Director: Vikram Bhatt

Cast: Karan Kundrra, Zarine Khan

One of the first Hindi-language releases of 2018, 1921 – the fourth “period horror” flick of the ghastly and ghostly 1920 franchise, ten years after the first (no, you’re not drunk…yet) – is again aimed squarely at avenging Great Britain’s colonization of India by making the English countryside look like one giant malfunctioning amusement-park House Of Horrors ride with an iffy fog machine. It’s only a matter of time before Vikram Bhatt and his merry ilk are denied a UK visa. Till then, however, he will continue to track down every ancient mansion possible and pack them with creaking doors, and loud Indian spirits – and by this, I don’t mean Old Monk and Kingfisher – who are growing increasingly confused about their own motivations and identities with every new outing.

In 1921, even Bhatt loses track of who the ghoul haunting York’s post-World-War-I “Wadia Manor” is. In the end, all roads lead to a backstory about incomplete love, untimely deaths and incoherent ghosts with laryngitis

Are they jilted lovers? Or the jilted friends of current lovers? Or murdered strangers who took the form of a dead roommate of a jilted lover? Or undead film critics? Or are they simply supernatural beings that are so fed up with Bhatt’s idea of deafening “sound effects” – and his complete distrust of their intimidating physicality – that they scream at us viewers from inside the screen to help them escape his film? It’s not easy to lift these sagging spirits, after all.

In 1921, even Bhatt loses track of who the ghoul haunting York’s post-World-War-I “Wadia Manor” is. In the end, all roads lead to a backstory about incomplete love, untimely deaths and incoherent ghosts with laryngitis. To start with, there’s a disclaimer claiming that 1921 is not “suitable for pregnant ladies”. This is correct, because Bhatt’s method of scaring us is the cinematic equivalent of jolting us awake in bed by jumping onto our tummies and yelling mercilessly into our ears till they bleed. This is not an exaggeration. It’s no coincidence that most of his pained protagonists are pianists – subconscious compensation for the blatant noise pollution enforced by the rest of the film.

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Here, Karan Kundrra is Ayush, a lilting Mohit Suri hero trapped in a misty world whose ruins have laid the foundation of Bipasha Basu’s career. He looks like Himesh Reshammiya when he plays the “love theme” on the piano, and serves as the makeshift caretaker of the manor while studying at music school. The manor, incidentally, belongs to a generous Mumbai tycoon played by the director himself – a snooty-accented role usually reserved for the cacophonous Mohan Kapoor.

But perhaps the most fascinating aspect of 1921 is its heroine. Zarine Khan, more commonly known as the unnecessary Katrina Kaif doppelganger, is a “ghost whisperer” named Rose. She, too, like Kaif in Jab Tak Hai Jaan, exhibits a disturbing affinity towards Jesus Christ. “We won’t find out who the ghost is; God will,” she declares, repeatedly, with great faith. Basically, she sees dead people – if you’ve seen M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, the spoiler pretty much writes itself.

She is introduced in a sequence where she confronts a spooky soldier with a disfigured face, who looks more like a man who just made a mess of his chocolate ice cream cone, and helps him communicate with his widow. Ayush seeks Rose’s help because of her reputation, and soon, we see the two of them try to decode the intricacies of a Vikram Bhatt script while simultaneously falling in love during the most unlikely circumstances.

It’s impossible to satirize such horror movies because they become raging parodies unto themselves. Despite all the foreign locations and the production design and special effects, it’s particularly tragic that Bhatt eventually resorts to the volume of his damned stock sounds to disturb our mental balance

At one point, after a shadowy demon yanks Rose into a wall and renders her unconscious in bed, Ayush gazes at her – all pretty and sleeping-beauty-ish and half-comatose – and a brooding poor-man’s-Aashiqui-2 track appears out of nowhere. Another time, they slither to a similar song between the sheets, naked, less than a night after seeing a petrol pump attendant mauled to death by an invisible force. Not inappropriately, Shah Rukh Khan’s violin quartet tendencies from Main Hoon Na come to mind.

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It’s impossible to satirize such horror movies because they become raging parodies unto themselves. Despite all the foreign locations and the production design and special effects, it’s particularly tragic that Bhatt eventually resorts to the volume of his damned stock sounds to disturb our mental balance. Where’s the craft in that? Then again, it’s a formula that seems to have worked with general audiences – given that he has more or less remade Raaz (2002) in twenty different ways.

Personally, I’m quite tired of criticizing his films. All I really fear is the possibility of a sequel’s prequel’s triple sequel with no connection to the original. For instance, there’s a scene in which Rose, in another flashback, decides to commit suicide at a nice lake by drinking a vial of poison. She is depressed – until she hears Ayush’s music wafting in from the distance. Soon, she is cured, and she happily flings the poison into the water. There is a real possibility that an innocent crocodile might have swallowed the vial and morphed into a radioactive, monstrous and vengeful version of its former self, only to star in Creature 2.0. Talk about origin stories.

Watch the trailer of 1921 here:

Rating:   star

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