Ghost Stories (2020) Review!!

Synopsis – The winning team of LUST STORIES unite to tell some spine – chilling tales. Ghost Stories is an upcoming 2020 Indian anthology horror film, consisting of four short film segments directed by Karan Johar, Dibakar Banerjee, Zoya Akhtar and Anurag Kashyap. It serves a sequel to the 2013 and 2018 films – Bombay Talkies and Lust Stories respectively.

My Take – Along the lines similar of their earlier collaborations, Lust Stories (2018) and Bombay Talkies (2013), Zoya Akhtar, Karan Johar, Anurag Kashyap and Dibakar Banerjee, the four iconic filmmakers have come together again for an anthology consisting of four short films, directed with their extremely contrasting storytelling styles for Netflix. Albeit this time around they are tackling takes of horror, a genre in Bollywood hasn’t really fared very well.

Like their previous films, the directors here have once again tied their individual short films together with good production value and vision that are tonally and thematically different from each other. There is a monster horror plus post-apocalyptic theme, a psychological thriller and a supernatural horror spread over four different segments, which showcase the directors’ best efforts to pull off spine-chilling and spooky tales of horror and suspense.

Unfortunately, the end result is an uneven and ultimately impotent affair. While the cinematic images and visuals, and occasional moments of magic, especially in a couple of segments, keep you hooked, but overall they’re inconsistent, and most importantly are never terrifying or fear inducing enough, as one would expect.

The first story follows Sameera (Jahnvi Kapoor), a young care-giver, who is allotted to take care of Mrs. Malik (Surekha Sikri), a paralyzed old lady with dementia, in her vast apartment. Already troubled by the lack of time her boyfriend Guddu (Vijay Varma) is able to give her, Sameera begins to notice strange things and even appearances in the house.

The second story follows Neha (Sobhita Dhulipala), who provides motherly care to her young nephew Ansh (Zachary Braz), and fulfills all his necessary needs. However, when she gets pregnant again, after her first delivery ended with the child being stillborn, her deep traumas begin to emerge, moreover, Ansh begins to question whether the upcoming child will reduce Neha’s affection towards him.

The third story follows a man (Sukant Goel), who comes to Smalltown to conduct a survey, only to realize it has been rampaged by zombie-like cannibals from Bigtown. With every adult either eaten or converted, he ends up meeting the last two survivors, a boy and a girl (Aditya Shetty and Eva Ameet Pardeshi), both under 10, who help him navigate through this harrowing situation.

The fourth story follows Ira (Mrunal Thakur), a beautiful and smart woman who enters into an arranged marriage with Dhruv (Avinash Tiwary), the young and handsome son of a wealthy family. While the match seems made in heaven at first, trouble begins when Ira finds out that Dhruv still talks to his grandmother (Jyoti Subhash), who has been dead for two decades, and submissively seeks her permission in everything.

This horror anthology is indeed an ambitious effort, to bring together four directors who have made their mark of their own in the industry. And is indeed among Netflix India’s more atmospheric attempts, where the visual backdrop, sound design and diverse color tones are an integral part of the storytelling, as much as the story itself. The universes in all these stories are as different as chalk and cheese, eerie and play around the ideas of fear, inner demons more than ghosts if one were to simplify it for an average spectator. The film 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.

But what lacks in all of them is the absence of the scares that occasionally raise the hair on the back of your neck. The element of surprise is missing, and much of the “horror” is orchestrated with the help of the ominous music and some exceptional camerawork. As far as the craft is concerned, the filmmakers, interestingly debutants in the genre, have done laudable work. But the question whether they have done complete justice to the genre remains debatable.

While directors Johar, Akhtar and Kashyap take their own sweet time to build their setting, they end up fizzling out by the end. Surprisingly, it is director Banerjee‘s segment which comes closest in terms of fear and intrigue. It’s grotesque, suspenseful and you won’t be able to keep your eyes away from the screen. It takes off from the very first minute and once it ends, you’ll want more.

Here, director Banerjee created an environment that is emotionally disturbing, due to the bloody depictions of cannibalism and flesh-eating that could make the viewer squirm, and most importantly, 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, with a potential to become a whole feature.

However unlike the previous films, I found director Zoya Akhtar‘s film to be the blandest, this time around. Without the shocker of an ending, the short is too simple and elevated only by strong performances by Jahnvi Kapoor and Surekha Sikhri. What partially works in the film’s favor is its slow-build quality that gives the predictable climax its due.

Here, director Anurag Kashyap is back in No Smoking territory, were seeks to create a spooky and spooky environment that he successfully creates to some extent, by using a surreal character within a surreal universe to express the horror of a mental breakdown. Director Kashyap‘s version of horror is more physical and gory, and somewhere down the line, it loses steam, and with its very niche treatment leaves us more confused and less entertained.

Director Karan Johar‘s film, the last of the anthology, is cheeky, self-aware, least scary of the bunch and actually not half bad. His segment has all the ingredients of a Dharma production i.e. an affluent families, a big fat Indian wedding, well-lit sets and to top it all off, a cheesy romantic song. And despite the sudden climax, it deserves praise for being well-paced and performed.

Performances wise, Jahnvi Kapoor proves that she has it in her to mold well into a complex role and the composure in her brief appearance throws a good hint about the untapped performer in her. Surekha Sikri gives you the chills with her very presence in the frames. Vijay Varma is alright in his small role. Sobhita Dhulipala with this outing proves how selfless can she get as an actor, with no regard for barriers or boundaries and surrendering to the vision of a filmmaker with great faith. Zachary Braz, the child actor in the shoes of her nephew proves to be as fascinating too, while Pavail Gulati and Sagar Arya provide good support.

Sukant Goel has delivered a decent performance in his segment and keeps the tension palpable and viewers pulsating. Child artists Aditya Shetty and Eva Amreet emerge as the best features in the lot, with Gulshan Devaiah delivering yet another impactful performance. While Mrunal Thakur may not be as effective as her other counterparts in the film, she delivers what’s expected of her brief, quirky role. Avinash Tiwary too delivers in his interesting role, however it is Heeba N Shah who steals the show in the segment as the straight faced care taker. On the whole, ‘Ghost Stories’ is a technically smart anthology let down by its mediocre stories and lack of scares.

Directed – Zoya Akhtar, Dibakar Banerjee, Karan Johar, Anurag Kashyap

Starring – Sobhita Dhulipala, Janhvi Kapoor, Mrunal Thakur

Rated – R

Run Time – 144 minutes

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