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Ghost Stories Review: Misfires And Meaning In Netflix’s Rooted Horror Anthology

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Directors: Zoya Akhtar, Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee, Karan Johar

Cast: Janhvi Kapoor, Vijay Varma, Sobhita Dhulipala, Mrunal Thakur, Avinash Tiwary, Surekha Sikri, Sukant Goel, Aditya Shetty, Gulshan Devaiah

The stories in Netflix’s horror anthology, Ghost Stories, are rooted and the problems seemingly arise from the horrors of life as we know it already — geriatric loneliness, abandonment, majoritarianism, lynching, death of a child and the stigma, and finally the unknowable in an arranged marriage.

Zoya Akhtar manages to infuse the air in her short with the kind of stillness that can suffocate even the young. Her film opens with cliches that say, ‘look, a horror film’ — an overcast day, a lone woman, a dead crow. Once the setting changes, indoor, Akhtar uses every frame, every movement of the camera with precision. Guiding us, telling us what to feel, every step of the way. Surekha Sikri as the senile Mrs Malik is beguiling. Jahnvi Kapoor who comes as a replacement nurse Sameera shows promise. The idea of an old woman who’s half paralysed alone in an apartment, during Mumbai’s terrifying monsoons is horrific enough. The thought of a ‘presence’ in this eerie, smelly home does give you chills, initially. The fact that the young nurse continues to remain in the house even after she sees something questionable the first night, speaks of the kind of things resilient young women will put themselves through to make it in life. There’s much in common between the two women who find themselves alone in this short. The older woman tells the younger one, she would not wait if she had a life… Perhaps this is why Sameera had to be there. To hear these words.  All said and done though, the thrills are far and few and the actual horror of it does not really hit you (long) enough. The slow-mo walking and the camera following gets a bit tiring after a point.

The symbolism of the crow spills over from one film to another in an interesting manner in Ghost Stories. Sobhita Dhulipala’s deadpan face in Anurag Kashyap’s short, while initially serving the intrigue, later on, makes her seem too distant to access. In fact, you feel absolutely no connection to any of the characters in the film. That’s also because of how disorienting the script is. You don’t know which of them is supposed to horrify the others. And so it becomes exhausting. A young mother who loses a child bears the guilt of childhood, when she was prone to accidentally dropping birds’ eggs. As an adult feeds birds in her attic, dreams of losing the baby in her womb (and there are some particularly disturbing scenes in the bathroom), has a young nephew with an almost oedipal obsession, who wants her to love him as much even after she has her baby… and he can draw and inflict pain on her… In the end though the Black Swan-esque film fails in capturing the journey of the mother who’s consumed by the idea that she’s being… or will be punished.

In Dibakar Banerjee’s film, it’s a man eat man world (and there’s a scarecrow). There’s a big town and a small town. And a government official who comes to find out just why the school in the small town isn’t good. The unnamed Visitor undergoes the horrors of the small town’s inhabitants (two kids) at the hands of the big town’s people. Through stray conversations (fights between the kids), he pieces together the kind of animosity the people of big town harbour towards the small. It’s a very effective short, in that there is the immediate physical danger that the main characters must protect themselves from, as well as the implied danger of majoritarianism and mob lynching… In one scene, the Visitor falls into a pit and everyone just looks at him. And then he folds both his hands and pleads, at which point the animal-like head of the big town pounces on him… The casting is superb and the setting eerily real. It’s a superb subversion of the zombie horror genre, without the cinematic desi verve.

Karan Johar’s final short is more a wink at the horror genre, and less a serious attempt. There’s a Sabyasachi-like wedding ad, hiding as an arranged marriage scene in there as well. Rich people meet to, maybe, have an arranged marriage; boy seems to be still talking to his dead grandmother; girl goes ahead and marries him despite the red flag and then like a detective walks around the uber-rich house (with superb wallpapers by the way), trying to ‘find’ the ghost. There’s a ‘creepy’ cook, the crow-shaped head of a walking stick, and a sleepwalking mother-in-law… The only upside though is, everyone looks polished and buff all the time, and the swearing from victim and ghost alike.

The Ghost Stories review is a Silverscreen.in original article. It was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Silverscreen.in and its writers do not have any commercial relationship with movies that are reviewed on the site.

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