Gaslight is such a low-on-thrills psychological thriller that even the reliably good Vikrant Massey seems to be on auto-pilot. He plays Kapil, the right-hand man of Ratan, the maharaja of Mayagarh. The maharaja’s daughter Meesha has returned to the palace after many years but he is nowhere to be found. Kapil is sympathetic and helpful to Meesha who is wheelchair bound. But the palace of Mayagarh is a cauldron of deceit and betrayal and like everyone else, Kapil has his secrets.
This film has the classic whodunit set up. One murder. Many suspects, mostly confined to a single space. The film was shot at the Wankaner Palace in Gujarat and the long corridors and cavernous rooms add to the spookiness. Director Pavan Kirpalani is a storyteller who delights in the challenge of cranking up the scares in singular spaces – recall his superb work in a Mumbai apartment in Phobia or what he managed in Darr@theMall. But here, the execution can’t match the location.
Gaslight begins well enough. Sara Ali Khan playing Meesha arrives at the palace and immediately senses that something is amiss. Her troubled relationship with her stepmother is established in a single moment in which Rukmini hugs her but Meesha responds with a cold: Hi Rukmini. There is no sign of her father. His phone is unreachable. But Rukmini seems unperturbed. She also seems to be uncomfortably close to a few other men who hover around the palace. Meesha starts to see and hear things which may or may not be happening. Hence the title – to Gaslight someone means to psychologically manipulate them in a way that makes them question their perception of reality. Which is precisely what happens with Meesha. At one point, she is even pushed down a flight of stairs.
The story has solid atmospherics and delicious possibilities. Pavan uses jump scares and suspenseful BGM. The palace is always dimly lit and many scenes play out in shadows. But the writing – by Pavan and Neha Sharma – flattens out fairly soon. I think it might be the scene in which a blind Rabadi woman with a severed chicken claw tied to her hand suddenly appears. The awful things happening to Meesha – in one scene, a piano is playing itself – become more silly than fearsome. And Gaslight descends into a series of feeble moments, far-fetched reveals and lame plotting. Logic, even within the world of the film, exits the palace. In one scene, one car is closely following another on an empty road in the night with headlights on but the driver in the first car doesn’t notice. In a party scene, Meesha sits with Kapil, the hired help, who gives her a lowdown on the guests and who may or may not be having affairs. Earlier in the film, we barely see any cell phones but then suddenly everyone has them. And no one in the film wonders how Meesha so easily flits around the palace, which seems to have no wheelchair access. This doesn’t stop her from wandering around the many rooms and even the gigantic garage, where of course she finds a body in a car.
The film first gives us Meesha’s point of view but then suddenly shifts to another character who, as it turns out, is also having nightmares. There’s also Akshay Oberoi playing Meesha’s distant cousin. He gets one good line but not much else. But there is one terrifically staged murder against mounds of white salt dunes.
The actors soldier on. Sara Ali Khan goes at the material with sincerity as does Chitrangda Singh. Both their characters have layers that the writers don’t bother to flesh out. Vikrant alternates between hamming and phoning it in. Through the film, the narrative attempts to make some points about class, aukaad and the power structures between the haves and the have-nots. But it seems more tacked on rather than something baked into the story.
Through the film, Pavan also uses paintings and drawings to connect the dots and underline emotions. Which also links back to Phobia – especially the ending. That film deftly combined smarts with scares which Gaslight is simply unable to do.
You can watch the film on DisneyPlus Hotstar.