What is horror? Well, by the sense of a genre, horror films are supposed to freak you out, make you shut your eyes time and again, and also, maybe scream. Netflix’s Ghost Stories is a supposed horror film, without any of the elements of horror, or even slight scare. Except Karan Johar’s film, none of the films even have a ghost or the intervention of any paranormal acts. The rest of the films talk about the horrors or life, or of the society.
The idea is genius, but the packaging is wrong. Firstly, the title isn’t apt at all, and neither is calling any of these four films a horror film. They have their creepy instances, but don’t scare you at all. Secondly, each of the films could’ve been individual shorts. Why the four directors had to come together and make it one film, only they could tell.
The film begins with Zoya Akhtar’s short, which is about a dying woman, Mrs Malik (Surekha Sikri) and her nurse, Sameera (Janhvi Kapoor) who is filling in for another nurse as she is on leave. Akhtar’s horrors are death, decay and abandonment. Growing old isn’t easy and especially not when you’re doing it alone. Mrs Malik lives alone in a dingy apartment in Mumbai. It’s dingy, but I couldn’t help but think of how gorgeous it was. As Kapoor’s Sameera remarks, “idhar ka kamra Khandala se bhi acha hai”. Akhtar’s film begins well and eventually settles on a lowland. However, it never becomes boring. Having said that, it’s not one of her many geniuses. Her short is good to watch, but forgettable. The end is open to interpretations but you hardly find yourself thinking about what actually was.
The winners of this film are Janhvi Kapoor and the writing of both the characters by Ensia Mirza and Akhtar herself. Sameera and Mrs Malik are the same woman, one ahead of the other, and Akhtar effectively uses mirrors to show this similarity. Both of them are women of desire. While Sameera is desired today, because she’s beautiful, Mrs Malik was the same in her days. Both the women are also always in waiting – Sameera for her boyfriend, Guddu (Vijay Varma) and Mrs Malik for her son, Armaan. While Guddu gets his scene, neither actually come. While Sirki is a good actor, she hasn’t been given much to do, and does her best with what she has been handed over. Janhvi Kapoor is a treat to watch. You see the rawness in her performance, and also her growth as an actor post Dhadak. In Ghost Stories, she proves that even though she’s gotten into films owing to her family, she is very willing and eager to learn. Perhaps, even hungry.
Next up, we’re served with Anurag Kashyap’s short, starring Sobhita Dhulipala as a pregnant and paranoid woman, Neha, who takes care of her dead sister’s son, Ansh (Zachary Braz) between school and when his father comes to pick him up. While Karan Johar’s short was the most disappointing film of the four, I was most disappointed by Kashyap’s owing to the fact that I had the most expectations from him. Writer Isha Luthraand Kashyap weave a very interesting premise, but it’s like a jigsaw puzzle (which is a good thing), however, some pieces remain missing. What is Neha’s story about, I still don’t know, but I guess it’s a story of multiple miscarriages. The film also stars a crow which we don’t get to see, but Kashyap draws all sorts of similarities between the mother crow and Neha, who has been told in her childhood, that she can’t be a mother because she once stole a crow’s eggs. But now that she’s grown up and pregnant (again?), she takes care of the nest in the attic.
Dhulipala is a good actor. We established that with the brilliantly made Made in Heaven. But Kashyap doesn’t write Neha in a way that would explore the talent Dhulipala has at show. There are interesting shots and well acted scenes too, and it’s all done in a great way, but there’s no challenge in, both, the writing and the portrayal of Neha.
The third film in the instalment in Dibakar Banerjee’s genius film which is a commentary on the socioeconomic and political mess that India is. Even though his film has a monster, it’s not a ghost. Banerjee’s horrors are caste and immorality, and he tackles them in a great way. As the film begins, we meet a man (Sukant Goel) who’s come to Bisgarah (Small Town) and is immediately escorted by a young boy (Aditya Shetty) to a small, dingy house, where a young girl (Eva Ameet Pardeshi) is waiting for him. Both these children and the visitor are unnamed. We never really find out who they are, but like the Visitor, we’re told early on that everyone has been eaten. Unbelievable, yes. The Visitor fumbles with the idea and tries to escape the house, only to realise that it’s true. The Girl’s father is indeed going about town and eating humans of the Small Town, because apparently, people of Saugarah (Big Town) like to eat the meat of the small townies. So how are these kids alive? “If you move, you’ll die; if you speak, you’ll die; they don’t eat those who eat,” says the Boy, while explaining the situation to the visitor.
The goal of this film is escape – of this Visitor, the kids and also of the evils of the society. The thoughts and beliefs of those of the big towns have to become the thoughts and beliefs of those of the small towns. The only other alternative is lynching. Banerjee writes and creates and intriguing world, and also the setting. Shot in a village, the film treats small townies as second class citizens, perhaps worst, who don’t have any rights. They’re meant to be eaten. The big townies are here to eat and move around like zombies.
Banerjee’s film is nothing short of genius storytelling. In one scene, we see the Visitor entering a classroom, in which hangs a half erased map of India, along the western coast. Among a few others, Gujarat is missing. In another scene, a man is seen puking while the Indian tricolour soars in the background. Banerjee knows what’s going on and uses his film to talk about the dirty game of politics. We are doomed, he insists, again and again.
Performance wise, the film is heavy. Goel and Shetty take most of the screen time and they deliver great performances. The Visitor is scared and confused. He needs to run to save his life, and those of the kids. Goel brings layers to his portrayal of this man who doesn’t know what to do. But the real winner here is Shetty, who plays the Little Boy. He is scared too, but he knows how to work things in order to suit his convenience and also knows the way out of everything except how to get out of this situation. There’s also Gulshan Devaiah who plays the monster. He doesn’t have much to do beneath the costume and prosthetics (which is well done) but delivers.
Lastly, we have Karan Johar’s sloppy film. In an Instagram post by Netflix, the director has said, “I did exactly what I wanted to do, showing good-looking people getting scared in a good-looking way.” And that’s what he’s done. In addition, his leading lady (Mrunal Thakur) knows how to act. Written by Avinash Sampath, Johar’s film is about Ira (Thakur) and Dhruv (Avinash Tiwary) who get married in an arranged marriage set up. Dhruv lives with his parents in a stunning mansion. From her first night there, Ira begins to discover both, the mansion and secrets of the family. The most important one being that there is a dead granny I the house, who comes to Dhruv’s room every night and wishes him good night. Of course Ira doesn’t believe this, until she eventually has to.
Johar uses horror cliches like creaking doors, wind, a housekeeper standing with a torchlight held close to her face and sleepwalkers as he tries his level hard to scare us. Alas, he fails miserably. The only things that kept me going through the film were how gorgeous the sets and people looked and Mrunal Thakur’s acting capabilities. Ira is a weakly written character, but Thakur plays her with as much honesty as she did with Sonia (Love Sonia). In a particular scene (which is written quite comically) Ira breaks out into a scream, talking to the dead woman. While the scene only makes you laugh (it isn’t supposed to), you see Thakur holding her ground so effortlessly. Apart from her, none of the film makes sense. Oh, her and a dialogue I loved! Dhruv asks Ira why is she here for an arranged marriage set up, to which she replies, “direct sawaal se darr lagta hai… sawaal jo bhi ho, jawab hamesha bahana hi lagta hai”.
Also, what on earth is Kusha Kapila doing in the film? She plays Ira’s friend but her character adds nothing to the script. It seems like Johar casted Kapila just so that his film becomes ‘relevant’ for the lack of a better term.
All in all, does Ghost Stories deserve your time? Maybe. But it won’t scare you. And it would have perhaps been a better anthology had it been titled correctly.
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