Director: Arindam Bhattacharya
Cast: Soumitra Chatterjee, Abir Chatterjee, Tanushree Chakraborty, Mamata Shankar, Rudranil Ghosh
A newly-wed couple Arko (Abir Chatterjee) and Sayantani (Tanushree Chakraborty) move into a new flat in Kolkata’s Rajarahat area – the kind of place billboards advertise as ‘being the lap of nature’. Dealing with recent traumas, Sayantani is mentally fragile, and before long she starts experiencing things around the house that are not quite ‘normal’. It does not help that Arko is often away on official tours, that the maid will not come in after dusk (why do ghosts always appear in the dark?), that the security guard pointedly asks her if all is right with the flat, and that the elderly couple next door (Soumitra Chatterjee and Mamata Shankar) are obviously overwrought, under some great stress, and clearly have secrets to hide. The stage is thus set for Bengal’s latest tryst with horror.
In a season where the media has been full of conversations around Stree and Ghoul (the Netflix miniseries), it isn’t surprising that Flat No. 609 has failed to garner much press at the national level. Obviously, the days when, in the words of Gopal Krishna Gokhale, ‘what Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow’, are well over.
Flat No. 609 has all the classic tropes of a horror film – a young couple moving into a flat in a sparsely populated outskirt of the city, a flat that has unsavoury rumours attached to it (including a locked storeroom that obviously harbours dark secrets); hints of the wife dealing with psychological issues which keeps the viewer intrigued as to the veracity of her ‘visions’; picture frames falling off the wall; shelves and drawers opening on their own.
Horror has in any case never been a genre that’s quite taken off in Bengali cinema. One can count on one’s fingers the cinematic attempts at it in the language. A leading online newspaper portal listing the top ten horror films in Bengali included, believe it or not, Satyajit Ray’s Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (really? Goopy Bagha a horror film?), Anik Dutta’s laugh riot Bhooter Bhobishyat, Aparna Sen’s Goynar Baksha and Sandip Ray’s Jekhane Bhooter Bhoy – illustrating the paucity of films in the genre, which is surprising given that Bengali literature abounds in great ghost stories. A lack of resources – monetary and technological – has been advanced as a reason for this, but the fact remains that some of the best, pioneering international works in the genre have been low-budget rough-at-the edges flicks. In fact, the only films in that list that can lay claim to anything approaching horror are Ray’s chilling adaptation of Tagore’s Monihara (part of Teen Kanya, 1961), Naresh Mitra’s 1950 classic Kankal (touted as the first Bengali horror film), Tarun Majumdar’s monster hit Kuheli (1971) and of late Birsa Dasgupta’s Golpo Holey Shotti (2014) and Shob Bhuture (2017). The last two are important, not because they blaze a new trail in any way, but because they indicate new forays in the genre.
Flat No. 609 has all the classic tropes of a horror film – a young couple moving into a flat in a sparsely populated outskirt of the city, a flat that has unsavoury rumours attached to it (including a locked storeroom that obviously harbours dark secrets); hints of the wife dealing with psychological issues which keeps the viewer intrigued as to the veracity of her ‘visions’; picture frames falling off the wall; shelves and drawers opening on their own. And for the most part the film delivers. There are a few genuine chills – a shadow of a child reflected in the television set; a ball bouncing off the stairs on its own, its sound echoing all over the empty house; the uneasy static of electricity as Sayantani goes exploring the storeroom and the lights keep flickering on and off; even a variation on the ‘merry widow murders’ (without the murders). And a delightful bit where a baby piano plays ‘Twinkle twinkle little star’ with Soumitra Chatterjee uttering the line ‘How I wonder what you are’ – emphasis on the ‘what’ – in a manner that gives an altogether new eerie spin to the nursery rhyme. All of this playing out to customary tilted frames and genre-appropriate background score.
What also works for the film is the very ordinariness of its settings and its characters which makes it effective for the most part. And the performances are uniformly good.
What also works for the film is the very ordinariness of its settings and its characters which makes it effective for the most part. And the performances are uniformly good. Tanushree is remarkably understated in an affecting portrayal as the woman dealing with personal demons – and it helps that given that she is home-bound for most of the film, she is not dressed to the nines, which makes her condition relatable and believable. Abir is one of contemporary Bengali cinema’s better actors and it’s good to see him break the Byomkesh mould for something like this, and do it so effortlessly. Kharaj Mukherjee (reprising his role of police detective Aniket Sanyal from Arindam Bhattacharya’s first feature Antarleen) and Rudranil Ghosh as the shady broker lend strong support. Mamata Shankar is a standout as the batty neighbour cryptically babbling about the unbearable weight of sins.
What does not work – and ultimately sinks the film – is the last act, after the truth is out. Of course there are unexplained paranormal elements and rightly so – after all, ‘there are more things in heaven and earth … than are dreamt of’. But given the build up that the film-makers manage right up to the revelation, the last quarter of an hour and more is a drag. If the chase sequence seems to go on and on with little by way of thrills, the one in the police station where Aniket explains the mystery is laughably expository – is the viewer really that dumb? In the end, I would prefer to stay with that final image of Sayantani entering the storeroom one last time, clearly lost to the world forever.
I would probably have gone for three stars but for the post-climactic letdown, which makes me take away half a star.