as Muslims in Western countries (and now in Modi’s India), non-Muslims in Muslim countries, non-whites in white-majority societies, etc.
For Žižek, the fictional shark was like the Jewish community in Nazi Germany. An existentialist enemy created to explain the humiliation that Germany had to face after its defeat during World War I. With the formation of the Jew as an entity that was diseasing the national body, an enemy was created and then ‘unmasked’ to give the disoriented polity a face to channel its anger at. Maybe this is exactly what the minority Ahmadiyya community faced in Pakistan as well when the country lost its eastern wing in 1971 after a devastating civil war.
Films often reflect social, political and economic conflicts that are hidden behind their more audience-friendly and entertaining narratives. They just require some decoding
Others have delved deeper still to catch the metaphors in the seas of Amity Island. A recent video-essay on the academic website Then & Now sees the shark just as Žižek had understood it. Despite the shark attacks, the character of Larry Vaughn in Jaws refuses to close down Amity Island’s beaches because it would be bad for the economy. So the essay sees Mayor Vaughn as a metaphor for unrestrained and amoral capitalism.
The island’s chief of police, Martin Brody, who insists that the beaches must be closed, is seen as symbolising the rational state, whereas a marine biologist Dr Hooper represents science. But since science in this context can only help explain the malaise, and can’t eradicate it, enter Quint, a veteran shark hunter.
Quint is uncouth and a loner. He symbolises the excesses of behaviour that are often understood to exist outside the norms of ‘civilised’ societies. But it isn’t Quint who kills the shark. He is an outsider. In fact, he gets killed by the dreaded predator. It is Brody (the state) who kills the shark.
Jaws surfaced in the 1970s, when the state was still seen as having control over political, economic and social outcomes. But the 1970s were also a decade when, because of certain unprecedented global events and economic stresses, the state began to struggle to control these outcomes. So Jaws reinforced the trust in a faltering state by making the police chief kill the shark.
The Indian film Deewar (1975) makes a similar reinforcement. Released during intense political turmoil in India, the film’s three main characters include a downtrodden mother and her two sons. One son grows up to become a police officer while the other, still vexed by the manner in which society had treated his mother, becomes an amoral ‘angry young man.’ He climbs his way to the top of the criminal underworld just so he can build a grand house for the mother. The mother disapproves, and decides to stay with her other son, the honest police officer. The angry son is eventually shot dead by his brother.
In her 1996 book Ire In The Soul, the Indian film critic Nikhat Kazmi describes the mother in Deewar as a metaphor of Bharat Maata (Mother India) or the national personification of India as a mother goddess. The goddess sides with the police officer who symbolises the state. The angry son is the culmination of the wayward and amoral impulses that can ruin societies. He is thus eliminated by the state.
The British documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis, in his 2016 film HyperNormalisation, is of the view that, as the state failed to control the outcomes of increasing economic upheavals, it began to ‘outsource’ its responsibilities to the private sector. This led to ‘globalisation.’ John Hardy, in a 2008 essay for E-International Relations, writes that globalisation cast aside the homogenising tendency of modern economics with a more heterogeneous process that interlinks international economies, further shrinking the role of the state in an increasingly interdependent world.
The receding state and ascent of the private sector is satirised in the 1988 film They Live, in which a man stumbles upon a pair of glasses with which he can see through the illusions of capitalism. For example, when, after he wears the glasses, he sees a harmless billboard of a brand and can only see the word ‘obey.’
Years later, in the TV series Breaking Bad (2008-2012), the state is entirely cast aside. In the series, a ‘normal’ middle-class man who has cancer, decides to make and peddle crystal meth. The state cannot fully pay for his medical expenses. He starts to sell meth so that he can save enough money for his family. Much of the series is him battling other (but darker) forces of cynicism, whereas his brother-in-law, a cop, is brutally assassinated by those who are also peddling meth. The state thus dies in the crossfire between two tendencies of amoral private enterprise gone wrong.
In Pakistan, between 2007 and 2014, when Islamic militants were running wild, exploding bombs and assassinating opponents at will, one often heard commentators warning that the state was failing. The 2013 Urdu film Waar tries to reinforce the message that the state was still strong. Interestingly though, the same year, another film Chambaili does not see militants as the enemies of the state, but ‘corrupt’ politicians.
Chambaili is a middle-class political fantasy in which a ‘patriotic’/pro-state movement emerges against corrupt politicians and feudal lords. This is based on the narrative formed in 2011 by Imran Khan’s PTI. If seen in the context of the symbology of Jaws, one can conclude that Brody, in this case, is the amalgamation of pro-PTI urbanites and the state (mainly the military-establishment) retaliating against ‘corrupt’ intruders (the shark) disturbing the calm seas of middle-class righteousness.
Published in Dawn, EOS, March 14th, 2021