Bhoot (Ghost) (2003)
Cast: Urmila Matondkar, Ajay Devgan, Rekha, Nana Patekar, Tanuja, Fardeen Khan
Director: Ram Gopal Varma
Nutshell: Disgruntled spirit menaces young wife in high rise apartment block
First the good news; Ram Gopal Varma has yet again brought to screen something that is hugely refreshing and a welcome change of direction from the usual inane song and dance routine that is such the bane of films from the sub-continent. Secondly what the audience gets is a slickly made, beautifully shot and edited and competently acted film that entertains and holds viewer interest from the moment it begins till the very end.
The story might not be the most original ever (some have suggested that RGV has simply re-done his earlier RAAT), but at least RGV has made the effort (a very successful one) of transferring the old ghostly horror story which is forever stuck in the rotting Haveli’s of remote ancestral homes and bringing it very effectively to a chaotic urban setting; a typically monolithic eyesore of a block of high rise apartments bang in the centre of Bombay (we will NEVER refer to the city as Mumbai- sorry!) Also let’s give RGV huge and hearty congratulations for NOT simply moulding his film from set pieces thieved from Hollywood movies – something that 90% of Bollywood film makers can be accused of these days. Bravo therefore to Ram Gopal Varma for yet another attempt at infusing something fresh and challenging into an otherwise dull and plagiarism oriented movie production line.
The film begins with Ajay Devgan hunting for a flat in the middle of the hustle and bustle of the city. The estate agent shows him an apartment that he finds immensely to his liking but there is a minor hitch. A young woman, one of the previous occupants, apparently insane, plunged to her death from the balcony of the 12th floor flat a while ago but Ajay Devgan banishes any superstitious thoughts by “people die in all sorts of houses which doesn’t mean that the house is evil or cursed”, absolutely true. The next day, Ajay and his lovely wife Urmila move into to the apartment where the only items they find left over from the previous occupants is a pine framed mirror and a stuffed clown cuddly toy with a typically stupid fixed clown-grin on its face. When Urmila discovers a few days on that a woman had jumped to her death from the very apartment she is now inhabiting she gets more than a little agitated with her husband for not informing her, but life goes on until slowly Urmila starts to sense the presence of Manjeet, the dead woman and of a young child lurking in the flat in spirit if not in body.
Gradually the restless and clearly disgruntled spirit of Manjeet starts to make her presence felt and Urmila lapses deeper and deeper into a depression which starts looking more and more like possession rather than depression after a few short days. She takes to sleepwalking at all odd hours of the night and then the sleazy watchman is murdered in a most gruesome manner and the canny police inspector (Nana Patekar) begins to sniff out something fishy happening on the 12th floor and begins to investigate in earnest. His suspicions are further aroused when he finds one of the cities top psychiatrists paying frequent visits to the 12th floor and discovers that the pretty wife of Ajay Devgan is not quite feeling herself these days! The plot thickens as Urmila’s condition deteriorates and the vengeance filled spirit of Manjeet strengthens her vice like grip on the suffering wife.
Ultimately in total desperation Ajay heeds the advice of the charwoman and Rekha, an incredibly glamorous spiritualist is called in to try to discover what ails his wife, who by now is behaving most alarmingly like Regan McNeal from The Exorcist. Rekha cracks the case instantly and realizes that the wrongs perpetrated on the dead but disgruntled Manjeet must be set right if Urmila is to be released from her possession and so there is a race to find justice before Manjeet’s rage consumes poor Urmila and destroys her.
So, there is nothing so novel about the plot as such, but it is the treatment that is highly effective, supported by able performances, excellent editing and some crafty camerawork which includes an eye for arresting shot compositions. The performances are largely spot on with Ajay Devgan striving earnestly, perhaps a little too earnestly in his role and Urmila providing the theatrics. She had been previously nothing short of embarrassing in RGV’s last horror effort KAUN? and this performance is a huge improvement on that unintentionally comic turn however that said, she is most unnatural and forced and though it may be a relatively difficult role, everything about her appears deliberate and calculated and there is little spontaneity to her acting. She has been cast in a horror movie and seems to feel the need to act exactly the way she perceives people to “act in horror films”. It’s a forced and unnatural performance and her mannerisms and that slightly demented smile evoke giggles rather than the fear that they are meant to. However, when compared to her acting in Kaun?, this effort is a masterwork.
Nana Patekar hams it up as the inspector demonstrating that his English speaking skills are second to none in Bollywood. Rekha turns up Merrin-like towards the fag end of the film and makes her presence felt in her short but key role. Tanuja’s two minute performance provides the films most natural acting while Fardeen Khan has little to do but look terrified, which he does with varying degrees of success. The most jarring aspect of the film is that the director feels the need to scare his audience periodically and thus every now and then we have very deliberately orchestrated scenes designed to get the audience to leap out of their seats in shock and horror – the age old horror film ploy. However somebody needs to tell RGV and especially his sound man that there is a not so subtle difference between being startled and being frightened. Anyone who is suddenly blasted by a sudden blast of sound is bound to be startled into jumping out of their seats……….just as you would be startled strolling down the street on a quiet afternoon suddenly hearing the pressure horns from a passing truck or van…..being startled doesn’t equal being scared and this is where this film comes somewhat undone just as Kaun? had before it. There are umpteen occasions during the course of the film that the audience is startled by nothing but cheap tactics. Doorbells ring thunderously, enough to give one a mini-heart attack (today’s newspaper reports that a 60 year old man died of “fright” watching the film in a Delhi cinema) and the movie is littered with moments when there is such a sudden blast of noise that naturally the viewing audience is startled and shocked, but this being startled is a far cry from being made to feel uneasy due to a more subtle aspect of the films strengths.
This viewer was increasingly irritated by the overuse of “sound blasts” and sudden loud noises in order to “scare” its audience. Admittedly there are a few set pieces that are effectively portrayed and some scenes that are genuinely creepy and the shots of the building itself are quite excellent yet all subtlety is thrown out the window when one’s most effective way of “scaring” the audience is blasting them repeatedly with enormously loud noises. Scaring and startling are two different entities altogether and this reviewer would plead with RGV to try to make his next film scary without relying on ones sound engineer to orchestrate fake scares – it just doesn’t work that way. None the less, the film has gone on to take in some hefty money at the Box Office which is a huge relief of sorts, not only because the industry was desperate for some successful films but also because clearly the audiences have shown with their ticket buying trends over the last year that they are keener than ever on watching stuff that is a little bit removed from the beaten to death formula of romance and comic frolic or the usual vigilante nonsense.
Hats off to RGV for being a risk taker and for having the courage and the vision to do things differently even if they don’t always come off. One of these days Ram Gopal Varma is going to create a truly exceptional horror film; unfortunately Bhoot, though highly enjoyable and engrossing, is not quite that film.