Bhoot, directed by Bhanu Pratap Singh, is Dharma’s first horror film in its 40 years of existence. It’s also one of the most watchable films the Karan Johar-led production house has made in over a year. Unnerving, atmospheric and exceptionally well-performed, Bhoot straddles and blurs the lines between psychological drama and good old horror, and ultimately comes off as a winner.
Vicky Kaushal plays Prithvi, an executive at a shipping company, who’s tasked to get Sea Bird, a massive vessel, moved from Juhu beach where it has docked itself after drifting away from its original port. The ship, much like the leading man, is haunted. The sea is a cause of trauma for both: early on, it’s explained that Prithvi lost his wife and daughter in a freaky river-rafting accident. Predictably, his initial deep dive into the abandoned ship reveals something queasy: not all is well aboard, neither does it appear to be.
Will unlocking the mystery on the ship and getting it sailing again liberate Prithvi from his own demons? More precisely, what are these demons? Are they real or imagined, self-inflicted or external?
Singh plots his horror drama tightly, creating an eerie portrait of Mumbai, one that glows ominously in cinematographer Pushkar Singh’s gloomy frames that shift seamlessly from depressing greys to understated blues, evoking an unsettling feeling of desolation and abandonment. That sense is heightened once the camera’s gaze shifts to the ship’s insides: a grotesque, terrifying mess capable of inflicting horror by its mere sight.
In between the world-building, the scares come sporadically at first, getting more frequent as we delve deeper into the ship’s body and Prithvi’s mind. In many ways, the ship’s nucleus is symbolic of Prithvi’s ruptured psyche. Both have suffered trauma that they are yet to heal from.
And that’s perhaps the core strength of Bhoot - that it confuses its protagonist - Prithvi - into believing that the horror he’s witnessing could actually be a manifestation of a mental condition. Effectively, the trick works on the viewer’s mind too: it’s the classic use of an unreliable narrator as your chief storyteller. And Kaushal, a gifted actor, does an outstanding job in conveying both, his internal turmoil and his more outward terror with equal ease. He brings in a quiet vulnerability to his part, his determination to break free of the ghosts of his past stronger than his fear of going into the dungeons of the wrecked ship.
It helps that he’s aided by a strong supporting cast: from Akash Dhar to Meher Vij to the ever-reliable Ashutosh Rana.
Mercifully, Singh doesn’t rely on the cheap trope of heightened, bombastic background score to deliver the scares; it’s used judiciously and in a way that compounds the fear, instead of being the sole component inciting it.
The anticipation of horror is scarier than the actual event and Bhoot is wildly aware of this, exploiting the lump-in-the-stomach feeling to its full potential, and then ending the film in a way that kind of ties up all loose strands, although how satisfying that is remains questionable.
The film falters - and momentarily slows down - when it laboriously explains the backstory of the ship’s existence and its past inhabitants. While one gets the necessity of it, here it’s done in a boring, unimaginative way, as if it was almost hurried into the screenplay (because it had to be) so the makers could move on.
For a film that conjures up some seriously vivid imagery and uses CGI in a way that never appears tacky, the backstory feels hackneyed and over expository and is quite shoddily handled. Its third act too, while delivering the spooks, stretches a little too long, long enough to strip away the fear and the shock value from the ghost. A bit of crispness in this part by editor Bodhaditya Banerjee could’ve actually worked in prolonging the feeling of dread.
However, overall, Bhoot delivers what it promises. It’s a satisfying and adequately scary film that leaves you thinking about more difficult questions, one that another favourite horror film of mine, Talaash, did too: can we truly recover from grief? Ships might get stuck and sail away but the permanence of loss never quite stops haunting.