By Rachit Raj

To begin with, it is important to understand the politics behind the name of this anthology. It is purposefully called ‘Ghost Stories’ and not a genre-centric ‘Horror Story’. It is our perceived expectation (based on years of seeing and reading about ghosts) that the very idea of it automatically attaches itself to the genre of horror. Is it so? As this anthology of four short films directed by Zoya Akhtar, Anurag Kashyap, Dibaker Banerjee and Karan Johar played in front of me, I was forced into defining and redefining these ideas in my head.

It seems the filmmakers themselves understood the title and what it demanded differently. Zoya Akhtar’s short film about a nurse (Jhanvi Kapoor) looking after an old, abandoned woman (Surekha Sikri) in a dimly lit building which reeks of colonial roots. The atmosphere and the setting here are hinged on the clichéd idea of horror as a genre. The film in essence is more about the fear of the unknown, the paranoia of what we assume when pushed in a dark, lonely corner. The film benefits from its setting, background score and two strong performances. It interprets horror as a blend of one’s geographical space and psychological space and trudges on familiar path to eventually present a singularly unimaginative understanding of the ‘ghost’ in Ghost Stories.

Anurag Kashyap’s short is the one from where the anthology starts to find some depth, both narratively and visually. He looks at fear, ghosts and the entire idea of horror as a human state, a designed phobia that is exploited for selfish purposes by those who claim to be soft and loving towards you. The film follows a pregnant woman (Shobhita Dhulipala) and her relentless paranoia of losing her child. Designed as an Inception-esque dream-within-a-dream story, the film infuses a fantastical edge to a woman’s insecurity about giving birth to a child like others around her do. She keeps dolls in her home and treats them like her kids, as if keeping in that relationship a lid of sanity beneath which her paranoid sense of insecurity gives her episodic aches. Kashyap blurs the line between truth and myth and almost unearths the man who directed the brilliant No Smoking years ago to give this film a Kafkaesque sense of darkness that the woman is determined to get engulfed in. There is no hope for her, for she is her own enemy; her obsession with the idea of motherhood the biggest obstacle on her road to motherhood. Kashyap interprets horror not as a jump-scare genre but as one’s most insecure, unhealed parts of the self. His idea of ‘ghosts’, too, is more internal than external. Ghosts, in his short film, is the phobia that pushes us into becoming our own enemy; the paranoia that leaves us incapable of being who we are.

The third and visibly best film in the anthology belongs to Dibakar Banerjee. Set in a small village, this is a brilliant socio-political commentary on our times. It, like Akhtar’s movie, hinges on the familiar props of a horror film, but Banerjee goes beyond the basic idea of a group of ruthless cannibals in his story. Starring Gulshan Devaiah in a complex role which probably marks his and Shobhita Dhulipala as the best performers of this anthology. Both Kashyap and Banerjee attempt to find horror and the presence of ‘ghost’ in the loss of something. Loss, though, in Banerjee’s film is a far graver, encompassing one. If Kashyap’s film held the fear of a mother petrified by the idea of an unborn child, Banerjee’s world is almost a dystopian set-up right in the middle of the world we live in. His film ponders if we have reached the dreaded dystopia already. It uses myth and a physical manifestation of a wendigo to pierce through the consciousness of his audience. It leaves you wondering – the present and its politics is probably the most dreadful horror that can ever be.

The final piece in this anthology, directed by Karan Johar, mars the overall quality of Ghost Stories singlehandedly. Starring the immensely talented Avinash Tiwary and Mrunal Thakur as a freshly married couple, the film feels to bright, forced and at times funny to be a fit in an otherwise atmospherically precise anthology. The idea is not a bad one. The young man communicates with his dead grandmother like he can see her. It understandably horrifies his wife, finding stranger things about her new family as the legend of the grandmother continues to baffle her. It was a story that could have been a deliciously layered story of an obsessive need to hold on to what is gone, but Johar seems too uninterested in his own work. His interests remain grand and picturesque. He adds an elaborate shaadi sequence, a love-making scene (which interestingly is the best scene of his film). Everyone is dressed up, bathed in their privilege. The film is annoyingly bright all the time, refusing to let the sense of the unknown ever feeling too thick or thwarting. The film ends with an amateur climax which makes you feel dissatisfied and eventually unimpressed. Johar’s interpretation, like Akhtar, is more literal than metaphorical. But where Akhtar found success in at least setting the mood and build-up of her story right, Johar falls flat in even making an honest effort to sink his teeth in a previously unexplored genre.

Ghost Stories is far from the overall brilliance of Bombay Talkies, but it is a tad better than Lust Stories, solely because Kashyap and Banerjee are here in top form. Their films make you think, and in that lies the real horror of the stories they tell. Akhtar’s first attempt at horror is patchy and soulless, but her effort is worth appreciating. Sadly, Johar is simply awful here and it is a pity that his is the final film we see in the anthology. Had the final image been of Banerjee’s film, the overall impact of this anthology could have been different. As it stands now, this is a patchy anthology with some moments of breathtaking genius and some insipid, uninspired moments that make you wonder why you are wasting your time watching something so shoddy.

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