There aren’t semi-suspended women here. The make-up isn’t laughably Ramsay. And, for the most part, there’s some visible effort to dissect the human consciousness. Not that Netflix’s Ghost Stories deserves to be compared with every other Vikram Bhatt horror film; for this one’s clearly a step in the direction of evolution. But does it all fall into place? Rarely.
An anthology format is always interesting, considering how we taste four sensibilities in one sitting. How will these four directors interpret horror? Will they look towards social themes around them? Or the political overdrive that the country has witnessed recently? Or even the classic Hindi horror films of the 50s and the 60s? Through a genre film like this, we get a good look at the filmmaker… almost as clearly as the story they’re telling. While three of the four shorts at least have a point-of-view, there’s one that is so terribly short of scares, so much that it looks like a parody.
For all his self-deprecation and mockery of the usual Dharma tropes during interviews, Johar starts his segment with a shot of a sprawling mansion oozing with the #RichAF sentiment. Two good-looking youngsters (Avinash Tiwary and Mrunal Thakur) are discussing arranged marriage, crazy exes and casually slipping in how they’ve stalked each other on social media. It all looks happy-go-lucky until the boy starts talking about his grandmother, who has been dead for 20 years. A newly-married bahu character inside a mansion with vintage chandeliers and candles, is a set-up for most Vikram Bhatt films. There’s so much art decor inside the house that makes it seem like a mini Louvre. There’s a massive altar designed on the wall of said grandmother’s bedroom, allowing Johar to have more (!!) candles in the frame.
From a character listening to “Mera Saaya…” to the mansion having a stern-faced domestic help in a black saree (Hiba Shah), Johar exhausts all the horror tropes that he’s been taught by classic Hindi horror films. By the time he delivers his insipid climax, we get a sense of Johar’s sheltered upbringing that in no way informs his storytelling. Dabbling in this genre for the first time, Johar delivers nothing more than a recycled 50s horror film featuring his signature opulent sets. Absolutely nothing works in this, not even Jyoti Subhash’s (playing the grandmother) unexpected F-bomb.
Sobhita Dhulipala continues her good form in Kashyap’s short film that begins with the finest opening shot in all of Ghost Stories. A father (Sagar Arya) photographs his newborn in the mother’s arms, and walks out with a smile on his face. The camera stays on the Polaroid camera he’s set on the counter, as we see a nurse run out of the ward shortly after. As the Polaroid picture slowly develops (a mother holding a baby in her arms), we’re told about the miscarriage by the commotion building behind it. Dhulipala’s character, Neha, is someone yearning to have her own baby.
Neha takes care of her nephew, Ansh (Zachary Braz) by picking him up from school, and keeping him company till his father (Pavail Gulati) shows up after work. Ansh is possessive about his aunt, something that irks her husband. It’s apparent that Neha’s miscarriage has taken a toll on her, with her waking up to more than one nightmare. In Kashyap’s film, there are flashes of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, but the text is so convoluted and the subtext so thin, that it never fully lands. So hell-bent is Kashyap in explaining his story’s subtext with the help of tacky VFX, that it becomes painful to endure the film in spite of its best intentions.
The first short to play sequentially, Akhtar’s film has her signature lucidity and minimalist tendency. Starring Janhvi Kapoor in a bleak opening shot (replete with crows cawing), we’re fed information about the nurse Sameera (Kapoor), who needs to take care of an elderly woman (Surekha Sikri), while waiting to meet her lover (Vijay Varma) to show up. It’s a familiar setting of one of those dilapidated Parsi buildings, the one with creaky wooden staircases. The building looks haunted, and Sikri uses her stellar poker face and monotone perfectly to magnify the atmospheric dread.
Kapoor acquires an interesting accent, as someone who has grown up on the streets of Mumbai, and is now involved with a married man. Varma doesn’t have as much room as he did in Gully Boy, but he manages to convey the essence of his character through two phone calls and one scene. Ultimately, this short is a standoff between Kapoor and Sikri as the nurse and the patient respectively. And even though, the short isn’t terrifying, the commentary on elderly parents being abandoned is powerful. This film is not horror as much as it is a product of unimaginable sorrow.
Being the most consistent member of this team, it is with Dibakar Banerjee’s short that Ghost Stories actually gets some grace marks. Superbly efficient in the way it unloads information, Banerjee’s short is an exhibit of what one can achieve with multiple rewrites. With each passing rewrite, the fluff gets left behind, and the narrative is left with only the things that really matter. Starring Sukant Goel, a lowly government employee, making his way to check up on the dwindling numbers of attendance in a small-town school. When he reaches, there’s no one to be found except a little boy and girl, who claim that everyone in the town has been eaten. Saying anything more, would be saying too much.
What Banerjee manages to say with his subtext on India’s ‘other-ing’ problem in today’s times, is both potent and provocative. To imagine that Banerjee begin the decade with Shanghai (2011), where he predicted the totalitarian regime we’re facing in today’s times, it’s only fitting that he’s starting off the new decade with yet another intricately observed film. Only this time the horror is not far into the future, but around us in everyday life.