The screeching violins and the graphic 2D visuals in the title credits of Ghost Stories set the stage. The visuals in the credits are made of elements from each of the four films. You see the lopped arm and the classroom from Dibakar Banerjee’s Monster, the crow motif from Anurag’s Bird, the wheelchair woman from Zoya Akhtar’s Nurse, the loony husband from Karan Johar’s Granny. What are these stories? How inventive are they, how frightening? These directors have previously worked on two reasonably efficient anthologies—Bombay Talkies and Lust Stories. Ahead of the release, you wondered: Would the ‘ghost’ idea liberate or shackle these filmmakers? Would these stories add a bit more fright to the night, a bit more dread of the unknown?
The first of the four films, Nurse, is by Zoya Akhtar, who likely isn’t the first filmmaker you associate with dark stories. It’s of a nurse, Sameera (Jahnvi Kapoor), forced to spend a night at the residence of a bedridden old woman in need of caretaking. Zoya doesn’t flinch from showing you the unglamorous details of caretaking: the urine bags, the stench, the rinsing, the feeding, the healing waft of an incense stick in a place of rot and stench… I liked how quite a few shots are framed—the symmetry of one shot of Sameera in the bedroom is particularly beautiful. But the creepy old woman isn’t the most novel idea in the horror universe, and for lack of particularly inventive surprises or scares in this story, the story sputters to an end like an incense stick doused in water. The movement of a strange shadow outside the bedroom, inexplicable noises… you don’t get as much a sense of the fear Sameera feels as you should. It’s a fairly interesting idea for a short film, mind you, but I’m not sure it translates into a particularly efficient ghost story.
The second film is Bird, by Anurag Kashyap, a filmmaker who’s not new to the world of darkness, even if the sort he has dealt with in his films aren’t exactly supernatural. The desaturated look of the film is quite striking, and seemingly symbolises the bleakness of the life of its protagonist, Neha (Sobhita Dhulipala). The motif of the bird gets worked into the story quite well too. You see this in the hint of a flashback, the horror writer’s favourite place, the attic, and why even Sobhita’s bulging eyes, soft face, and wiry frame somehow lends itself to the bird imagery. While on it, there’s quite a bit of unsettling imagery, but I will desist from spoiling you the details. I liked Neha’s descent in this short film that attempts to interpret a ghost in a not-so-literal manner. The seeming obscurity could be a dampener for some but I didn’t quite mind that. There’s just a bit too much than the film is able to handle, I think, given its limited duration and its limiting brief. A frightful boy, a frustrated father, the bird-woman parallels… It would be fair to say that much like Neha does literally in this film, Bird bites a bit more than it’s able to chew.
The third film, Monster, by Dibakar Banerjee, is my most favourite of this anthology. Superficially looked at, it’s a zombie story, and works just fine as one—thank god for that. Peel the layers though, and you get themes like oppression, and observations like solidarity among the oppressors, the robbing of the right to expression of the oppressed… While the other films may have subtext too, Monster works both with and without. I liked that it’s a film unflinching in its depiction of gore, like a girl’s intestines being clawed at, a boy chewing into a severed arm. I also totally bought Gulshan Devaiah as the monster, with his eyes communicating menace beautifully. Watch the film and discuss for hours. Who does the monster represent? What do big town and small town stand for? Why does the monster kill those who walk and talk? What does the last phrase, “We’ll become great again”, stand for?
The fourth film, by Karan Johar, is called Granny. It’s also a word that feels overused in conversation in this film. In classic K Jo style, the film is set around a marriage. Here, there’s an arranged marriage looming between English-speaking, wealthy parties living in a mansion. They are the sort of rich whose quick response to discomfort in their house is to say, “Can we purchase another mansion and move in please?” The biggest disappointment about Granny is how it seems to be checking through some really familiar horror tropes without getting fussed over any attempt to reinvent them. A horror house with doors closing and opening, a woman who stands with a torch pointed at her face, a grim maid standing guard for a spirit… It’s all the usual. For a while, I found this idea of an imaginary matriarch quite fascinating. I also quite believed in the plight of Ira (Mrunal Thakur). Ultimately though, it all fizzles out into an underwhelming end that fails to shock or surprise, despite a few peaks of intrigue. Perhaps it’s the stifling effect of the horror genre, perhaps it’s the limited run time, but this is a criticism, I think, that can be largely cast on the anthology as a whole.
Web Series: Ghost Stories
Director: Zoya Akhtar, Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee, Karan Johar
Cast: Jhanvi Kapoor, Sobhita Dhulipala, Gulshan Devaiah, Aditya Shetty, Mrunal Thakur, Kitu Gidwani