Cast: Radhika Apte, Satyadeep Mishra
Director: Pawan Kirpalani
As a teenager, I remember my mother’s face tightening with fear every time I stepped out of the house. Daylight or not didn’t make a difference. Till the time I came back home, she’d worry about my safety. She still does it though I’m thirty years old and live in another city.
Agoraphobia. The fear of going out, of public places, of stepping out of your ‘safe’ environment. If I could hazard a generalization, I’d say every woman in India (and many parts of the world) suffers from agoraphobia of a certain degree. The fear of sexual violence is so palpable that many of us impose absurd restrictions, precautions and controls on our lives that sadly, do little to prevent these incidents from happening.
In Phobia, Radhika Apte plays Mehak, an artist who develops an extreme fear of stepping outside the house after being assaulted by a taxi driver. It’s eerily similar to the Delhi Uber rape case – Mehak falls asleep in the taxi, the driver takes her to a secluded spot and molests her. She is found injured and bleeding on the road. And from then on begins her agoraphobia. She finds herself unable to go anywhere, she is terrified of seeing new people and she simply cannot bring herself to confront her fears.
The people around Mehak first react with sympathy and then frustration when she doesn’t immediately respond to ‘treatment’. Her sister doesn’t want her in the house any more. Her friend, Shaan (Satyadeep Mishra), with whom she has had casual sex, wants to be there for her but approaches the problem like it’s a personal challenge for him.
Interestingly, neither the sister nor the friend ostracize Mehak for suffering a sexual assault – it wasn’t too long ago that a victim of sexual assault was portrayed as a ‘soiled’ woman whose only way out of the trauma was to commit suicide and end it all ‘honourably’. Rather, their anger stems from the fact that Mehak isn’t showing enough courage to get out of the cage that she’s built for herself. The sister makes a rather callous remark, ‘After all, it’s not like she was raped!’ to express her indignation at Mehak’s lack of will.
Mehak is the kind of independent, privileged, ‘modern’ woman that a lot of us would identify with. She makes her own choices, she lives life by her rules. She is unafraid to say yes. Or no. Such women, society expects, should bounce back from an unpleasantness like sexual violence with their heads held high. Their pain, somehow, is not as real or raw as that of a woman who fits the victim bill perfectly. If they talk about it, they are even accused of seeking publicity! This impatience to make Mehak ‘whole’ again, pushes Shaan to move her into a friend’s empty flat.
And from then on, the film gets decidedly spookier. All the classic elements of a horror movie make an appearance – mirrors, groaning drains, black cats, strange neighbours, a secret diary, unexplained laughter, the works! Is the apartment haunted? Can we, as viewers, trust Mehak and what she sees? Sometimes, you think Mehak must be nuts. At other moments, you feel your blood curdling and your mind working overtime to join the dots, make the connections.
This is where Pawan Kripalani succeeds – the film could have so easily degenerated into one of those mumbo-jumbo horror flicks with a generous dose of black magic and ladies with badly applied eye make-up. But it doesn’t. It remains intelligent, it continues to keep you engaged and looking for clues right till the end.
Radhika Apte appears in almost every frame of the film. And what a performance she has delivered! In the hands of a lesser actor, this role might have become a mockery. It is credit to Apte’s incredible talent that we remain invested in Mehak all through. She makes us laugh (intentionally), she makes us shiver, she makes us re-live our own unpleasant stories…and provides cathartic relief too. She’s ably supported by the rest of the cast, especially Yashaswani Dayama who plays Nikki, Mehak’s friendly neighbour, who stands up to Shaan every time he tries to mansplain things. The music in the film gives the right amount of heebie-jeebies without going overboard.
It’s not that Phobia is without its flaws but it’s been a long time since I’ve watched such a satisfying and intelligent thriller. One that doesn’t require the lead female character to be in her underwear while shrieking her head off to retain audience interest.