As the amount of decent cinematic content available online now vastly exceeds what one human being can reasonably be expected to consume in a life-time, the way forward for streaming services is not generation of content but in curation. Netflix India seems to be doing a terrible job of it, perhaps because of the Indian proclivity towards believing that big names like Karan Johar and Anurag Kashyap imply quality.
If there is ever a counterexample needed to violate that thesis, it is Ghost Stories. a continuing collaboration between Zoya Akthar, Dibakar Banerjee, Anurag Kashyap and Karan Johar, a platform of individuals collectively that make the Mahagatbandhan look like a viable alternative, whose last collaboration, Lust Stories, has less lust in it than the 7:30 samachar on Doordarshan.
There are four stories in Ghost Stories, and the best by far, in my humble opinion as not just a faithful consumer of horror but also someone who has written in the genre (The Mine for those of you who do not know), is the one by Karan Johar. Now there is nothing as damning to an anthology of short films as one where Karan Johar is considered to have had the strongest entry. Its like saying there are four people out of which Yogi Adityanath is the most secular.
[Spoilers from here on]
KJo’s story is authentically KJo, the sets are suitably grandly garish, and the new bride comes to breakfast wearing something straight out of fashion-week. Some of it is meant to be mock tongue-in-cheek, which straight of the bat, shows that unlike the other directors, KJo is not taking this all that seriously, which leads me to believe he is a bit more aware of his limitations than the others. But he shouldn’t have been that coy, given that he is fairly successful in nailing down one vital thing of good horror: that of plugging into an elemental human fear. Here that is the one of fitting in, what every bahu feels, being married into a joint family in an arranged marriage, of not knowing what to do, what is expected, and how much of who she is she is expected to compromise. The antagonist in the story is “tradition”, as symbolized by the Daadi, to whom all must bow. The fate of the heroine is the result of her fighting against this entrenched tradition. In the best line of the movie, she is told that none of this would have happened if she had just said “Good night” and given in to that very minimal expectation but no, she needed to be obstinate and scream “Eff it.” There is something genuinely creepy about this short story, not the least of which is the sleep-walking saans played by Kitu Gidwani, her sleep-walking symbolic of her having given in to tradition, and with that surrendering any semblance of individuality and choice at the altar of sanskari conformity.
After that, I would put Zoya Akthar. Her entry has atmosphere. That it has. But the story is so amazingly predictable that after I figured out, and you will too, within minutes of it starting, that I kept thinking that this is a bluff, we have something deeper going on. Some of it is hinted too, in the backstory of the temp nurse, the blade-scratches on her hand and her tendency to try on the jewelry of others, but no, it was exactly as I thought it would be, and the most fascinating character, the nurse, is thrown to the side, for a predictable and hurried ending. There’s a much better horror story there, except it just didn’t come out.
For those who have seen the movie, to find Dibakar Banerjee at third spot must be shocking, given that almost everyone says it is amazing. Sorry. I was left cold and not in a good way. Nowadays it has become table stakes for those making content for Netflix in India to show fascism in India of the majoritarian type, Scared Games and Leila and Ghoul, and while I have no problem with films being political, or the message, repetitive as it now is, I do take issue with poking our eyes with the political rhetoric in a Mrinal Senian way. This is Del Toro, the influences are obvious with dashes of Walking Dead and Korean pastoral gore-drenched horror, and if I am going to see the same allegory about fascism and the death of innocence, why I will see the infinitely superior Pan’s Labyrinth again, and not this ham-handed attempt at something similar.
Maybe I should have put Anurag Kashyap’s entry at the top. In a way it is the best, because the body-horror, the terror of metamorphosis, is not so much in the story that is playing on TV, but in the subtext, of Kashyap waking up to see that he has become Ramgopal Verma. It is terrifying to see the man who gave us Gangs of Wasseypur and Ugly, getting so high on his own supply, that he unloads this dumpster fire on unwitting audiences. This is self-indulgent film-making at its worse, ponderously slow and unimaginably bland, with Kashyap lazily substituting shock for horror, and even then the shock barely registers so terrible everything about it is. This entry is squarely targeted towards Kashyap fanboys, for whom anything he does is high art, but for others, skip this one, and tune into Republic TV instead for more believable luridness.
Saamri. Please rise from the dead