Directors – Anurag Kashyap, Zoya Akhtar, Dibarkar Banerjee, Karan Johar
Cast – Janhvi Kapoor, Mrunal Thakur, Sobhita Dhulipala, Gulshan Devaiah, Surekha Sikri, Vijay Varma
Like your neighbourhood aunty, Hindi cinema doesn’t do horror. So it’s rather interesting to see four filmmakers who represent the broad spectrum of Hindi moviemaking, come together to experiment with a genre that the industry believes is best avoided.
But unlike 2018’s Lust Stories, and indeed, the filmmakers’ first anthology film together, 2013’s Bombay Talkies, Netflix’s Ghost Stories is an uneven and ultimately impotent affair. There are occasional moments of magic, especially in a couple of segments, but they’re inconsistent. It should be noted that none of the four filmmakers — Anurag Kashyap, Zoya Akhtar, Dibakar Banerjee and Karan Johar — has made a horror movie before. God knows Johar has scared audiences, but this time, he’s expected to.
Watch the Ghost Stories trailer here
Ghost Stories begins rather promisingly, though, with Akhtar’s technically impeccable short. Janhvi Kapoor plays Sameera, a nurse who’s assigned to look after a senile old woman, played by Surekha Sikri. For a filmmaker who’s expressed her apathy for horror, Akhtar does a splendid job of appropriating some of the genre’s most recognisable tropes — visually and tonally. Think of her film as an elaborate Halloween costume; you can’t deny the effort and skill that must have gone into making it, but in the end, it can’t help but feel slightly superficial.
The film is wonderful to look at — the creaky old Mumbai apartment, set against the backdrop of incessant rains, is intricately designed — and Akhtar does an excellent job of laying out the geography of the place. So when a noise wakes Sameera up in the middle of the night, we’re subconsciously aware of where it might have come from. Akhtar puts us in her protagonist’s shoes, allowing us to feel what she’s feeling, successfully sustaining dread in this age of jump-scare filmmaking.
It’s a fun tweak on that old babysitter-in-peril premise, but Sameera most certainly isn’t a vapid, virginal victim. Janhvi instils in her an instant warmth, and even though her accent might not be as consistent as her performance, there’s an effortless charm about her. Surekha Sikri, meanwhile, knows exactly the sort of film she’s in, effectively alternating between her character’s many moods with precision and restraint. But I struggled to understand the larger point Akhtar was trying to make, or if there even was any. This is unfortunate, especially if you remember the muffled voices she handed a megaphone to in Gully Boy, and also in her Lust Stories short.
Like the first segment, the second, directed by Anurag Kashyap, is also a twist on familiar horror movie tropes. Featuring yet another largely solitary performance at its centre, Kashyap’s short is a wildly ambitious mashup of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan and Richard Donner’s The Omen, with a bit of Cronenbergian body horror thrown in for good measure. Unlike Akhtar’s film, this one has anxieties to address — about motherhood and mania, loss and loneliness.
Janhvi Kapoor in a still from Zoya Akhtar’s short from Ghost Stories.
As always, Sobhita Dhulipala proves that she can be an astonishingly reliable actor, regardless of what she’s given to work with. She’s able to add more dimensions to her character in 30-odd minutes here than she was in seven episodes of the shoddy Bard of Blood. But once again, the film is more impressive technically — the deathly desaturated colour palette, the sneaky visual foreshadowing, the impressive practical effects — than on a narrative level. Kashyap has never been one to pull punches, but he seems to lack the courage of his convictions here, especially towards the end, when he chooses to spell out certain details that he’d already effectively communicated through his filmmaking.
Banerjee, in his segment, also seems to be conflicted. Should he make the most of the creative freedom that has been given to him, or should he keep one foot in the realm of the mainstream and not risk alienating the majority of the audience that is likely to watch his film? In the end, he gets spliced, clearly struggling with the exposition that is necessary to build the fictional fantasy world that he has created, and to deliver the thrills that are expected of him.
Surprisingly, Banerjee is the only one who decided to go political with his short. In all honesty, I was expecting at least two others to also use the creative liberties at their disposal, and the opportunities that genre filmmaking affords writers, to make some sort of statement about the world. Banerjee’s film is sort of like a Grimm Brothers’ fairytale, combined with the post-apocalyptic aesthetic of a modern zombie movie and the absurdity of a propaganda pamphlet. It would be unfair to reveal more details about the film, especially because this segment, for good reason, has the potential to be the most divisive. But there are interesting ideas in there, about our place in the world, and how precarious it really is.
Mrunal Thakur in a still from Karan Johar’s short from Ghost Stories.
In a shocking turn of events, I suspect that Johar’s short might be the most palatable of the lot, especially to audiences who are, rightly so, caught unawares by the sheer abstractness of some of the previous segments. This one, despite featuring the thinnest characters and absolutely no perspective to speak of, is a more traditional haunted house story. To be clear, Johar isn’t communicating his own personal fears through his film, but appears to have based his ideas on what someone else has told him horror should be. And so there are scenes in which poor Mrunal Thakur, skimpily dressed, is sent on midnight walks around a house she should have checked out of ages ago. There is also a sleep-walking mother-in-law and a creepy Catholic maid. But whatever momentum Johar is inadvertently able to build is tossed out of a Spanish window when he cuts to Kusha Kapila, as our heroine’s BFF, popping in to make a smutty joke or two.
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The result is a tonally inconsistent but visually refined film that throws in random Christian symbolism with desi scare tactics, and ends up resembling one of those Ekta Kapoor serials about naagins and whatnot. It’s a mess, but it’s also the only segment that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Perhaps reshuffling the lineup might have helped, but this is assuming you watch the entire thing in one setting. Ideally, Ghost Stories, for its own sake, must not be seen as a whole. It’s fearless, but frustrating; ambitious, but not ambitious enough.