I'm the kind of person who gets scared of moths and sparrows. Suffice to say, I was frightened at the prospect of being frightened while watching and reviewing Netflixâ€™s film Ghost Stories, a follow up to 2018's Lust Stories. The four stories directed by Zoya Akhtar, Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee and Karan Johar appear in that order on-screen. The four directors, none of whom have directed a horror film, expand the scope of the genre and question whether what scares us always lies outside of us.
Things get off to a good start with Zoya's technically brilliant tale. She builds the feeling of dread and uneasiness experienced by Sameera (Janhvi Kapoor), a nurse sent to look after a bedridden patient (Surekha Sikri). The home and dementia struck patient have both seen happier days, but now there is dust, decay and a peculiar smell that refuses to go away. Sameera is no Florence Nightingale though. After sedating the old lady for the night, she plans a romantic tryst with her married lover Guddu (Vijay Verma) but the noises they hear outside their door and the howling of the old woman are from amorous. Cinematographer Tanay Satam deserves special credit for the way he makes the corridors look longer and more ominous than they are, and the use of long takes to establish the geography of the house so we know exactly which way the horror lies.
Women let down or abandoned by men is a common character backstory or journey in a lot of Zoya's work. Here, too, the bedridden old lady and the young nurse are linked by the men who have abandoned them; she by her son, and the young woman by her parents and then Guddu. Sameeraâ€™s character also has a lot in common with Bhumi Pednekarâ€™s character from Zoya's segment in Lust Stories, including a callous lover and a dead-end job. Casting Surekha is an inspired choice, and the veteran actor who in fact suffered a stroke recently, is just the right combination of restrained and creepy. While the twist in the tale is not entirely inspired, Surekha and Janhvi - one an immensely talented actor who is finally getting her due, and the other a star kid- are both immensely watchable.
Anurag's segment comes up next and he pushes the boundaries of the genre, working with an entirely original idea. The mind is his canvas this time, and Anurag builds a daring and visually arresting portrait that subverts the usually revered mother-child relationship. Dreams, mania, depression and isolation are the themes he explores, building atmosphere with desaturated frames and voodoo wielding crayons. This segment also gives the film its first truly frightening moments involving a giant wing. Sobhita Dhulipala is in fine form and surrenders both physically and emotionally to the story written by Isha Luthra. Isha and Anurag find inspiration from Black Swan, The Omen, and what I perceived to be references to The Madwoman in the Attic and The Yellow Wallpaper. Itâ€™s an intriguing story that left me feeling more nauseous than frightened.
My personal favourite is Dibakar Banerjeeâ€™s segment. His Hansel and Gretel meets The Lord of the Flies meets Zombie Apocalypse meets social commentary is the most innovative segment in this film. A harried man (Sukant Goel) stumbles into a small town Bees Ghara where the only two survivors are a boy (Aditya Shetty) and a girl (Eva Ameet Pardeshi). Her father ate his father, they tell him without flinching, and the remaining residents of the small town were eaten by the cannibals from the big town of Sau Ghara. They offer him survival tips and protection but not before he glimpses the devolution of mankind into bestiality. Itâ€™s a literal man eat man world that Dibakar constructs with uncomfortably familiar allusions to the majority swallowing the minority in an attempt to find lost glory.
In one scene, Sukant's character is literally being spoon-fed food while the Big Town propaganda is spelt out for him. There is even a dead cow thrown in making this an equal parts absurd and clever tale. Dibakar's radically different story along with Anurag's segment makes for a highly experimental mid-section of the film.
Sadly, after this artistic high, we are taken straight into Karan Johar's tale which one assumes lacks nuance or complexity by design. Itâ€™s an inadvertent haunted house comedy where a wealthy young man (Avinash Tiwary) talks to his dead grandmother (Jyoti Subhash in a cameo), who as their housekeeper (Heeba Shah) says has died but not departed. His wife (Mrunal Thakur) in Manish Malhotra designed lingerie and beachwear, canâ€™t stomach the familyâ€™s obsession with the dead grandmother. But when she decides to take matters into her own hands, things take a rather ghoulish turn.
Karan has always focussed more on the appearances of his characters and their homes than actually building strong personalities, and even here he canâ€™t help the chiffon, candles and silky nightclothes. The narrative plays out like an Ekta Kapoor soap opera complete with a distracting diamond mangalsutra, in your face knives, and grandmas in pearls. Also, side note to Kusha Kapila, please get out of your own way before you get reduced to a stereotype.
While the writing is inconsistent and does not offer any keep-you-awake-for-a- week scares, the stories are all crafted with technical perfection. Cinematographers, sound designers, editors are all in top form as are almost all the actors across the four tales. Itâ€™s also wonderful to see women spearheading at least three of the segments, playing roles that mainstream cinema would not typically offer them.
Birds have always been associated with the horror genre and used as harbingers of doom. In Ghost Stories, the image of a crow runs through all four stories, appearing either directly or by sound in the first three segments and indirectly as an ornament in Zoya's story and a walking stick handle in Karan's tale. Itâ€™s supposed to build anticipation of something frightening, but Ghost Stories doesn't really get us to scream.
Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the series/film. TNM Editorial is independent of any business relationship the organisation may have with producers or any other members of its cast or crew.