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

Chills and thrills: (Top) Anurag Kashyap, Karan Johar, Zoya Akhtar and Dibakar Banerjee; (below) a still from Ghost Stories.   | Photo Credit: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

Anurag Kashyap’s chair on the extreme right is lying empty, he has taken a break for a smoke; Karan Johar, at the opposite end of the table, seated next to me, is munching away his protein bar and telling me how he is busy running around like a headless chicken with his latest production, Good Newwz, up for release. As precious two minutes slip away from the mere 15 that I have been granted for the round table with the four directors of the new Netflix omnibus, Ghost Stories, Zoya Akhtar talks about the anti-CAA/NRC August Kranti protest the day before; how it was so huge that she couldn’t meet many Bollywood folks in attendance — Kabir Khan, Mini Mathur — but did manage to catch up with Gauri Shinde, Shaad Ali, Rahul Bose, Kunal Kapoor. Dibakar Banerjee gives figures: how 1,20,000 people came, 30,000 entered the maidan and rest 90,000 protested around the venue. Then, just as Johar wants to know my thoughts on Dabangg 3, Kashyap heads back to his seat and the Netflix team remonstrates me to get cracking with the “real” interview.

Five years after Bombay Talkies (made to commemorate 100 years of Indian cinema), Akhtar, Kashyap, Banerjee and Johar had done another four-film omnibus, Lust Stories, last year for Netflix. They must have liked being in each other’s company, as the foursome has reunited again after 18 months for a quartet of scary tales, Ghost Stories, that drops on Netflix on the very last day of this decade. Edited excerpts from a short but no holds barred interaction with them, in which we started off by asking the obvious question…

Whose idea was it?

Dibakar Banerjee: Guess? [pointing towards Johar]

Why ghosts?

Karan Johar: Because I am an idiot. I got carried away at the screening of Lust Stories and decided that jump in the deep end of the ocean. I suggested horror and everyone really got excited. It is a topic that is very commercial in its own way. Then I realised how stupid I was to have suggested it, because I didn’t know if I had the ability to pull off this genre. I dug my own grave but I ventured into it, kicking and screaming. I tried very hard to get out of it. We have a group chat in which I kept saying ‘I can’t do this, can we think of something else’, but by then they had already shot their films. I was too late.

Who was the first?

Zoya Akhtar: I am always the first in the class.

KJ: I am always the last. I was the last one to join the anthology, I have been the last to deliver all the films.

Has she been the first in all three?

KJ: In one I think Dibakar was first.

DB: No.

Anurag Kashyap: In Bombay Talkies and Lust Stories I delivered first.

ZA: You delivered first? I shot before you darling [looking at AK]. You came to my set also.

KJ: Zoya is that good student.

Is this going to be the thing now with the anthology? Are you exploring navrasas?

AK: We will do, we will do.

KJ: Actually good idea. What can be the next, you suggest.

DB: Teen ho gaye chhe baaki hain (Three have been done, we have six more to go).

ZA: We have quite a few good topics.

Hasya ras is too obvious…

DB: Why not? Arre hadd ho gayi

ZA: You mean comedic?

KJ: I would love to do that.

You work independently on films, don’t consult each other. How have each of you interpreted horror? How similar, different?

AK: We are very different I think… But it somehow falls together.

KJ: It never seems to jump out. Thematically we are unified.

Then how is your horror different, Karan?

KJ: Mine is a ghost story.

AK: It’s a spookedy.

KJ: Mine is a pretty ghost story. Zoya described it really well. She said it was a Disney horror film.

DB: It is fun.

AK: There are at least two very laugh-out-loud moments.

KJ: Mine comes right at the end so after you have got scared mine is the relief at the end.

What about yours, Dibakar?

DB: When we started doing it, none of us was trying to do anything different from the other, because we know we are very different. All four of us have a lot of confidence in ourselves to be ourselves. All four of us are incorrigibly ourselves. I haven’t done a ‘ghost ghost’ story as such. I have grown up on stories that come from Indian folklore—bhoot, pret, pishaach, raakshas, daitya. Then there are lots in Bengali culture like brahmodaittyo, shakchunni, petni. It came somewhere from there…

So yours is a sanskari ghost?

DB: No… Is it? [wonders]

KJ: His film will shake your foundation off. That’s what it did to me. I thought I was going to have a cardiac arrest…

AK: It is a sanskari ghost. He has made a sanskari ghost story; how dangerous sanskari can be.

DB: Ya

KJ: It is not sanskari but it is definitely a commentary-wala ghost.

AK: Most political…

DB: But the ghost is not doing the commentary, ghost is having fun. Commentary kuchh aur hai.

Yours, Zoya?

AK: Hers is a ghost story. She is very diligent.

ZA: It’s a classic ghost story. About two women. I think it’s a bit of a feminist film. I don’t know how else to put it.

DB: Can I say something? And it’s not a spoiler. When we finished watching each other’s films, I turned to her and said ‘heartbreaking’.

Anurag, is yours sledgehammer, like you are [these days]?

AK: Mine is a story that crawls upon you. It’s atmospheric horror. What I like is what I got to do. It’s slow burn…

Are you all admirers of horror?

KJ: Not at all. I am not admiring any such thing.

AK: I like horror.

DB: I like.

ZA: I also.

So 3:1!

KJ: I don’t admire the genre at all. I don’t watch it. I would admire it if I watched it. I can’t tell you that I have admired Ramsay Brothers because those are the ones I have seen. There are a few other sporadic ones I have sat through, I don’t know for what reason. I am not a viewer of the genre.

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

Then I can’t ask you your favourite horror film…

KJ: No.

DB: For the 23rdin in two days [of media interactions] Blair Witch Project. So many people have asked me. Can I change it? The film that really scared me and also fascinated me is actually a short film by [Satyajit] Ray. Called Monihar. The Necklace. It is part of Teen Kanya. One of the stories in it. It was the original anthology that he did. It was made out of three [Rabindranath] Tagore stories if I am not mistaken. And this is a ghost story somewhere in the 20thcentury Bengal.

ZA: There are some that are scary and still creep me out. Rosemary’s Baby, it’s just an amazing film, Shining, the first Omen, Exorcist. Sixth Sense freaks me out.

AK: Classic horror is always good.

KJ: I remember one film I saw that I never recovered from, that scared me was Carrie. I think that’s what scarred me when it comes to the genre.

DB: The Brian De Palma version or the new one?

KJ: Sissy Spacek…

ZA: That’s Brian De Palma and it’s superb.

DB: Bahut achchi film hai.

AK: I like them all. I can talk about the last two decades. Let The Right One In, Midsommar, The Witch, Halloween, Us, Get Out, The Devil’s Backbone.

DB: I have one schlock favourite, Jeepers Creepers 1.

KJ: There are two of those?

DB: I think there are three

KJ: It’s a franchise!

DB: You should see it.

KJ: I will not do any such thing.

AK: You don’t like Scream, Halloween?

KJ: I don’t like.

ZA: Halloween is very good.

DB: Do you remember Freak Show?

ZA: Rocky Horror Show. That’s also amazing.

AK: I Know What You Did Last Summerbhi nahin dekha? [asking Johar]

KJ: I have seen this anthology like this [covers his face].

DB: Wahi to mazaa hai.

Let’s move on to horror in real life?

AK: What’s happening in the country…

That’s also your fear? [posed to all the four]

AK: My biggest fear is the people I have put at risk by putting myself out there. More than [about] me, it’s people close to me, who I work with… I am inherently a survivor but people around me, I don’t think are equipped to be survivors.

ZA: Loss of human rights is horrific. It frightens me and it’s here, there, everywhere. It’s global.

AK: Power in the hands of people who are so unaware

[Turning to Johar] You dislike horror. Is that why you keep away from it for real too?

KJ: The way I have addressed any kind of horrific situation, be it within the confines of our country or anything else is to do it in my way. Sometimes I have done it, and people may believe that or not, through my cinema and I am doing it through my cinema. The film I am making next [Takht] is a very solid film based on commentary. I don’t like to say these things. I think the more you state it, the more it dilutes what it is. It’s a solid commentary film and it’s saying something very strong. It’s a year-and-a half away but when it comes out, hopefully, people will realise.

On a personal level, what is horrific, and has always been horrific to me is the people who have not been allowed to express their identities. And I don’t mean just their religion but I also mean their sexuality. The historic judgement [decriminalisation of homosexuality] may change that to a large extent. But I still hear of stories where parents are vehemently opposed to someone being bisexual or homosexual and have actually made their lives miserable. They had to live in shame because that’s what their parents taught them. I have worked very closely with this foundation called YUVA [Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action] which deals with young voices.

I spoke to about 200 students once about sexuality in general. It’s a deeply personal issue that surrounds us. Having grown up in an uncomfortable skin through my childhood, I know what it can do to your head and heart. I was fortunate that I was surrounded by very progressive family members and a very, very understanding mother. But I know that’s not the situation around me and it horrifies me when people are not allowed to breathe in their skin.

DB: Over the last few years what we have all found out is that even when you speak mostly you are speaking either to colluders, or to fools or to smart people acting foolish. You are none of them, so then I will speak.

Three-four years ago, when the process started with the clamping down of JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University) and FTII (Film and Television Institute of India) and when FTII was butchered with, we did something [referring to award wapsi] and at that point I had said that it wasn’t a cinema industry issue. I said that it was an education issue. If you stop students from asking questions then how will they learn. If you stop people from questioning then how will anyone learn anything and how will the society go forward.

What I found out at that point was that a State will always go for power and a State will always go for power with violence. But what I found out was that India’s education system, unfortunately, in the last 70 years, had bred a deep rank of middle class people who were colluders, into power and power-worshippers and rich-worshippers and celebrity-worshippers. They were the ones who had actually colluded in bringing a situation about in the country which said “kuchh musalmaan marte hain to marne do, mera six lane highway to ban jaayega (let a few Muslims die, my six lane highway will get built)”.

At that time lot of us tried to warn them that don’t be like this because it will come back to bite you in your ripe ass. That’s what is happening now and that is what will go on happening because no matter what you do please remember that we don’t have guns and the state has. I am telling this to the whole middle class of India who stood by and watched education institute after education institute decimated that when the tanks roll through the road in front of you, you will know what you got in and you deserve it. That is why I have been quiet. Because when the next election does not happen that is when I will look at all the Indian growth loving, GDP-loving uncles and I will tell them, this is on you. And not on the government. They want power, any government wants power. This is on us, we let this happen.

Does celebrity-hood come in the way of you participating in something like a public rally?

DB: I am not a celebrity and I was there yesterday [the anti CAA/NCR protest meet on December 19 at August Kranti Maidan] and it didn’t come in the way at all and no one recognised me.

AK: I insist on walking the streets. I insist on being wherever I am. I go out without thinking of who I am and when the situation comes of someone recognising you or wanting to speak to you, you know how to handle it.

ZA: We were all there yesterday.

KJ: There are reasons why you are where you are and there are reasons why you aren’t. You have to know those reasons and act on them. I really don’t believe that my so-called celebrity status has ever stopped me from doing what I need to do.

ZA: Sometimes your celebrity status also can’t force you to do things. In an environment like this, it is tough to judge people. You are not in anyone’s shoes, you got to speak for yourself, you got to stand up and be counted if that’s what matters to you and that’s it. You take responsibility for yourself. That’s about it. You have no idea what other people’s circumstances are.

KJ: Everyone has to understand that each one has a certain situation in his or her scheme of things and act accordingly. It’s not that it matches your belief or ethos.

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Printable version | Jul 30, 2021 7:54:14 AM |

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