This new year was heralded by the release of Ghost Stories, brought to us by the same quartet that brought us Lust Stories and Bombay Talkies. This time, however, this anthology of short films explores something just as intriguing as copulation: the occult. Like its predecessors, it consists of 4 different short stories placed together and directed by Karan Johar, Dibakar Banerjee, Zoya Akhtar and Anurag Kashyap. Each film is independent and really stands on its own so we will be looking at each of them separately.
The first segment is directed by Zoya Akhtar and stars Janhvi Kapoor as Sameera, Surekha Sikri as the old woman as protagonists. The direction of the segment is set at the start with some background on the lead, out expectations start building from the very beginning. Tired from the dismissals of a neglectful lover, Sameera carries out her job dutifully as we are introduced to the old lady. Surekha Sikri pulls off the character with such incredible finesse, as she is just as terrifying as any ghost that can possibly haunt our nightmares. This very well might be on purpose, as you will understand after watching the film. The colors are sombre and dull, quite reminiscent of the movies of such accord. The narrative is further pushed by the constant rains and low contrast. The audience is skillfully hooked on to this narrative in a very artful manner, with bits of character introductions that make for a very thought provoking watch. An example of such a scene is when old lady recites a poem as Sameera goes about her routine, the shot is taken skillfully and is wonderfully executed. Devoid of any Jump Scares or surprise antics, the horror element is brought mostly by the storytelling. Another aspect that is explored is the terrifying and perhaps more pragmatic and plausible reality of old age. The very real and tangible reality of your personality, your entire being – lost to the ravages of time and your body surrendering itself to senility. The consequences of illnesses that terrorizes her and what is left is a mere shell, a blabbering exoskeleton of a once beautiful and immensely intelligent lady stuck in the coattails of a time she once thrived in. That very reality is horrid, and so is the undeniable proclamation that comes with it. This is truly where this segment shines the most.
The second segment, directed by Anurag Kashyap is yet another short that relies on storytelling to push the narrative of horror, but at the same time relying on some very putrid visuals that fits plush with the story. This is the story of Neha, played by the very skilled and beautiful Sobhita Dhulipala, Pavail Gulati among others. This is the representation of a wanting that has mutated into a need; a desperation. The undying need to have a healthy child has taken over Neha. Further complicated by the presence of her nephew, a dimple cheeked boy with the face of an angel. But this innocence is certainly very misleading. While it can also be chalked up to the child’s petulance and being unbound to the constraints of morality, the boy wishes some very untoward things for the yet unborn child. Absent a mother and a father with whom interactions are very limited, the boy lives in own reality of twisted proportions. Aided by some visual cues such as the near lack of any color and some very disturbing imagery, the films horror element is rather psychological in nature interspersed with some supernatural elements. It is also quite clever as to how several metaphors are used to carry forward the narrative, such as Neha’s inhuman obsession with dolls. While the trope is all too common, it is fairly nightmarish to see those infant sized atrocities staring at you with beady eyes and a never ending smile, and the care with which they are handled.
The first two segments are mostly about the horrors of human existence such as insanity, senility, obscurity, an insatiable need to bear progeny. This is quite intriguing to behold, as I was hooked from the beginning. The third segment, however, is quite different from the rest. For Starters, the sudden change in the atmosphere was very unsettling as you notice that the grass is green. This segment, directed by Dibakar Banerjee plays out like most films of the Zombie Horror genre. The horror in the plot is driven by some very disturbing visuals so if you have a weak stomach, do not watch it. The plot is confusing at first, but as the context builds we are taken into the very disturbing state of the village. Several tropes are abused here, but the characters are well distinguished and especially the child artists did a very good job of execution of characters that are quite complex. It all plays out like a nightmare and ends as such. This was perhaps one of the most interesting of the bunch, sticking to the elements of the horror and not trying anything groundbreaking or relying too much on the narratives in this post-apocalyptic setting. The three also share some common metaphors, such as recurring cawing of crows and birds. They are often cast as harbingers of death and destruction.
The last segment is where the hype dies down. Karan Johar’s iteration of a horror movie was rather underwhelming and relied on cliches more than anything. There are some strongpoints to the plot too, however. The setting is absolutely beautiful.The house is set up like the perfect gothic novel. Ornate cutlery, creepy paintings, intricate wallpapers, all of these lay a very strong foundation for the segment. The segment also boasted of a roster of talented stars such as Avinash Tiwary, Mrunal Thakur, Kusha Kapila, Jyoti Subhash. Much of the plot rested on Mrunal Thakur, and she did a good job of doing justice to the character of Ira. Much of it plays out like a run of the mill bollywood horror film, and the plot as well. There are some jumpscares and the dialogues are dramatic. The music score is also typically bollywood. One of the major criticisms is the arbitrary mentions of sex.
Overall, Ghost Stories has some strong plot points and the theme of the films is very well portrayed. While not the scariest, some striking visuals will stay on and are likely to leave an impression.