Ghost Stories (2020)

The transformation of this anthology film series from being a one-off theatrical celebration of Bollywood in Bombay Talkies (2013) to a regular Netflix production that champions the idiosyncrasies of Hindi cinemas’ auteurs is an admirable one. The streaming platform affords these directors so often constrained by the need to bring in box-office numbers and obey Indian censorship’s strict guidelines the liberty to do what they want that their output here feels the least self-censored. The second installment in this franchise, for instance, attempted to deconstruct the complex nature of female sexuality in fascinating ways, revealing a command of form that I never associated with some of these filmmakers. The quiet observations and introspection of Zoya Akhtar’s protagonist “lusting” for respect from her employers displayed a filmmaker who could completely embody a person’s perspective who has no say by emphasizing silences over dialogue. Similarly, the master of pessimistic cinema, Anurag Kashyap, revealed a penchant for getting into the comically cracked mindset of not a criminal, or a gangster, but a (relatively) normal woman! Crucially, these stories never resorted to titillating or glamorizing their characters’ “lusts,” something many commercial films demand to rake in the money.

Despite retaining some of these artistic virtues that continue to place the anthology nearer to the experimental than conventional, Ghost Stories (2020) feels less a glowing representation of original creative voices and more a reminder of how great dramatists sometimes fail to become good genre filmmakers. It’s not so much that the directors are unaware of the iconography of horror. All four directors know that the gentle dolly-in will elicit some tension; that the cawing of crows and rainy, desaturated colors will infuse an atmosphere of horror. But, except for Dibakar Banerjee, the filmmakers find it hard to integrate these elemental atmospherics into their conceptually exciting ghost stories.

The introductory short by Akhtar signals this mismatch between form and content subtly, with the unsatisfying conclusion only confirming my disappointment with the story’s inability to build on its promise. Introducing her film as a very typical horror story with a wide shot emphasizing a girl standing alone in a gloomy, funeral like setting replete with crows cawing above her, the director sets the audience up for an expressionist horror story. But the director then relaxes her form, interestingly opting for a more realist aesthetic to construct the dynamic between Sameera (an empathetic Janhvi Kapoor) and Mrs. Malik (an excellent Surekha Sikri) that hints at this ghost story being more than a literal ghost story. This slow-burn drama provides moments that have the two characters discussing their shared loneliness, suggesting the possibility of the ghost (or ghost story) as a way for them to find a meaningful connection. But Akhtar finally downshifts again into using slow camera movements, and an inconsistent ominous background score to underscore the traditional horror of it all to extinguish the undercurrent of melancholy in her tale entirely.

Janhvi Kapoor on Her Netflix’s Ghost Stories Character: I Relate to Her Pain and Use of Sexuality
A still from Zoya Akhtar’s short film

This subtle tension between potential and execution is not so much a concern for Anurag Kashyap’s Birdwoman, and Mr. Johar’s Kabhi Granny Kabhie Hum, both of whom fail to grasp how interesting ideas get buried under their weight of their over-direction. The latter’s adherence to melodrama, and inability to completely understand genre conventions come off as more acceptable because his short, if anything, feels schlocky and silly in a semi-enjoyable way (who else could open your year with a line like “Maa lash hai, dadi bhoot hai, aur husband ch** hai”). Sure, if the director tried more, he could have used the setting of a lavish mansion and gorgeous costumes more effectively to create a gothic piece about the incestuous relationship between rich mothers and sons. But, then, that’s me expecting a Park-Chan Wook film from a Johar extravaganza, which isn’t going to happen.

Karan Johar on Netflix’s Ghost Stories: ‘I Dug My Own Grave’
A still from Karan Johar’s short film

What is shocking, however, is how unsuccessful Kashyap – a self-proclaimed fan of the horror genre who considers it the “most cinematic medium” – is at making his short gnarly in the slightest. The director clearly reveres the maternal horror of Rosemary’s Baby (1968), the creepiness of The Omen (1976), and the expressionistic shocks of J-Horror. But wrapping them all up in desaturated fable that doesn’t so much shout its aspirations to be a serious horror film as screams and screeches about how dark it is only goes to make this effort feel more like a horror parody. That is not to say that everything is terrible here. The performers, especially Shobita Dhulipala, are giving it their all to make these underwritten characters convincing. But, Kashyap’s obsessive love for the genre, unfortunately, seems to have taken precedence over providing anything of substance here, reducing even his formal tics – extreme close-ups of grotesque imagery, extensive use of slow-motion, and a deafening background score – to nothing more than a cheap gimmick.

Ghost Stories movie review: Sobhita Dhulipala in a still from Anurag Kashyap’s short.
A still from Anurag Kashyap’s short film

Something that director Dibakar Banerjee absolutely steers clear of to craft a genuinely terrifying Indian contextualization of Night of the Living Dead (1968). I have not yet seen George Romero’s classic genre-defining film but heard and read enough about its radical socio-political roots that use the horror genre as a disguise to critique racism. Banerjee essentially transposes this dystopian vision to modern-day “small-town” India, which has been left in ruins by the “big-town people” who fundamentally disagree with these “small-town” people. Furthermore, these “big-town monsters” do not feed on people who “don’t speak or move or are similar to them.” But, on the people who oppose their authority, or are different from them.

The reason why Banerjee’s short works at making this allegory about rising fascism in India that is leading to an increasingly stark divide between the majority and the minority feel so effective is because of how cleverly he masks it before revealing it through both his narrative and mise-en-scene. Much like how the other filmmakers used horror iconography to open their films, Banerjee, too, opens his short with a wide shot of a scarecrow. He then introduces the audience to the protagonist (a great Sukant Goel) who is very much the conduit to this world for us. He, like us, stumbles upon this village, thinking of it as an absurd place where two children tell him “tall tales” about “creatures eating up whole villages.” But, gradually, this casual, almost darkly comic back-and-forth dialogue between him and these children gives way to revelations about this world that begin to mirror modern-day India thematically. The director, very pointedly, proceeds to place a hoisted Indian flag that looks incredibly jaded in one of his scenes’ background. Before, again astutely, framing a scene in which the mise-en-scene consists of a seemingly incomplete geographical location of India.

Dibakar Banerjee interview: ‘Ghost Stories’ film takes the audience to ‘a primitive kind of society’
A still from Dibakar Banerjee’s short film

The coda of Banerjee’s short builds on these ideas to reveal the presence of a relatively well-known actor who had been unrecognizable in his role before, and the critique of the political regime a little too bluntly. But, by then, the illusion of genre tropes has been so successfully shattered that all that is left for our protagonist, and us, is a terrible feeling of uncertainty for what lies ahead.

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