'Phobia' Review: Radhika Apte To The Rescue

27/05/2016 6:37 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:27 AM IST
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I have a confession to make: horror is my least favourite genre.

This is not to say that there haven’t been great horror films or that they don’t work for me. On the contrary, I’m quite lily-livered like that — while watching most horror/psychological thrillers, I need to have an internal monologue that’s basically telling me to hold my shit together, that this is just a movie that’s using composition, camera movement, sound effects, and a background score working in tandem to create a cinematic effect that is specifically designed to give me sleepless nights.

My problem with a number of films in the genre is far more personal. As a staunch atheist and rationalist, I find it impossible to take seriously a story that comes up with ‘Ghost wanted revenge for bad things that happened to Ghost when it was not Ghost’ as a bottom-line.

Not that I’m opposed to things that happen outside the realm of possibility, of course. My problem lies merely with the forceful insertion of supernatural or fantastical elements based on regressive human ideas to trigger our most fundamental, primitive fears for the sake of entertainment.

(Note: this is my personal opinion. It is not meant to be an absolute, sweeping judgement on every film belonging to the genre.)

The second best thing about Pavan Kirpalani’s Phobia, a psychological horror-thriller that released in theatres this Friday, is that it manages to use this trope effectively enough without, somehow, violating these rigid conditions that exist in my head.

The best thing about the movie, of course, is Radhika Apte, who plays a young artist named Mehak Deo. As the movie opens, we see her at a solo exhibition featuring mixed-media works as well as interactive installations. Apte skillfully brings out key aspects of her character — who is feisty, irreverent, and aware of her sexuality — in just a few lines.

Upon leaving the venue with her close friend and sometimes-lover Shaan (Satyadeep Mishra), Mehak falls asleep. The cab driver takes her to a deserted area, and it is implied that he sexually assaults her.

The incident leaves her with agoraphobia (a fear of going outside, to put it crudely) and unable to interact with strangers. Her sister (Nivedita Bhattacharya) is concerned for her; at the same time, she’s upset that Mehak’s inability to even answer the front door results in her school-going son being locked out of the house for hours, leading to strife between the two of them.

Somewhat conveniently, this deep fear of getting to the front door starts disappearing soon after she, as a result of said strife, moves to a somewhat posh apartment owned by Shaan’s friend (the film’s director, going by the name-plate outside the door), even though she’s living in a place that’s, as spooky apartments go, decidedly well-furnished. Yeah, good plan, Shaan-who-totally-does-not-want-to-get-it-on-with-Mehak *wink*.

Kirpalani, whose previous credits include Ragini MMS (2011) and Darr @ The Mall (2014), displays impressive control over his craft in many portions of the movie (for once, I have no complaints about the background score, which for me is one of the surest signs of a director firmly in charge)

Kirpalani uses the usual ingredients of the genre (tight close-ups, off-centered framing, heightened sound design) to play with the viewer’s head, which is done well in the same way a Taylor Swift song boasts of near-flawless production — a series of clichés packaged in a unique manner, whose effectiveness depends merely on competent execution. Oh, the previous tenant, a flight attendant named Jiah, just mysteriously disappeared without paying rent! Ooh, creepy neighbour Manu (Ankur Vikal) is creepy! Oooh, there’s a bulb flickering in that other room; heaven forbid I ask the friend who visits me literally everyday to help me replace it!

This is not to say that this doesn’t work, of course, the same way I’d bob my head along enthusiastically to ‘I Knew You Were Trouble’ in a nightclub. (What? It’s a catchy tune, okay? Pfft.). It helps that the cast rises to the occasion. Apte, somehow, manages to build a fantastic, believable graph, going from frightened damsel-in-distress to true-blue heroine in a manner that I believe only she is capable of. Her natural Puneri accent actually lends her character a shade of authenticity (thank heavens they didn’t name her Mehak Kapoor, or Sharma), as does her ability to appear as though she isn’t acting at all. About 50% of this film’s effectiveness is all thanks to the emotions she manages to convey through her eyes.

Mishra, too, is in fine form here. His somewhat inscrutable facial expressions go a long way in fleshing out the complex character that is Shaan: a tortured, somewhat entitled friend/lover who is perpetually playing Mr Nice Guy instead of being him. Young Yashaswini Dayama is also quite endearing as Mehak’s other neighbour Nikki, bringing some much-needed levity to proceedings.

Kirpalani, whose previous credits include Ragini MMS (2011) and Darr @ The Mall (2014), displays impressive control over his craft in many portions of the movie (for once, I have no complaints about the background score, which for me is one of the surest signs of a director firmly in charge). However, several decisions okayed in terms of script and characterisation left me dissatisfied. For instance, Manu is shown to be so obviously creepy that it appears caricature-ish, and even a seasoned actor like Vikal, who does his best to underplay it, can’t do much to save it from itself. The final twist, which will doubtless make everyone gasp, seems clever at first, but then, once you really think about it, feels a tad gimmicky.

But hey, this is just, like, my opinion, man.

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