Filmmakers Zoya Akhtar, Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee and Karan Johar have collaborated for a sequence of short films released on Netflix as Ghost Stories. Rishita Roy Chowdhury reports.

 

Netflix’s new anthology film, Ghost Stories brings back the promising lineup of directors Zoya Akhtar, Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee and Karan Johar. This is the quartet’s third collaboration after Bombay Talkies in 2013 and Lust Stories in 2018.

Ghost Stories marks the debut of all the four directors in the horror genre. Naturally, the question arises, why they chose horror and did the short-film format do justice to their respective narratives?

According to Zoya Akhtar—whose film opens Ghost Stories—a story that evokes true fear is always appealing. She said, “I was looking for such a story which has more layers than just jump scares. Personally, I like getting scared and I don’t like getting scared. Today, psychological drama is a very popular genre. People like going to the cinemas and what works for them is if the film moves them. You make them laugh, you make them cry, you scare them. Something has to shift. There has to be an experience. We have stumbled upon this genre and now we are evolving with it. As for the format, the fact that this anthology travels to 200 countries gives it exposure and a longer life.”

In Akhtar’s segment, a nurse (played by Janhvi Kapoor) attends to a senile old woman (played by Surekha Sikri) in what looks like a dingy home, in an isolated corner of a big city. Both the characters have been victims of neglect, abandonment and loneliness. These are the insecurities and fears Akhtar wanted to highlight. She said, “I decided to thematically work with the fears I have. Fear of ageing, of abandonment and of course, the fear of death. I have attempted to make these themes play out from the standpoint of women and explored how they experience them.”

The next story, by Anurag Kashyap, addresses the anxieties and traumas associated with pregnancy and miscarriage. The film has been shot primarily in black-and-white with faint hints of colour. The narrative builds on fears related to motherhood, depression and nightmares, and actress Sobhita Dhulipala’s role stands out in the film. It is certainly not something mainstream cinema would typically offer. Maybe for this reason, Anurag Kashyap has called Ghost Stories his “most satisfying film.”

He explained, “This is the best way to explore issues people are reluctant to talk about. For me, Netflix is like home. I feel so liberated as an artist, but with responsibility. I have been wanting to tell a horror story for a long time. But with cinema, there’s always a pressure of critical success or box office numbers…this or that. With Ghost Stories, we are in a safe zone. So I can go out and make exactly what I want to make. In this format it translates really well. That’s why it’s been very satisfying.”

Talking about how OTT platforms have given him opportunities to explore his creativity, Kashyap said, “My creative sensibilities have found a home in Netflix. Even though the mainstream has evolved a lot, I face issues as a creative person. My weak points are strategising, marketing and exhibition. A lot of people use OTT platforms because they think it’s fun, secure and safe and an economic zone. But for me, I want to exploit it to put more content out there that no one else is attempting.”

For Kashyap, Sobhita Dhulipala was the perfect fit for the lead role. But for the actress, the “confusion” created by the script appealed to her the most. She said, “I think that’s a nice space to go into…wanting to find more. I like a certain sense of mystery and as an actor trying to reach where the character is. That’s the journey. I was very moved by the story. Some of the things that the character deals with are things I may have heard or just watched people going through them from afar. I didn’t really have the experience, but could connect with the fears felt by the character.”

This brings us to the most impactful film of the lot, by Dibakar Banerjee. The political subtext in this story is the real element of horror. It is about how the residents of a place called Big Town have turned to cannibalism and eaten up the people of Small Town. In order to survive the residents of the Small Town have to keep their mouths shut, for they come under attack only when they speak up—an allegory for how free speech is being crushed in our society.

Banerjee told us how the story occurred to him. He said, “The story came out of an accidental sketch that I drew. I was just going down a road in Bombay and I saw a group of very enthusiastic young men who belonged to a certain political inclination. They took on some policing work. I asked them why they were doing it, but I didn’t get a clear answer. Behind them, there were some policemen standing idly. Out of that, I started doodling, thinking and then this story fell into place.”

He spoke about how the psychological thriller genre remains under-explored in the Hindi film industry. He said, “For a long time, till the ’90s, India had feudal and patriarchal filmmakers. The audience was also the same. They wanted the family trope—retrenched and reinforced. That is changing because society is changing. The construct is evolving, but issues are still there. We have a long way to go.”

The actor who leads this army of cannibals in the film is Gulshan Devaiah. For him, this is the hardest thing that he has ever done in his life. He said, “It pushed me physically and mentally. I don’t enjoy psychological films as I would essentially classify them as horror. Hence I don’t even like working in them. I said yes to this one because of Dibakar Banerjee.”

The final story of the sequence is by Karan Johar which experiments with the distinction between the dead and the departed. It follows a newly married couple and shows us a husband who is able to talk to his dead grandmother. Making use of some recognisable thematic and cinematic tropes—an affluent family caught in a spot of drama, elaborate sets and attires—Johar has made this film in his classic commercial-movie style. It ends with a familiar haunted-house tale.

About working on Ghost Stories, Johar told Guardian 20, “The film explored an unnerving theme of sustaining a relationship that transcended the realm of the living. It’s special because it deals with familial ties—a theme very close to our heart—and in a sense lends to the notion of letting go and burying the past. The vision was to set out in an unfamiliar territory, horror, while still retaining our personal touch of being able to tell stories via interpersonal relationships which in our opinion are the cornerstones of society.”