Directors: Zoya Akhtar, Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee, Karan Johar
Cast: Jahnvi Kapoor, Sobhita Dhulipala, Sukant Goel, Gulshan Devaiah, Avinash Tiwary, Mrunal Thakur
Streaming on: Netflix
Ghost Stories, the third installment of the four-director anthology after Bombay Talkies (2013) and Lust Stories (2018), is arguably the least impressive 'whole' of them all. One might argue that the theme (horror) evokes a distinct language of storytelling – a vivid, visible genre that requires a specific skill-set and slant of sensibilities – and is therefore harder to crack in comparison to thematic sub-genres like cinema (Bombay Talkies) and sex (Lust Stories). One might also argue that only one of the four directors has shown the slightest inclination towards genre filmmaking in the past: Even Anurag Kashyap's "normal" filmography (Paanch, Black Friday, Gulaal, Ugly, No Smoking, Raman Raghav 2.0) is ripe with undercurrents of cultural, psychological and political horror.
Which is why – given the palpable ghosts in the air of today's India – it's strange to see him experiment with a tone of geeky socio-visual horror (pregnant woman, creepy nephew, dolls) instead. Sobhita Dhulipala uninhibitedly occupies a physically sinister role, some of the desaturated imagery is striking and almost fable-like in its mental portraiture, but you can sense the overexcitement of a creator left alone in a room with his shiny new toys. Horror is the one genre in which indulgence is already deep-rooted – an extra dose only makes it more explicit and overbearing, giving the impression of an artist trying too hard to be artful.
On the other hand, it's disappointing to see Zoya Akhtar and Karan Johar interpret the title, Ghost Stories, in the most literal way possible – through ghosts, old ladies, haunted houses and terrified female protagonists. Johar's tale of a newly-wed girl (Mrunal Thakur) whose wealthy husband (Avinash Tiwary) speaks to his dead grandmother is particularly jarring and juvenile, reminiscent of the Vikram Bhatt brand of Bollywood horror most of us have (not) grown up on. Akhtar's narrative – of a young house-nurse caring for a mysterious old woman (Surekha Sikri) during a Mumbai deluge – lacks the kind of naked ambition that we've come to expect from her out-of-comfort-zone outings. This is unoriginal, and serves as little other than a platform for Janhvi Kapoor to shed her star-kid rawness. That's not to say atmospheric horror and jump scares are outdated. They can be silly-smart at times. But I believe that spookfests cannot simply afford to be sensory spookfests anymore, especially in this age of heightened human conflict and advanced digital effects.
Context is the clincher. One doesn't even need to search so hard anymore: Just look around, fear is everywhere. Something like Ashwin Saravanan's Game Over (2019), a feminist slasher flick that doubles up as a tragic advertisment of our times, would fit right in. For instance, Dibakar Banerjee's short – which in my opinion is the best of the twelve segments so far – does a wicked Jordan Peele (Get Out, Us) in terms of meta commentary. It wears the guise and drastic mood of a gory zombie movie to express the modern machinery of this government's Hindutva model. It captures the history of everyman fear through the genre's most audacious form. The messaging isn't in your face either; it takes its time to emerge out of the cleverly designed apocalyptic mask. It begins with an education officer (Sukant Goel) walking into a deserted rural district ("The rickshaw dropped me 4 kilometres away," he complains on his phone, before the reception disappears) to address the underperformance of its schools. There is nobody he can call anymore. A communications blackout. Two traumatized kids – one from "bigtown" and another from "smalltown" – take him into their hideout and explain the situation: Flesh-eating zombies from one district are preying on humans of the other. "They don't eat those who eat like them," he is told, a piece of information that sets the stage for a Shaun of the dead-level satire of reluctant cannibalism down the line.
For those willing to look, there are thinly veiled allegories of Kashmir and its internet lockdown, lynching, religious fundamentalism, rabble-rousing, cow/beef politics and recession (survivors must eat raw onions to avoid being eaten by the zombies) weaved into the texture of this seemingly straightforward survival thriller. For those willing to look closer, Gulshan Devaiah is a big part of this film – and he is unrecognizable until the final moments. His is a difficult performance, and an eye-catching one that cannot be analyzed without exposing the core of the story. Banerjee makes a strong statement by using our perception of primal horror as a narrative device. The devil is in his details. And it's this sort of daring, provocative voice that reiterates the entire point of a diverse anthology. Unlike the other segments of Ghost Stories, it injects a largely misused genre with a rare sense of intellectual awareness that goes beyond the trends and norms of contemporary storytelling. It's not a one-off. Across the three anthologies, Banerjee's shorts have been consistently humane and intriguing. His characters, too, have been the most effective – we remember them, their settings and the smell of their conflicts far more than the others.
Maybe it's no surprise that a specialist director whose last feature-length release was over four years ago (Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!) appears to be the only one keen to be heard. The investment feels fiercer; there's nothing quick and easy about the films. The others, however, seem to be alternatively out of breath and breadth. Perhaps it's time to reinvent the line-up going forward. A new-old suspect can't hurt. Imagine someone like Sriram Raghavan in this Bollywood quartet. Imagine Vishal Bhardwaj. Imagine any filmmaker who doesn't need to imagine too loudly in order to own a theme.