After Bombay Talkies (2013) and Lust Stories (2018), the four directors- Zoya Akhtar, Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee and Karan Johar, have created yet another anthology- Ghost Stories. Considering how Bollywood has routinely butchered the genre of horror with its stereotypical jump-scare tricks ( save for the excellent Tumbadd), Ghost Stories had a lot of promise and expectation. And yet, even after all the hype, what a misfire this has turned out to be. Inarguably the least impressive of all the three anthologies, Ghost Stories once again cements the fact that horror as a genre is still a far road ahead for Bollywood.
We begin with Zoya Akhtar’s short, that has a stoic and uneven Jahnvi Kapoor playing Sameera, a nurse, who comes to take care of the ailing Mrs. Malik (Surekha Sikri, reduced to a caricature in the most literal sense) in a dimly lit, haunted apartment that sets up the tone for horror immediately. The parallels between these two women are compellingly set, and the attention to detail is praiseworthy, but that is all that Akhtar had to display in order to save a wafer-thin script that gives way to a banal twist. Some of the tropes that Akhtar uses, like the opening shot of a tree with a bunch of crows and the intermittent knocking of doors, seem horribly out of place and redundant. Moreover, there are glaring holes in her plot device that makes the entire twist even more laughable and naive. This is Akhtar at her worst, following tropes of a genre instead of letting it turn out from the context, for at the end of it, the story feels contextually hollow and grossly minimal.
Anurag Kashyap’s short begins with a breathtaking single shot of a picture freezed in time, and sets the temperament of the whole segment. Sobhita Dhulipala uninhibitedly takes on the role of Neha, who has suffered a miscarriage and is now pregnant again, obsessed that this time, she will redeem herself from past sins and deliver safely. She is accompanied with her nephew (Zachary Braz) who grows jealous of the increasing care her Mausi gives to her unborn child. Kashyap’s choice of almost desaturating the colour palette of his short works wonders, and the story plays up effectively, building the character with brilliant use of hallucinations and flashbacks. And then, the disaster strikes, somewhat predictable midway through. Kashyap’s part in Lust Stories, if we step back and considered for a moment, was inarguably his most carefree, joyous work, with not an iota of indulgence. That is at the extreme contrast here, with the very tropes being explained and visually sufficed in the climax of his short, making it painfully overdone and stretched. Clearly a filmmaker whose idea of horror is stillborn.
We move on to Dibakar Banerjee’s short, inarguably the best of the four, where we follow an education officer (Sukant Goel, brilliant) walking towards a deserted rural district because he was left by the rickshaw four kilometers before the destination. The village, or as it is referred to as- Smalltown, is in ruins, with houses broken and streets dirty and garbage piling up- its an awful sight to begin with. There is nobody he can look out for. A communication blackout, that is. He meets two traumatized kids and the narrative unfolds there, steadily uncovering the reasons behind the state of affairs, where it leads upto the knowledge of bloodthirsty zombies lurking all over the village, preying on each other. “They don’t eat those who eat like them,” he is told, that escalates to one spine-chilling sequence of genuine horror. But for that matter, the horror works here because of the context it belies under the garb of cannibalism- think of the situation of Kashmir, with over 150 days internet shutdown and communal terror. Banerjee works these links without emphasizing on it ( a thing Kashyap has to learn)- look at the map of India drawn on the blackboard without the Gujarat part, or the school principal vomiting in the frame where the Indian flag is hoisted. Disguised in a straightforward survival thriller, Banerjee unpacks a lot of thematic daring, an equivocation that is not realized until the final moments. Less can be said about Gulshan Devaiah here- because of the sheer unrecognizable, physical performance he gives, so rich in details, and even in less than a minute on-screen presence- his is a class-act.
In the interviews owing upto the release of Ghost Stories, Karan Johar has said that the entire process of directing a horror shortfilm was not “enjoyable” and that he felt “uncomfortable”. That clearly shows. In the full sense of the term, he is correct- he has dug his own grave, as it was his idea to make Ghost Stories originally. Johar’s short revolves around Ira (Mrunal Thakur) who is wed to Dhruv (Avinash Tiwary, another dumb performance) but is not aware of his obsession with his dead grandmother. Clad in skimpy clothes, half of the film she is made to revolve around the bungalow (that she clearly should have been done way before marriage, but okay this is the Karan Johar universe, so let’s give logic a rest), with ridiculous use of creaking doors and a sleepwalking mother-in-law. Even when the room is lit, she is handed a flashlight kept close to her face (Was that supposed to be horror?). If you need more reasons to witness comedy into horror, there’s this sequence when Ira screams ” Fuck you, Granny”, and then later the granny appears and says, “Look at my fucking face.” The climax is ridiculous and unintentionally funny and it seems that Johar was inspired from Ekta Kapoor-style serials like Naagin, or Aahat. This one’s a clear example of film making at its worst, most ignorant ever.
Ghost Stories is a shining example of what Bollywood needs- change. Change in the way genre is used, change in the age-old practice of using stereotypical characters and tropes, and change in terms of experimentation- a word Johar needs to learn in particular. Except for the brilliance and daring that Dibakar Banerjee shows, there’s nothing much to scare in Ghost Stories.