Director: Bhanu Pratap Singh
Cast: Vicky Kaushal, Bhumi Pednekar, Ashutosh Rana
A giant, abandoned ship as the setting for a horror film is a terrific idea – there are umpteen cramped spaces to explore, long lonely corridors and a maze of interconnected interiors to get lost in. Even in the daylight, it’s sad and spooky.
Debutant director Bhanu Pratap Singh takes the true incident of a cargo ship stranded at Juhu beach in Mumbai and spins a story about why it’s haunted. Bhoot starts promisingly – the signature Dharma tune – aa aa aa – plays as a moldy door creaks open. We associate the tune with star-driven family dramas and this subversion is clever and amusing. Early in the film, Bhanu constructs two superb jump scares. You know they’re coming but you still scream. The audience I saw the film with shrieked and then broke into laughter to defuse the tension.
The set-up is solid. The digital effects and production design are effective. DOP Pushkar Singh and sound designer Anish John construct a dark and gloomy atmosphere. The ship, especially those devastated interiors, brims with menace. And at the center stands Vicky Kaushal as Prithvi, a shipping officer in charge of getting the ship called Sea Bird out of Indian waters. Prithvi has his own tragic backstory, which complicates the task at hand. He lost his wife and daughter in an accident and is haunted by the loss. Prithvi has been prescribed medication for his hallucinations – in a poignant scene, he says that he doesn’t take it because it’s the only way to meet his family. Is Prithvi hallucinating or is the Sea Bird actually haunted – Bhanu plays with this psychological drama, skillfully constructing situations in which Prithvi’s own tragedy and the horrors of the ship seem to meld.
I settled in thinking that Bollywood would finally deliver an efficient horror movie – it might not have the layers and craft of a Tumbbad but it would pack enough frights and twists to keep you hooked. Sadly, no such luck. Bhanu plays with the usual horror tropes – creaking doors, found footage, mirrors, children, dolls and cell-phones not working exactly when you need them. Which isn’t the problem. You pretty much sign up for this when you go into a horror film. The trouble is that beyond the first hour, the screenplay gets repetitive and increasingly silly.
And eventually, we arrive at Ashutosh Rana playing professor Joshi, an expert in paranormal activity. Which is pretty much exactly what he did in Vikram Bhatt’s Raaz 18 years ago – you remember professor Agni Swaroop? Why, I wonder, is this fine actor summoned whenever a film needs someone to spout mumbo jumbo. Here he says: Humein us bure saaye ke bare mein pata karna hoga warna hum uski madat nahi kar payenge. In the climax, he’s wielding some sort of ghost detecting machine and chanting furiously, hoping that the bura saaya will be defeated by his ability to recite mantras without pausing for breath. It’s unintentional comedy.
I was also worrying for Vicky who gets battered and beaten throughout the film – he’s either falling or being hit or being flung around. It looks arduous and I really hope he got paid well. Vicky is one of our finest actors but here he’s trying to instill emotion and depth into material that has little place for it. At one point, Prithvi goes into the ship, alone, in the middle of the night and of course ends up being slammed by the bhoot. I wanted to reach into the frame and slap some sense into him. This continues for one hour and fifty-seven minutes. By the time we start unravelling what actually happened on Sea Bird, we don’t really care.
The numerous shots of long, creepy corridors in Bhoot seem inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s classic The Shining in which a writer and his family grapple with evil in a sprawling hotel, which is closed for the winter. The Shining was so terrifying that even a stray image from the film – blood gushing like a waterfall from the elevators – will give you nightmares. Bhoot comes nowhere close to creating the terror of that. Neither does it match Ram Gopal Varma’s 2003 Bhoot, which was genuinely terrifying.
This Bhoot squanders its own promise. And the title, Part 1 – The Haunted Ship, suggests that there will be more. Be afraid.