film-companion-Bhoot

Director: Bhanu Pratap Singh

Cast: Vicky Kaushal, Bhumi Pednekar, Ashutosh Rana

I’m starting to wonder if any Hindi-language horror film is legally allowed to be made without Ashutosh Rana’s tantrik-professor avatar chanting kooky mantras at a miffed spirit. By now, so many Indian poltergeists have had to encounter a bespectacled Rana character that I wouldn’t be surprised if they have an intercaste drinking game (you’re a ghost racist if you think ghouls are the same as jilted zombies) based on the number of times he is flung onto a wall.

On a serious note, I can understand if he shows up in Raaz and Haunted 3D-style small-town setups: hill stations are known to breed crazy babas spouting eerily specific instructions (“burn the body from waist down on the second half moon of leap-year February in the lunar calendar” and stuff). But given the currentness of the setup of Bhoot – Part One: The Haunted Ship, his mere existence lowers the emotional quotient of the plot. The moment he is introduced to guide the hero through the technicalities of ghost-busting, the film nosedives faster than bodies from the titular ship. The narrative, psychologically intriguing upto a certain point, snaps back into B-movie mode to accommodate its favourite stock character – a man whose hocus pocus forces every homegrown horror picture to have an identically screechy ending. It’s only a matter of time before our spirits go on strike. 

Bhoot has that classic teenager scene, it has a little-girl backstory and a funny best friend (Akash Dhar), it even has the atmosphere owing to some terrific production design. But it also has plenty of unnecessary masala-posturing

That’s not to say first-time director Bhanu Pratap Singh’s film would have been flawless without the professor. It has the usual tropey problems: The sound effects are too jarring, the jump scares are too repetitive, and the flashbacks, too convenient. But it gets the fundamental conceit on point: A haunted man on a haunted ship. Prithvi (an adequate Vicky Kaushal), a shipping officer, is still reeling from the death of his wife (Bhumi Pednekar) and daughter. He hallucinates a lot, which gives the makers a license to play with the thin line separating (past) memories from (present) imagination. Because of his condition, the visual jolts have reason to belong. (There’s a nice moment where Prithvi tells someone that he has stopped taking the medicines prescribed to him because his hallucinations are the only way to meet his family). The film also chooses the correct real-life incident to fashion a horror movie out of. When unmanned cargo ship MV Wisdom (it’s called Seabird here, but Prithvi lives in “Wisdom Apartments”) ran aground at Juhu beach in 2011, I remember how wholly and ominously it blocked the sky. It looked like a giant mechanical ghost on its own – all it needed was an urban legend, and Mumbai’s space crunch driving amorous teenagers to turn it into their private playground at night. Furthermore, an empty ship offers an environment that is inherently spooky: the light is scarce, and the engineering of space is naturally complicated and dangerous.

Bhoot has that classic teenager scene, it has a little-girl backstory and a funny best friend (Akash Dhar), it even has the atmosphere owing to some terrific production design. But it also has plenty of unnecessary masala-posturing. Why, for instance, is Prithvi introduced in a scene straight out of a vigilante-superhero comic – he takes on four baddies in a downpour – where he busts a sex trafficking ring and rescues young girls from a ship container? Is it to establish his propensity to be drawn towards sticky situations that are none of his business? Is it to demonstrate his mental recklessness? Or that he needs a distraction from all the drinking and moping? Good karma? He just gets a call, randomly invokes his inner Bhavesh Joshi, returns home and is applauded at the office next morning. I need answers.

The narrative, psychologically intriguing upto a certain point, snaps back into B-movie mode to accommodate a man whose hocus pocus forces every homegrown horror picture to have an identically screechy ending

The first half is composed of scenes where, in some form or the other, Vicky Kaushal revisits the mysterious ship despite hearing (a finger snap) and seeing things (a creepy doll) that frighten the living daylights out of him. And then he discovers a CD containing handycam footage shot ten years ago – strangely, every time the film reaches a dead end, more footage gets magically added to offer more clues. I’ve learned to live with all kinds of genre contrivations, but the least the makers can do is leave these videos unedited. At another crucial juncture of the story, the perspective abruptly shifts from Prithvi’s to the ghost’s – in a narrative jolt that can best be described as a spoon-feeding insert of audience-insulting proportions. By revealing its cards way before the end, the film becomes a tired race to prevent the inevitable. We already know the secret, everything else is noise.

You know that feeling when a film – not so bad, not so good – suddenly reaches a point where it promises to take a grand leap of faith…and it doesn’t? When a pragmatic character wants the ship towed away because “this country has no shortage of superstition,” you expect the film to circumvent superstition to conceive a smarter, original premise. Naturalism disguised as supernaturalism, maybe? No such luck. But this feeling really peaks only just before the third (revelation) act. Prithvi opens a ship door and finds himself back at the distant location of his family’s demise. A river. His daughter speaks to him. For a moment, I willed the film to surprise me and take an Inception-level turn, where time loops and memories and space combine to make his journey a mental maze. For a moment, the world is its oyster. But then Professor Obvious appears. “The body needs to be burnt,” he expertly opines. Why not buried, I wonder. Why is exorcism such a Hindu ritual? I tend to think of the most inane questions when I’m disappointed.

Not that it matters, because the most supernatural aspect of Bhoot – Part One: The Haunted Ship eventually is Prithvi’s pristine underwater vision every time he plunges in. At Juhu beach. In the monsoon. For those fortunate enough to have not opened their eyes in the waters of Juhu, imagine the blinding sandstorm of Mad Max: Fury Road but in an ocean. Imagine a big, brown ghost engulfing your weightless body. Now that’s scary. 

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