‘Ghost Stories’ is a new Netflix anthology of four horror films made by some of Bollywood’s leading filmmakers. This movie introduces the talents — and the shortcomings — of the current tastemakers of Hindi film.
Zoya Akhtar, Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee and Karan Johar direct vastly different shorts about contemporary Indian characters pushed to various stages of madness. There are terrifying in-laws, unexplained sounds in the hallway, violent miscarriages, gruesome revelations and one particularly frightening mob of village cannibals.
Bollywood’s usual focus on romance and family melodrama hasn’t allowed for a thriving horror genre, but with this anthology, each of these filmmakers tries their hand at local screams and moody creeps. The films are at their most unsettling when they draw their supernatural fears from India’s lived reality — mob violence, intergenerational conflicts and women’s suffering.
In promotional interviews for ‘Ghost Stories’, all four directors have discussed the artistic freedom of creating content for the global streaming giant, freed from the country’s cut-throat theatrical business model and the censors at the Central Board of Film Certification. For audiences, however, the results are a mixed bag.
Kashyap transforms the trauma of a miscarriage into a stylised psychological thriller in which a jealous nephew uses his malicious supernatural powers to inflict pain on his pregnant aunt. Akhtar, whose masterful film ‘Gully Boy’ was India’s official Oscar submission for international feature this season, tells the story of a young nurse caring for a senile woman who may not be as ill as she seems. With exquisite production values — dramatic apartments and severe colour palettes — these two segments showcase the technical prowess of contemporary Indian cinema and the acting talents of a new wave of performers.
The least successful episode comes from Johar, the most commercial of the filmmaking foursome. In line with his existing oeuvre of glossy Bollywood extravaganzas like ‘Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham’ (2001) and ‘Ae Dil Hai Mushkil’ (2016), Johar’s ghost story stars a preternaturally attractive married couple and a palatial estate. The couple is haunted by the groom’s deceased grandmother who even interrupts their first night with her not-so-subtle entrance. It’s mostly ridiculous and an embarrassingly unsuccessful attempt to infuse psychological horror with Bollywood’s typical mix of melodrama and flashy masala.
Things get much more interesting with the contribution from Banerjee, who is arguably the most promising contemporary filmmaker working in commercial Hindi cinema. ‘Ghost Stories’ marks his first foray into horror following the critical success of social and political dramas like ‘Khosla Ka Ghosla!’ (2006) and ‘Shanghai’ (2012). With his searing intelligence and filmmaking gifts, he crafts a story of a rural village where the sole survivors of a mysterious affliction are two young children. As fanged monsters begin to appear from the wilderness, Banerjee remains true to the sensory possibilities of the genre while offering a powerful analogy for India’s rising tide of political violence and division in the midst of a wave of Hindu nationalism.
‘Ghost Stories’ is the third anthology film by this foursome of Indian filmmakers. As with any samplers, however, there are some tastes better left forgotten and others one hopes will be expanded into fuller, even more terrifying forms.
‘Ghost Stories’ is streaming on Netflix.