The first film of 2020 starts on a disappointing note. The latest of the anthology series by Zoya-Anurag-Dibakar-Karan, Ghost Stories, is their weakest collaborative effort so far (scaringly enough the trend on quality is downward with every passing film). Horror isn’t the easiest of genres though, and one needs to have a tight control on the sense of eeriness, atmospherics as well as metaphorical subtext to really make a lasting mark with it. None of these should be overdone just for the sake of it. Horror will only be haunting if one can elevate oneself from the jump scares and gore, and blend in a deep subtext of more relevant societal horror into the expansive play zone that the genre offers. Which is why there are only two shorts in the anthology that actually work.
Zoya Akhtar again shows how good she is with psychological creepiness, developing characters of full arc, perfectly casting them, wonderfully playing with the atmospherics, and making the deepest impressions by remaining most understated, with minimal use of horror tropes, and yet exposing the deepest horrific side of a part of our society that does not care. With possibly the simplest story in the quartet, her craft shines through with how beautifully she sets up the story with a lot of implicit backstory and the forethought on the mind-space of the characters, and the lingering afterthought she is able to leave behind about everyday commonplace horror. The solitude, the longing or the neglect in the daily grinds of lives is the deeply impacting everyday horror that we all face on a personal level, and one doesn’t need a complicated film to communicate that. Some amazing long shots of the house and the camera movements, minimal and smartest use of background score, a terrific Surekha Sikri (anyway a given with her), and discovering the acting prowess of Jahnvi Kapoor (full marks on the consistency of her accent, body language, and expressions) are the other highlights of the film. This is the kind of psychological horror we expect from Zoya in her unexplored genre (how beautiful it is that even her final expose is more lyrical than a jump scare or scream), and she makes it a well crafted thoughtful experience.
Anurag Kashyap is a filmmaker who is capable of creating masterpieces with the genre of horror. If anything, the way he has already exposed the everyday horror in and around us in his films like Ugly or The girl in yellow boots has been deeply impactful. In this short, it just boomerangs for him. It was as if an overexcited kid has been suddenly set free into a huge garden of flower pots without any supervision and he goes on a rampage to break them all. It is super indulgent segment, and Kashyap goes completely over the top to royally spoil it. The forced-in colour desaturation, the over-used creepy background score, the frequent close shots of dolls, the repeated top shots of the ladder, the unnecessarily used childhood flashback sequence, and the overdone grimness by Shobhita Dhulipala and many other such things practically makes the film terribly overbearing and a huge drag even before it leads to a totally unpalatable climax (which by the way was seen from a distance). It is the most feels-geeky-actually-lost short of the quartet, what a disappointment!
Dibakar Banerjee makes the boldest short of the series and he raises the most fearless and nonchalant political voice through his story. Apocalypse has already arrived in the universe he creates, and one needs to convert to a zombie if they want to survive in the zombie land. It is only the voices of tomorrow who are still unspoilt by the radical wave, but how long will they be able to resist to be washed away by the more harmful forces. The broader socio political horror that plays out on our mind while watching this short is far more scary than the gory horror that Dibakar uses on screen. May be he had a scope to play more with the minds had he not concluded his film so explicitly, as if to suddenly make it more simple for wider appreciation. Also, psychological eeriness plays out better if one doesn’t explicitly show horror in its gory glory, and rather leaves the most scary things to be imagined through the creepy atmospherics. So wish that Dibakar had resisted that lure of using gore as the genre trope; with his hold over his craft he could have. But even with some of these minor issues, he leaves a rather strong message loud and clear in his most unapologetic voice, and we expect only that from Dibakar. A shout-out to little Aditya Shetty and Sukant Goel as well for upholding Dibakar’s messy vision so well.
Karan Johar and horror do not go together, he had made it amply clear in his promotional interview for the film, and his film further seals it. As one would expect, his is the most cliched short film of the quartet, treading the lines of already over exploited Bollywood-ish horror, and generously leveraging all the done to death genre tropes in such films. Amidst everything that is so Joharesque and so Bollywood (including a grand wedding, lavish bungalows, creepy looking inmates and house helps, and a psychotic partner), there does seem to be a distant influence of Get Out on the story, and I so wish there was more explored along those lines. In a way, one is also somewhat thankful of the chronology of the films, in the sense that one possibly needed the sunlight and the bling of Karan’s film to gradually normalize the headspace of the viewer after the back to back claustrophobic chill induced by Anurag and Dibakar, but that cannot be an excuse to overlook the general lack of intent in Karan’s film or the rather screechy performances by the entire ensemble, with the exception of Mrunal Thakur. I wish Karan had made a horror comedy instead.
- Also read: LUST STORIES : Colorful Stories of Life
In summary, Ghost Stories turned out to be a real mixed bag. With 2 out of 4 scoring, and the other 2 misfiring badly, one tends to think if it is also the genre and the extreme ambitions with the same that has resulted in this outcome. Overall, it is a rather disappointing start to the year after all the hype that Netflix and the four filmmakers built around it. One also wonders if this rather tepid outcome (in spite of all the resources and freedom that a platform like Netflix provides to four of the most talked about filmmakers of the hindi film industry today) somewhat derails the genre again from the momentum it had gathered by the successful, courageous and thoughtful films like Pari or Tumbbad. One will have to wait and watch.
Just to conclude observations on this particular film, for the freaking third time in the anthology series now:
Zoya > Dibakar > Karan > Anurag
What can get creepier than that?