Ghost Stories cast: Janhvi Kapoor, Surekha Sikri, Vijay Varma, Sobhita Dhulipala, Sagar Arya, Pavail Gulati, Sukant Goel, Gulshan Devaiah, Mrunal Thakur, Avinash Tiwary, Aditya Shetty, Eva Ameet Pardeshi
Ghost Stories directors: Zoya Akhtar, Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee, Karan Johar
Ghost Stories rating: 2 stars
The quartet which gave us Bombay Talkies and Lust Stories has regrouped for the latest Netflix Indian original Ghost Stories.
A young, attractive nurse (Janhvi Kapoor) walks into a once-well-appointed-now-neglected flat, to take care of a bed-ridden old woman (Surekha Sikri). The former is needy, clutching at a reluctant lover (Vijay Varma); the latter, a stunner in her time, looks as if she scythed through men back in the day. Now it’s night. Time for things to go bump.
Dolls are scary, especially when they sit in a row, and stare back at you with their beady eyes. A pregnant young woman (Sobhita Dhulipala), going up and down a steep set of stairs, a possessive little boy, and the harsh cowing of crows. The colours are leached out, the mother-to-be is constantly wary, all is ominous: what is going to happen?
A young man (Sukant Goel) gets off at a railhead and walks towards a village where he’s meant to join work. But things go south rapidly, as he runs into a boy and girl (Aditya Shetty and Eva Ameet Pardeshi) cowering in a corner, scared out of their wits. The desolate village feels like a place that time’s forgotten, and, wait a minute, who are those zombie-like figures clomping about outside, snarling and drooling?
A pretty young thing (Mrunal Thakur) agrees to have an ‘arranged marriage’ with a handsome, wealthy fellow (Avinash Tiwary) who lives in a house his granny built. She soon discovers that all is not as it seems in the stately mansion she comes to as a bride: the housekeeper glowers, the in-laws are strangely blank, and the spouse likes playing peekaboo. Ooh.
Atmospherics-wise, all four segments, directed by Zoya Akhtar, Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee and Karan Johar, come off well enough. Each instantly creates a specific world, and we get drawn in. But surprise-wise, with elements that jump-start or shock-and-startle, or traverse new territories, Ghost Stories doesn’t score as high: those who familiar with genre movies, or have seen enough horror/supernatural/creepy critters will pretty much guess where things are headed to.
Will someone like me, who is petrified of any brand of horror, genteel or oblique or straight-up in-your-face, emerge shaking? Honest confession: I closed my eyes in exactly two places. The rest of it was a series of oh look, there it comes, and oh look, it’s hoved out of view, phew. Or just simply, yuck.
Bombay Talkies felt mint-new, as Johar revealed how surprisingly spiky he could be; Kashyap’s jar of murabbas was memorable in a tale that lagged, Akhtar’s little boy who likes to wear dresses was bright and alive, and Bannerjee’s fabulous segment I still keep visiting in my head.
Lust Stories was good in parts, with whiffs of occasional freshness, as the four explored variations of love-that-turns-into-lust, or just plain hormones-raging-lust. A young wife trying very hard to bite down on the vibrations going through her, via a suitable object? The sweetest spot of all.
But this latest coming together of the four is neither particularly scary nor smartly revisionist. Some genre tales may not have a single bhoot, praet or aatma, because, well, live humans can be dead inside too. The best ghost stories can give us a whole new way of seeing, or take us down paths we haven’t been down before.
Bannerjee’s segment begins by sketching a subversive landscape: those who dare open their mouths to speak will be gobbled by those who can’t handle dissent. There’s resonance with our times, especially as a lot of the action takes place in a school: these guys want no education for students, they only want control. But then it becomes more tell than show, and the mystery whittles away.
Overall, there’s not enough sustained unease or a sense of dread or foreboding. Nor is there too much originality: I got flashes of John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place, and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. Kashyap’s segment has so much going on, with expecting wives and jealous husbands and little boys who look innocent, that it feels crowded and muddled. Johar’s is expectedly, pretty, but you are ahead of every beat. Two solid performances light up Akhtar’s short: Sikri is great, and Janhvi Kapoor surprisingly good, the only real surprise of the film, in fact.
The segments are well-produced, but the plots are predictable, and feel familiar. Seriously, where are the scares?