Happy Halloween! I watched a scary movie last night in honor of the holiday, and I decided to watch the most important Classic horror movie.
I’ve heard about this movie for years and years as the first modern Hindi horror film. No songs, no masala, just scares. And it’s true, it is that. But it’s also really good! Like, legit made me jump and spooked me, and also intrigued me with the way it resolved. Even has a message at the center of it, an interesting statement about gender and class. Huh! RGV surprised me again!
The thing about Ram Gopal Verma is that, as a human being and sometimes as a director, he is really really gross. He says stuff about his actresses that is just not okay. And he shoots scenes where woman are sexualized and objectified in a way that is beyond pandering and into perverse. But then the irritating thing about him is that he is also a genius. So unfair! Just when you think you can write him off as a creepy creep, you stumble across one of brilliant creations and go “how can someone this smart, this insightful, this original, also sometimes be disgusting?” And this movie is one of those irritating original brilliant creations.
Horror as a genre gets a lot of critical attention today, and a lot of respect. There’s an awareness that a good horror film captures something that is an essential fear for society. And a really good horror makes a statement about that fear. Indian horror is a little different. It’s always been around, at least ghost stories with occasional scary moments have always been around, but it was in a Masala format. There was a lot happening, you’d have a romance, you’d have a funny scene, you’d have a fight scene, the message about fear was sort of buried under the rest of it. What RGV did with Bhoot was take the same very specific Indian horror message that was in all those older ghost movies and strip bare the real meaning.
I mean, even the title is brilliant! “Bhoot”. It just means “ghost”. And that’s what all those older films had in common, they had bhoots in them. Some old Hawali with a mysterious figure, some legend about a dead dancing girl, and of course the young woman who gets possessed and becomes sexual. So RGV looks at those movies and says “let’s take away the poetic title like ‘Lal Patthar’ (red stones) and just call it Bhoot”. And then he looks at the central metaphor of those films and says “this doesn’t work any more, we’ve gotta flip it around”.
The classical Hindi ghost movie is about the ghosts of the past attacking and then being defeated by the Modern Heroes. You’ve got some old mansion somewhere, or some cursed object, something, and it is defeated by Science and Logic and blah blah blah. There’s a clear metaphor here, we must overcome the sins of the past and look to the light. RGV turned that around in this movie. It’s in a modern urban skyscraper, in malls and multiplexes, in all the signs of modern changing India. And the “sins” are the sins of modern India, which cannot be addressed by traditional modern means.
The central concept of this film is the star. That’s the other thing RGV does so irritatingly well, he draws out movies from almost nothing. Just a few actors, just one or two sets, no costumes, no spectacle, and yet the whole thing works. That is what makes this film such a shockingly new and different kind of horror, it is the horror of the everyday. Here is a modern young couple in a modern apartment, wearing jeans and watching satellite TV, and they are being haunted. Urmila and Ajay are very good as a central couple, and Rekha and Tanuja are fantastic in their little cameos at the end, and Seema Biswas neatly steals the whole movie as the maid. But it’s still the movie as a whole you remember, not the actors or the sets or the scares, but the whole thing as it was conceived and executed, that is what sticks in your mind.
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Ajay Devgan is a young rich yuppie looking for an apartment in Bombay. The broker shows him an apartment in a nice small high rise but warns him that the last tenant killed her young son and then jumped off the balcony and killed herself. Ajay declares that he isn’t superstitious and moves in. He brings along his wife Urmila, without telling her the past of the apartment. They hire Seema Biswas, the slightly mentally deficient maid who used to work for the last tenant. Urmila finds a toy doll in the kitchen, and starts seeing things in mirrors, a little boy and a young woman. She has strange dreams and Ajay takes her to the doctor for sleepwalking. And then one night she sleepwalks out of the apartment and downstairs and kills the creepy security guard. Nana Pataker, the police officer assigned to the murder, is immediately suspicious because Urmila had had a run in with the security guard before. He starts poking around. At the same time Ajay takes Urmila to a psychiatrist who is sure she has multiple personality disorder. Urmila acts stranger and stranger, finally having a fit and seeming to attack Ajay. Seema, the maid, suggests that this is possession and not mental illness and brings a local wise woman/medium Rekha to the house. Rekha tells Ajay that he must find and bring to her the mother of the dead woman who used to live in the apartment, Tanuja. Tanuja comes and recognizes Urmila as being possessed by her daughter’s spirit. Then Rekha tells Ajay he must get Fardeen, the son of their neighbor, to come back to town. Ajay tricks him by calling and lying that his father is ill. Rekha confronts Fardeen and tells the story. Fardeen broke into the apartment and tried to rape his neighbor, when she resisted he pushed her over the balcony and her son witnessed it. The security guard appeared and offered to kill the son and help cover up for money. Fardeen confesses all and Urmila starts chasing him. Nana and the psychiatrist arrive at this point, sure that Urmila is a dangerous lunatic killer. The ghost stops possessing her so she will not be blamed for the crime and instead forces Fardeen to confess with Nana as witness by using ghost powers to raise him in the air and threatening to drop him and kill him. Fardeen is arrested and thrown in a prison cell, where he is greeted by the ghost of the woman he killed, the screen cuts to black as he whimpers “I’m sorry, I’m sorry”.
The first time I sat up and took notice in this film is an early scene right after Ajay and Urmila have moved into the apartment. Ajay is watching the TV news about violence in India (possibly the 2003 Gujurat Pogrom), when Urmila interrupts him and suggests sex. They have sex on the stairs with the TV news playing loudly in the background. This isn’t about possession or ghosts or anything, and that’s the point. Here is a modern couple in their large safe apartment having sex while the world burns around them. Not because they are possessed, but because they are normal. They just don’t care.
That’s why they get possessed, in fact. Ajay rents this apartment because he simply doesn’t care, if a woman and her son died tragically, it is nothing to him. We see his daily routine again and again, identically, in a series of shots that is repeated through out the first half of the film. He sits in his air conditioned office with his computer, he leaves and gets in his nice car, he drives to the underground parking garage of his nice building, he walks past the security guard without even greeting him, he takes the elevator to his nice apartment, and he has sex with his pretty wife. The tragedies of modern India are removed from him, he is living this perfect life floating above it all. But you can’t keep it up, eventually some connection will find its way in.
The twist of the ghost being in the right, actually a “good” person, that’s not that original even in Indian ghost movies. But the way it plays out is purposeful, and original. The psychiatrist and the police, they are useless. But the phalanx of women, Seema Biswas and Rekha and Tanuja, they get things done. Just the casting tells you the message. Ajay, as the husband, is a pretty big name. But the rest of the male actors are nothing when you compare them with legendary Rekha and Tanuja, and freakin’ National Award Winner Seema Biswas! The power is weighted towards women, and towards women with “female” kinds of power.
The psychiatrist can’t help, he doesn’t understand what is happening with Urmila. Nana Patakar, the cop, he can’t do anything either. He wants to, you have indications that he senses something more is happening here, but he is way way out of his depth. The state and science, the functions of modern life, they have no power here. The “male” powers, the laws and logic and sort of structures of the world have no hope. But the “female” powers, the maid, the mother, and the wise woman, they can work in this nebulous space.
Of course the flipside is that the reason for the haunting is because the “male” powers so completely destroyed the woman victim. She died because a spoiled rich young man tried to rape her. Her son died because the uncaring male security guard killed him for money. The police officer Nana suspected something was off about the story but not enough to do anything about it. And then uncaring Ajay rents the apartment because there is no logical reason not to. The only choice she has left is to possess Urmila and work outside of the rules to try to get vengeance.
Ajay is our transition character, the one who crosses that line from modern male world to older female world. Our modern man who doesn’t care about other people particularly, who is focused on his own life and his own comfort. When things start to go wrong, his first instinct is to push his wife away from him, not want to deal with the difficulties. Once it becomes bad enough that he HAS to deal with it, he wants to hand her off to the medical profession, to get her pills to “fix” her. But once Urmila has killed a person, he moves into a confusing place. There is no clean fix available any more, he has to keep things hidden even from the doctor he wanted to hand her to, and the male police officer (ultimate symbol of patriarchal authority) is now the enemy. And only then is there no other place to go but the place he never could have imagined, only then does he listen to the humble mentally deficient maid, trusting the one person who would normally be the least considered. And it works! Rekha shows up and immediately makes sense of his problem, understands it in a way no one else has been able to until now. Over the course of the film he goes from allying himself with a group of men, to being the one man allied with the group of woman. This is the journey RGV wants the viewer to go on, to start out thinking what Ajay doing is okay, that satellite television and multiplexes and an air conditioned office are all there is, and then to see that there is this whole world of women still living there underneath.
It’s not a perfect movie. Especially in the middle, there is kind of a saggy part, RGV was confident in the slow build at the beginning and very confident in the reveal at the end, but the treading water in the middle when things have gone wrong but there isn’t a solution yet, that’s pretty rough. There’s a scene in particular with Nana and the psychiatrist at the hospital that almost feels like it was shot later on just to pad out the length of the film. But who cares about that! RGV made an actually scary horror movie, that made a powerful statement about modern India and male versus female power dynamics!
So if you are, like me, browsing through the listings on Netflix wondering which Indian horror film to check out, this is the one you should pick. It changed everything, and you can see why.