One can tell a lot about a horror film’s pedigree by the way it goes about convincing its “cynical” protagonist about bhoot-pret. Usually in Hindi films, the protagonist meets a ‘professor-type’ person, who sounds quite rational on the surface. But it only takes someone’s hair to flutter in the room for the person to take out their ‘ghost-tracking’ device (that beeps like an ancient transmitter), and chant a mantra sounding eerily similar to Kader Khan’s Yamraj in Taqdeerwala (1995). In Bhanu Pratap Singh’s Bhoot: The Haunted Ship, the honour of playing this character goes to (who else!) Ashutosh Rana. A school’s principal who moonlights as a paranormal activity researcher, Rana is the (unintentional) funny bone of the film.
Bhoot: The Haunted Ship is a film where Prithvi (Vicky Kaushal) pauses for whole two seconds after realising that the film’s main spirit is called ‘Amar’. GEDDIT? GEDDIT? Playing the role of a surveying officer (Kaushal in a post-Uri and a pre-Pachtaoge phase), Prithvi has taken it upon himself to play ‘hero’ amidst drinking bouts and hallucination episodes. Almost like Aamir Khan’s character in Reema Kagti’s Talaash, Kaushal’s Prithvi is processing the unspeakable grief of losing his wife and daughter in a rafting accident.
In a startlingly candid moment, Kaushal rebuffs Ashutosh Rana’s character by saying he sees ‘dead people’ because he refuses to take his medication. He fears if he does take his medication then he’ll forget about them altogether. It’s a mopey, filmy logic for the character to hold on to his (literal) demons, but it… works.
A cargo ship called ‘Sea Bird’ drifts and finds its way to Juhu Beach in Mumbai, much like MV Wisdom did in 2011. As the officials try and formulate ways to take the ship off the Mumbai coastline, a few untoward incidents begin to take place. “Ismein padosi mulk ka haath ho sakta hai“, an animated reporter can be heard announcing. Soon enough, the ship owner calls the ship is ‘haunted’, one he says he’s been trying to get rid off. There are stray mentions about how the ship was used for smuggling purposes, and there’s definite curiosity in the film’s first half. In spite of employing horror cliches like creaky doors, cracking mirrors and jump-scares, director Bhanu Pratap Singh shows a flair for atmospherics. And then the shraap (curse) of the second half reveals itself.
Hindi horror films are usually terrible, relying on a lazy information dump (usually in the second half), where a character tries to uncover WHY the aatma (spirit) hasn’t gotten its mukti (liberated)? What is its maqsad (purpose)? We cut to a black-and-white flashback, and we find out how the spirit had been wronged, something that was smartly exploited and subverted in 2018’s Stree.
In Bhoot: The Haunted Ship, we cut to clips from a discarded camcorder, that give us clues about what might have transpired on the ship. Sitting in a church, when Meher Vij (typecast as a victim of domestic abuse after Secret Superstar) delivers the backstory about ‘Amar’, and why he haunts Sea Bird… one can’t help but groan at the sheer laziness. Seriously, even in 2020?
In a film as thoroughly generic in its treatment of horror, Bhoot: The Haunted Ship has a solid core in Vicky Kaushal. The film never reciprocates to Kaushal’s restraint, even as he plays the seemingly unreliable narrator. Nursing his damaged mental health, where he literally lives with his wife (Bhumi Pednekar) and daughter’s spirits, why should anyone believe him that he saw a teenage girl crawl up the walls inside the abandoned ship? It’s the cliched Hindi hero seeking redemption, but Kaushal makes us care for Prithvi, even while the rest of the film makes us feel the exact opposite.
Bhoot: The Haunted Ship was reportedly commissioned as a part of a trilogy by Karan Johar’s Dharma Productions. If they do come up with a part two for this, here’s hoping they will do more to wreck the traditions of a Hindi horror film. It’s admirable that a prestige production house like Dharma is attempting a genre film, but one also has to be mindful that the audience has grown past the cop-out backstories in such horror films. At this rate, the director might have also given us a woman in a white saree holding a candle, walking on the ship’s deck.
Art by Manimanjari Sengupta