Ghost Stories movie review: Dibakar Banerjee's political short film elevates an otherwise bland anthology that just isn't scary
Four iconic filmmakers — Karan Johar, Anurag Kashyap, Zoya Akhtar and Dibakar Banerjee — have come together for the third time with Ghost Stories, a Netflix horror anthology of four short films.
castJahnvi Kapoor, Sobhita Dhulipala, Gulshan Devaiah, Surekha Sekhri, Vijay Varma
directorZoya Akhtar, Dibakar Banerjee, Karan Johar and Anurag Kashyap
Welcome back, Dibakar Banerjee. We've missed you. Hopefully you'll make more films in 2020?
After Bombay Talkies and Lust Stories, four iconic filmmakers — Karan Johar, Anurag Kashyap, Zoya Akhtar and Dibakar Banerjee — have come together for the third time, for an anthology of four horror short films. The interest around Ghost Stories has been palpable for a while. Bollywood hasn't really fared very well in the horror genre, which has mostly been relegated to campy B-films with some raunchy diversions thrown in. Well, the good news first: at least one film will blow your mind. The other three are touch-and-go.
Dibakar's segment in Netflix's anthology Ghost Stories is truly the only one that stays true to the horror genre in terms of fear and intrigue. Set in a small town on the fringes of a larger city, the film begins when a man — there's no time for names but played by Sukant Goel — comes to the village only to realise it has been rampaged by zombies from the bigger city (aka ground zero). Every person in the village has either been eaten alive or converted into a zombie. He meets the only two surviving members of the village, a girl and boy, both under 10 years, who navigate him through a harrowing, survivalist, truly horror-filled situation. It's grotesque, suspenseful and you won't be able to keep your eyes away from the screen.
Dibakar's film is the only one that is political, and uses horror tropes to make a larger comment about Indian society and oppression. Filled with visual and thematic motifs, the short film demands repeat watches. Gulshan Devaiah has a small but impactful role, which comes at a time in the film when you've just been delivered a sucker-punch. Dibakar's film has the potential to become a whole feature, infact, I'm just putting this out there in the universe.
Now that we've got the best film covered, both Zoya Akhtar and Anurag Kashyap's segments in Ghost Stories had a lot of interesting moments but ultimately they just didn't manage to be a decent scare. In Zoya's film, Jahnvi Kapoor plays Sameera, a young care-giver who works in the house of a paralysed old lady with dementia (or so Sameera is told). She starts to notice strange things and even appearances in the house (a beautiful Mumbai town home with Portuguese touches), while taking care, feeding and bathing the old lady (Surekha Sikhri) and even when she invites her boyfriend (Vijay Varma) for a quickie one night. Without the shocker of an ending, Zoya's film is a tad bland and elevated only by strong performances by Jahnvi Kapoor and Surekha Sikhri. What partially works in the film's favour is its slow-build quality that gives the climax its due.
Speaking of slow-builds (but never really getting anywhere), Anurag Kashyap's short film goes the Kafka-esque route (again; hello No Smoking), using a surreal character within a surreal universe to express the horror of a mental breakdown. Sobhita Dhulipala plays a pregnant woman who suffers from a childhood trauma, and as a result she believes she's a human-flesh eating crow. In a parallel storyline, her nephew is obsessed with his maasi, and does everything he can to make sure she doesn't forget him once her baby is born. These two tracks intersect to make a forcefully abstract and borderline pretentious short film. Kashyap's version of horror is more physical and gory (if that's your thing, have fun, I guess?) — and somewhere down the line, it looses steam while trying too hard to be ingenious.
Karan Johar's film, the last of the anthology, is cheeky, self-aware (much like his previous segment in Lust Stories) and gives the phrase, "it's about loving your family," a new twist. Set in a lavish house in Goa that is pleasing to the eye, the production design almost made me forget I was watching a horror film. The son of a wealthy family (Avinash Tiwary) is about to get married to a beautiful and smart woman (Mrunal Thakur), but he has to ask his grandmother's permission. There's only one catch: his grandmother is dead. If you can ignore the "i-wish-there-was-more-to-this" nagging feeling at the end, Johar's short is well-paced and performed. But is it scary? No.
The horror genre has so much scope, with no limit on how fantastical or surreal you can go. And who doesn't like standard jump scares? But Ghost Stories builds its horror with concept (some that work and some that don't) not gimmicks. The cinematography, writing and editing lend the atmospheric touch needed. Johar, Akhtar and Kashyap take their own sweet time to build their setting (which is no mean feat to pull off successfully in a short film format), but I kept waiting for that one moment in every film that gives you the final blow, and it never really landed. However, Dibakar's film takes off from the very first minute and once it ends, you'll want more. You will think about it all day, and try to find clues to the revelations you will keep having as and when you revisit it.
Apart from Dibakar's short, I didn't really feel the chills in any of the other three. And for an anthology called Ghost Stories, that's quite unfortunate.