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Shocks, jolts and classic horror

Urmila Matondkar in `Bhoot"...

AN UNEXPECTED hit, "Bhoot" proves that good genre cinema can compete with blockbusters. What I'm beginning to like about Ramgopal Varma is that he never gives up making genre movies. Whether he gets it right or not, whether it's a hit or a flop, it doesn't matter to him. His heart is really there — with thrillers, horror movies, gangster flicks, screwball comedies, road movies — not with the blockbuster formula.

It comes from having been a die-hard movie buff before he turned filmmaker. (Legend has it that, like Tarantino, he owned and ran the best stocked most knowledgeable video library in Hyderabad, and the manic movie watching he did here fuelled his dreams and shaped his tastes. The two genres he hasn't given a twirl yet are film noir and sci-fi). It's essential now to have a filmmaker like Varma when our movies are strangled by formula filmmaking. If we are to have anything new or fresh, it can come only from genre cinema. But we lack a tradition of genre cinema here. There have been a few scattered attempts — most of them from Varma again.

"Bhoot", his new film, is probably the finest, most stylish Indian horror movie made so far. And probably the most successful. But it is not the scariest — that honour goes again to another Varma film: "Deyam" ("Paey" in Tamil) which I think is scarier and more effective than "Bhoot". The first half of "Bhoot" is on target — shocks, jolts, and genuinely creepy atmosphere. It goes over the same territory that "Deyam" did — a haunted apartment which teases and taunts the present tenants — a young couple (Ajay Devgan, Urmila Matondkar) — with the frightening presence of revenants.

The audience I saw it with were obviously nervous and tense but were hooting and giggling to cover it up. It's full of classic horror movie red herrings: you think something is going to happen, you brace yourself for it — and nothing happens. And just when you've relaxed and let your guard down — boom! Varma gets you with his sneaky steadicam work. (He uses the Mumbai monsoon very effectively. And that loud calling bell is probably the scariest thing in the movie).

The second half is where "Bhoot" takes a wrong turn — it abandons the ghost story to become "The Exorcist". Rather late in the day for that, don't you think? And Urmila as the possessed housewife writhing and contorting minus the aid of make up and special effects is amusing rather than frightening. She tries hard; her histrionics is good as it gets, but what is a girl possessed by a bhoot (as "The Exorcist" has amply demonstrated for us) without make up effects? Which is not to say the movie should have resorted to special effects — just stayed off "The Exorcist" turf and stuck to being a creepy ghost story. Because the other nice thing about Varma is that he always chooses the eerie, atmospheric horror film over the gross-out, splatter horror film. Too much in splatter films depends on special effects (and you can tire of special effects) and everything is spelt out. In the eerie ghost story the horror is only suggested. And there's plenty of that kind of creepy horror in "Bhoot's" first half.

To be fair to its second half, the movie isn't just "The Exorcist" — it is an Indian version of it with Rekha as a local tantric exorcist who communicates with the dead. It also involves a murder — in the present and the past — but it is not a murder mystery. Many of the scary bits in the movie are clichés: we've seen them in countless Hollywood horror movies — but the difference is, we now get to see those stock genre conventions in an Indian movie, that's what is brilliant about it. Varma's weakness in his genre films has always been a thin script — he is so confident of his camera work, his stylish direction and his sense of timing to ambush you that he neglects to tell a good, complex story. "Bhoot," interestingly enough, has a story and though it isn't very good or even very complex, it helps the audience to hook into it.

"Deyam", for instance, was sadly dismissed because it was seen as corny and story-less. "Deyam" worked so effectively because it evoked all the stock archetypes found in ghost stories we grew up hearing as children: the woman in a white sari with anklets, the house that can be reached only through a graveyard, and so on. My favourite sequence in the movie is the spooky, classic pre-credit sequence: a lone cyclist riding past a graveyard in the dead of night. As the bicycle creaks away on a narrow, muddy lane (it's obviously a short-cut he should never have taken, the fool) he sees a woman in a white sari standing still by the roadside. She beckons to him and begins to walk — no, glide — into the graveyard and he gets off his cycle and follows her. And that of course is the end of him — but not before he notices that her feet are turned outward. A few weeks later, a couple with their little boy move into the house near the grave.

Varma has to be admired for time and time again risking a genre movie when everybody else plays it safe with six songs and a feel-good family drama. (In "Bhoot", he even takes a nice dig at this). If genre films aren't supported, then we are not likely to see anything new tried here — nothing innovative or surprising or vital.

Before "Bhoot" came on as the main feature in the theatre, we were shown not less than three trailers of what looked like genre stuff, all of them produced by Ramgopal Varma! One of them was called "Six Stories, One Ending" and looked like a cross between "The Blair Witch Project" and "I Know What You Did Last Summer." Bravo. Because this means a trend has begun. Thanks to Mr. Varma (and the box office success of "Bhoot") genre cinema may have arrived here at last. Chill out. Cool your heels. Win a Himalayan holiday!



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