(“Ghost”, 2003, 122 mins.)
Starring: Urmila Matondkar, Ajay Devgan, Seema Biswas, Nana Patekar, Victor Banerjee, Rekha, and Fardeen Khan
Music: Salim-Sulemain
Producer: Nitin Manmohan
Director: Ram Gopal Verma

The genre of “horror” films is one among many genres which the Hindi film industry seems singularly incapable of mastering. There are, in fact, few Hindi films in this genre, and nearly all are were produced in very recent years. “Bhoot” (“Ghost”) doesn’t fulfill the promise either, but, nonetheless, it signifies something of a departure for mainstream Hindi cinema.

The opening shot of the film takes us to Vishal (Ajay Devgan), who is searching for an apartment to rent. He is shown a flat in an apartment building whose previous resident apparently died in a fall from the balcony. Though the broker showing Vishal the flat gives some intimations of thinking that the flat might be “haunted”, Vishal, who is the very epitomy of rationality and scientific thinking, dismisses all such considerations. Without informing his wife Swati (Urmila Matondkar) of the history of the flat’s previous occupant, Vishal agrees to take the flat. But no sooner have they moved in that Swati begins to become decentered. Sitting in front of her TV screen one evening shortly after having moved in to the flat, Swati sees a “ghost” reflected in the mirror left behind by Manjeet, the flat’s previous occupant.

Slowly, and somewhat inexplicably, Swati begins to suffer from hallcinations and even takes to sleepwalking. Now persuaded that Swati has been afflicted by a psychological disorder, Vishal visits a doctor; soon, however, as Swati’s condition deteriorates, the psychiatrist, Dr. Rajan (Victor Banerjee) is called in for consultation. Indeed, Swati has now become a threat to others. One evening, as Swati sleeps in her bed, Vishal goes downstairs for a smoke; but then begins a fearsome episode of sleepwalking. Swati leaves the flat, and takes the elevator downstairs; when Vishal detects her “slipping back into the flat”, he becomes alarmed and rides the elevator downstairs. The watchman (Sabeer Masani) has been killed; his head is twisted around his neck. Vishal is now certain that this death is to be attributed to Swati. But is it Swati who is doing all this? Does she represent herself? Is she herself? Or is it someone else who acts in her name? Someone else who has inhabited her body?

Police Inspector Liaqat Qureshi (Nana Patekar) smells a rat. His investigation leads him to Dr Rajan, to the discovery that his patient Swati is suffering from Multiple Personality Disorder; meanwhile, Vishal refuses Qureshi access to his wife on the grounds that she is not keeping well. Swati has been so utterly transformed that she pounces on Vishal; she is possessed and acquire a demonic strength. Vishal and the maid (Seema Biswas) struggle to restrain her, and she is tied to the bedpost. Until this time, Vishal has remained a repository of rational thinking and conduct; but now his confidence begins to falter. The maid tells him that she detects in Swati’s conduct and voice the very presence of the dead woman, Manjeet, and that Swati has been taken over by a spirit. Conventional doctors, she informs Vishal, are helpless in such cases; only an exorcist or sorcerer can help. Here comes in Rekha, whose own countenance is calculated to create alarm and fear. As Rekha enters Vishal’s flat, it becomes transparent that she can “see” much that is beyond the vision of ordinary mortals. As she rounds the corner of the building to take the flat up to Vishal’s flat, she stops by the empty chair used by the previous watchman. Once in the flat, she “sees” a little boy who has been lurking in the shadows throughout the film; she then walks through that apparition. She “sees” what Vishal cannot see; and so her drishti, her sight, tells her at once that Manjeet has come to live in Swati’s body.

The film moves rapidly towards a conclusion. Manjeet must perforce be driven out of Swati’s body. Dr. Rajan, whose own daughter passes away on account of blood cancer, assures Vishal that there is a proper scientific treatment for Swati’s malady. But Vishal has now fallen under Rekha’s influence, and he turns Dr. Rajan away — one can sense the struggle within Vishal, since his life so far has been led in accordance with the dictates of reason, but at this pivotal moment he turns, in Dr. Rajan’s language, to a “witch doctor.” The last scenes bring together all the characters of the film. The son of the landlord, who lives across from Vishal and Swati, returns home for a visit. Through a ruse he is brought to Swati’s bedroom; there he is confronted with the truth, namely that in a lover’s quarrel he accidentally ended up throwing Manjeet from the balcony and hurling her to her death. The only witness, Manjeet’s young boy of tender years, was then similarly dispatched to his death; the watchman was paid a bribe to keep his mouth shut. In her new incarnation as Manjeet, Swati took vengeance against the watchman; and Thakkar’s son (Fardeen Khan) is now the obvious target. Only his death will satiate Manjeet and lead her to abandon Swati’s body. Thakkar’s son flees the scene; but the bhoot is there to haunt him, make life miserable. An unseen energy seem to take over the steering of the car in which he attempts to escape. As he is confronted by Swati/Manjeet, everyone else comes gathering around them; and at the sorceress’s behest, Manjeet spares his life. The end is as cliched as one might expect.

As a horror film, “Bhoot” has its genuinely frightening moments. But horror is intertwined with suspense, and the Hindi film remains absolutely clueless about how to keep an audience in suspense. In the Hindi film, what one knows is much more important than what one doesn’t. That formula has worked well, but it has obvious limitations when the subject is the horror film.

In viewing “Bhoot”, one must resist the temptation to dismiss it merely as a film about a “haunted house”; nor is it the case that the return of Manjeet in the figure of Swati should be viewed as an instance of the retributive justice and wrath of the goddess, as an instance of the persistence of the eternal feminine. Swati may well be the wrathful form of the Devi; but there is more to the cinematic narrative of “Bhoot” than that. The film appears to pit science versus irrationality, modern medicine versus quackery, the specialist versus the witch doctor. Dr Rajan and Inspector Qureshi profess surprise and shock that an “educated” man such as Vishal should succumb to the interventions of a sorceress, and the film appears to vindicate Vishal’s trust in the sorceress. This is particularly ironic in view of the fact that when Swati first begins to suspect that something is amiss, that Manjeet’s spirit haunts her, Vishal deploys all the arguments in the arsenal of the rational against her. So should the film be viewed as a retrograde attempt to call the life of reason into question? Does it, considering Vishal’s “conversion”, give succor and encouragement to those inclined towards superstitious beliefs? Or is there more than a faint suggestion that one of the principal difficulties of the modern age is that it has invested far too much in rationality. Do the converted Vishal, the sorceress, and the uneducated maid together create a space for the pre-modern, a space rarely granted today? There are other idioms, too, in which “Bhoot” takes on interesting aspects: the professions (psychiatry, law and order, medicine) are viewed as hard-nosed, as intolerant in their own way, and the contrast with “folk wisdom” appears strongly.

The Hindi film has long been interested in the question of identity, and “Bhoot” is an expression, albeit a different one than commonly encountered, of that interest. What constitutes a person? What makes a person whole or complete? Is it the case that at death the soul still remains? Should humans have any intimacy or even conversation with the souls of their ancestors? Do we all, in a manner of speaking, merely inhabit the body. Once the scope of questions is broadened, even “Bhoot”, with its utterly predictabe script, can cast a spell on its viewers — sans song-and-dance routines, car chases, dumb jokes, and the rest. Its cinematic qualities should not be overlooked: indeed, one might say that “Bhoot”, unusually for a Hindi film, offers audiences an empire of signs. The camera repeatedly dwells on the same semiotic signs: the watchman’s empty chair; the elevator rapidly descending and ascending; the doll left behind by Manjeet; a 5-year old boy; and so on. Highly angular shots, many top down, enhance the surprise.

Vinay Lal [posted 22 October 2003]

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