‘Ghost Stories’ review: This Netflix anthology has more subtext than spooks

A scene from ‘Ghost Stories’   | Photo Credit: Courtesy of Netflix

If there’s a common thread uniting the four films in the latest Netflix omnibus, Ghost Stories, it’d be the omnipresent character of the matriarch/patriarch. It kicks off with the tale of a vulnerable, ailing, old lady (Surekha Sikri) in constant search of her son, ostensibly hiding in plain sight at home, in the first segment directed by Zoya Akhtar.

Ghost Stories (Netflix)
  • Director(s): Zoya Akhtar, Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee, Karan Johar
  • Starring: Janhvi Kapoor, Surekha Sikri, Vijay Varma, Sobhita Dhulipala, Sagar Arya, Sukant Goel, Gulshan Devaiah, Avinash Tiwary, Mrunal Thakur
  • Runtime: 144 minutes

Akhtar’s is an old fashioned, predictable ghost story; you can see the eventual twist right at the beginning, even as you enter the lady’s world along with the young proxy nurse (Janhvi Kapoor), who is there to take care of her while the one in charge is away for a few days. Akhtar doesn’t serve horror neat, but with an emotional tug. The yawning age gap notwithstanding, the common theme of both the protagonists’ lives is desertion — one abandoned as a child by her parents, other by her child at an age when she needs him the most.

Akhtar deploys dread to underline a social issue — the horrors of old age, specially in the unsympathetic, isolating urban spaces. Those admirable old Mumbai bungalows that may look terribly beautiful from the outside but are home to putrid smells of the desperate loneliness of their residents. Akhtar’s horror also comes laced with a strong life lesson: never wait for anyone or anything. All of this, unfortunately, takes away from the essential fear factor as we have come to experience it. The overall feeling might be dissatisfying but the actors manage to hold things well. Janhvi Kapoor and Surekha Sikri with their quick silver expressions in the fleeting moments, captured up close and personal, are both quite a treat to watch.

Fear gets diluted entirely in the last segment by Karan Johar where the matriarch — granny — is the polar opposite of the one in Akhtar’s short. Forget being lonesome, she just refuses to let go of her family even after she is dead and gone. The segment has all that is crucial to a Johar film — beautiful people, fancy clothes, luxurious mansions — but it is not quite about “loving your family”, as the tagline of his film Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham goes. It is, in fact, about how suffocating and clingy families can be, how strangulating is the tight grip of relationships on individuals. Johar may have done well in cocking a snook at his own signature formula and template of filmmaking but as a horror film it doesn’t rise above the very basic and adolescent. An eccentric set of folks, creaking doors, whispers, people who suddenly pop up from behind — I doubt if even children will get scared with this one.

It is Anurag Kashyap who goes deeper into the psyche of the mother figure. And most disturbingly at that. The widely held idea about motherhood being the most significant emotion for a woman gets a total reboot, as does the notion of a child being the repository of “innocence”. Motherhood is about extreme post-partum blues, stuff that nightmares are made of and the child is plain evil. Kashyap builds up the tension extremely well with the macabre and the creepy, the grisly and the gruesome imagery and as he plays around with human frailties, insecurities, fears and anxieties. But then goes on to minimise the impact with a needless broad explicatory stroke. For the sake of genuine horror he should have let things remain entirely ambiguous.

Also read | The ‘Ghost Stories’ directors' roundtable: United in horror

It’s Dibakar Banerjee’s film that moves from the matriarch figure to that of the patriarch as he trains his camera on and questions the figures of authority and through it captures the existential dread and the many ruptures at the heart of the contemporary dystopia we are stuck in. There are endless ways and specific contexts in which you can read the story about a stranger reaching Pachaasghara aka Small Town and finding it bereft of residents save two children. The father of one, from the Big Town of Sau Ghara, has eaten that of the other and, having tasted blood once, won’t stop any more.

It’s about the “us” versus “them” divide, the distrust of humans for humans, the violence and violation heaped on one man by another. You can survive if you are unthinking scarecrows or zombies who can’t see clearly and who have to remain quiet because speaking out is the most dangerous crime that you can commit. Or you are blood-sucking monsters who can show no mercy on anyone and are busy enlisting everyone into your brute force. There is no third option in this self-combusting metaphorical wasteland.

The political subtext gets more acute, direct and subversive with a passing interaction at the end. The councillor of Sau Ghara invokes his town’s past, how it used to be “Parasmani ki khaan (a mine of riches)”. “Ab wo din wapas aayenge (Now those days will come back),” he asserts. “Make America Great Again” and “Achche Din”, immediately came rushing to my mind.

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Printable version | Jan 19, 2021 10:55:50 AM |

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