The genre of horror in cinema is quite versatile, particularly because quite a few unique sub-genres could evolve from the same. We are all familiar with horror-love stories starring Emraan Hashmi or female-centric horror films where the ghost is generally a woman who seeks revenge. Then comes a personal favourite, the criminally unexplored genre of horror comedy. Bollywood has failed to do justice to his genre apart from witty exceptions such as Raj DK and Amar Kaushik's Stree (2018). Regional industries, however do have some witty horror comedies to offer.
Bengali literature has an abundance of work in the sphere of horror-comedy but unfortunately none were well translated into the screen. Speaking of horror cinema in Bengali, what comes to mind first is Satyajit Ray's Monihara (1961), and Tarun Majumdar's Kuheli (1971). However, neither is a horror comedy. As I said, the genre remains unexplored in Indian cinema. But a terrific recent piece of work in the genre would be the 2012 Bengali film Bhooter Bhabishyat, directed by Anik Dutta.
Dutta's Bhooter Bhabishyat still remains one of the most enjoyable Bengali films of recent times; it is satirical in several spheres and touches on a number of issues but never fails to be comical. One of the best things about the film is how the script manages to incorporate a range of characters from different walks of life. From a retired zamindar from the pre-independence era, a yesteryear actress with a broken heart and a depressed college student with a passion for music to a hilsa-loving man from East Bengal, a rich spoilt daughter of an industrialist and even a chef straight from Siraj-Ud-Daulah's kitchen, you have it all.
Bhooter Bhabishyat is a script within a script. An aspiring director (played by Parambrata Chattopadhyay) meets a mysterious man with no name in an abandoned mansion belonging to Bengali zamindars. The latter offers to share an idea for a potential script with the former, promising to include every element for the film to be a perfect hit, and the story is what makes the rest of the film.
Among the many themes of Bhooter Bhabishyat is a critique of neo-liberalism and urbanization, where Dutta brings out the evils of neo-liberal tendencies of property development and demolition of the heritage and history of Bengal. Dutta interestingly puns on the word "bhoot", which could mean "ghost" as well as "the past". So literally, the title of the film translates to the "future of the past". Dutta turns out to be a strong critic of the property development corporate business, and he also makes fun of Bengali stereotypes through the mixed bag of characters he portrays as inhabitants of the famous Chowdhury Nibas, the mansion of ghosts, which is central to the plot. Chowdhury Nibas is almost a character in the film, just as the haveli was in the recent Gulabo Sitabo. It is a symbol of Bengal's lost heritage and very significantly a symbol of inclusivity, diversity of culture and tradition, and modernism; it paints a picture of a utopian, inclusive atmosphere. It is a place where a Muslim chef from the times of Plassey goes for a picnic with an upper-caste, upper-class zamindar from the pre-independence era. It is where an older actress, Kodolibala (played by Swastika Mukherjee in arguably her most memorable role) learns about fashion and style from the more modern Koel, representing the current generation.
The film manages to throw in several references from the world of food, fashion, cinema, music and even the glorious history of Bengal. In one scene, a depressed young drug addict, Pablo, sings for Koel, while in another scene, the mansion of ghosts has a concert and go-as-you-like fashion show where everyone dresses up as they want and sings along. One must notice the choice of songs and clothes, a classic representation of multiculturalism. Together, this gang of ghosts become a symbol of resistance to the one-dimensional, capitalist ideas of demolishing and property development, like a spirit of hope in today's dystopian world where inclusivity is rare.
As the script focuses on the evils of selfish real estate development, it gives a strong position to the women in the script. Kodolibala, who became an iconic character in Bengali cinema, is an important addition in the mansion of ghosts. Very interestingly, almost all the women in the film have a similar past – being betrayed by men. While Kodolibala was betrayed by her lover who left her to get married to a "more marriageable" girl in the eyes of upper-class Bengali society, Koel later discovers that Sam, her gym instructor-turned-lover, left her in exchange of a fat sum of money from her industrialist father. Finally, comes the character of Shiuli, the first wife of the evil real estate businessman who was burnt alive by her husband. She features in an interesting item song, the lyrics of which describe exactly the way she was killed by her husband. The women in the story play significant roles. Kodolibala is a symbol of classic Bengali cinema while her story also focuses on how women in cinema were considered "impure" or ineligible to marry for oh-so-decent men. Another important character is of the aspiring director who is now an art film maker, a symbol of struggle in the film industry. Interesting to note are how some of the characters are fragments of history, such as a British official who was killed in a bomb blast by a revolutionary nationalist in the colonial era, or a soldier from the Kargil war.
Bhooter Bhabishyat is less of true horror and more of comedy, but it does revolve around a gang of ghosts who stop at nothing to hold onto their very own Chowdhury mansion, a symbol of hope and unity. It paints a picture of all walks of Bengal, of all kinds of people and culture, and brings out, through its witty one-liners, meaningful songs, puns and stark messages, the reality of today's dystopia. Truly, the future of our "past" is in danger. In Dutta's satirical horror comedy, we see the picture of what our society truly is and what it is descending into, and that, I would say, is true horror.