The rich tradition of ghost stories in Bengal is comparable to that of Japan, deeply rooted in its cultural peculiarities, land and people. It has found a new outlet in the form of an anthology series from Bangladesh on their homegrown streaming platform Chorki. Contemporary Bangladeshi cinema has the right temperament – the right filmmaking style and storytelling skills – to handle horror. This is a cinema – unlike say that of West Bengal – that has retained its ties with literature. Chorki’s Unoloukik showed an enthusiasm for genre filmmaking alongside a social consciousness with a merging of the two.
Nuhash Humayun’s Pett Kata Shaw is a worthy successor. You don’t get to say that a lot: an anthology being attributed to a single person’s creative vision; generally they are assortments from different directors and writers. Humayun, who has written and directed the series, gives it a coherence that makes Pett Kata Shaw greater than the sum of its parts. Something in the third short makes you rethink the way you’d been viewing the series so far, something that has to do with the very nature of folk tales itself. The fourth and final one goes a step forward.
They, of course, work fine as standalone episodes too. Pett Kata Shaw has a dark sense of humour – the title locates the macabre in a phonetically disturbing letter of the Bengali alphabet. The expression ‘can’t take his eyes off her’ gets a whole other meaning in the first episode, titled “Ei Building e Meye Nishedh”. Soon after he discovers that a ghost – a female one – has broken into his place, the protagonist finds out that the only way to stay alive is to maintain eye contact. So begins a perversely funny and creepy game of cat and mouse – it means we have to maintain eye contact with this feral creature too. Like A Quiet Place, which quickly set up its own rules by letting us know that making a sound would call the attention of the monster, “Ei Building e Meye Nishedh” creates dramatic tension by making the viewer a participant.
Another show would’ve continued this pattern. Instead, Pett Kata Shaw launches into a self-reflexive exploration on its subject: the third and pivotal episode imagines the origin stories of these superstitions
There’s a deeper philosophy behind it. She is a ‘mechho’ – a ghost fond of fish as per the folk tales of Bengal – and she demands to be served fish the protagonist has brought home that night. She doesn’t want it raw but beautifully cooked, just the way he was planning to make it for himself following his mother’s recipe. The message is clear, if not loud: she wants to be treated like a human being. The fact that the action unfolds in a boy’s hostel where girls aren’t allowed makes it a clever take on gender roles in a male dominated society.
The first short combines genre thrills with social commentary with a wicked little twist in the end. The second episode, “Mishti Kichhu”, is perhaps even more tonally unpredictable, a genie-wish-gone-wrong story that finds one of Bangladesh’s most gifted actors, Chanchal Chowdhury, as the absentminded owner of a sweet-meat shop. Nothing prepares you for the sombre, existential piece it turns out to be, with visuals such as the character making a mural of the big bang with sweets on the shabby walls of his shop: the birth of universe itself in a local microcosm.
So far the two shorts were smart, engaging retellings of old horror: You bring home fish, you risk bringing home a mechho too; djinns haunt sweet meat shops at night, the basis for the second story (It seems to make sense that if Bengalis love fish and sweetmeats, so should Bengali ghosts). Another show would’ve continued this pattern. Instead, Pett Kata Shaw launches into a self-reflexive exploration on its subject: the third and pivotal episode, titled, “Loke Bole” imagines the origin stories of these superstitions; it centres on a city couple on a backpacking trip losing their way in the wild and finding shelter in a village where apparently all superstitions originated; here, they meet an older couple who tell them these stories – why you shouldn’t keep a comb on the floor, why you shouldn’t eat the seeds along with the fruit, and so on. The number of stories are four; when it is revealed that the fourth story is, in fact, a composite of the first three, the episode in effect becomes an almost miniature version of the anthology. This lesson on the intersectionality of folk tales will be useful in the fourth and final episode, where it is hinted that all three previous segments converge.
Humayun is telling the oldest of stories in the newest of formats, an episodic anthology meant for a Netflix watching audience, but not at the cost of losing the essential aspects of folk tales. In episode three he devises a way to give us a taste of folk tales in pure, unadulterated form. So we have the old lady telling the stories orally, while it unfolds in the form of puppetry for the audience. These are traditional storytelling forms in which folk tales were told. The choice of river as the backdrop in episode three, and the prominence of sea in episode four (“Nishir Daak”) seem deliberate, as if to give a physical form to the idea that folk tales flow into each other like rivers flow into the sea.
At the same time there is revisionism. Pett Kata Shaw seems to remind us that folk tales were originally social, and that at the root of every ghost story is a story of injustice. Naturally, it speaks to the current world and its concerns. An auto driver in “Nishir Daak” laments that the ghosts in Dhaka have all moved to the sea, a critique of one of the most overpopulated cities in the world as well as a comment on climate change. And here’s how a premonition is planted. Before their fateful stay at the village of superstitions, the girl finds out that her partner is cheating on her when she reads a message by mistake on his phone. It’s a relatable situation, that also sets the tone for the horror to come.