Thursday, October 28, 2021

BHOOT (2003) Movie Review

Scare-A-Thon Totals to Date:

Total Movies Watched: 27
Total First Time Views: 18
Amount raised for ALBANY PARK THEATER PROJECT: $2,250.45

Bhoot (2003) d. Ram Gopal Varma (India) (110 min) (1st viewing)

Mumbai stockbroker Vishal (Ajay Devgn) moves into a new apartment, unconcerned with the previous tenant’s apparent suicide, leaping to her death after murdering her young son. After revealing the residence’s sinister past to his wife Swati (Urmila Matondkar), she begins experiencing episodes of sleepwalking, as well as seeing apparitions of Manjeet and child. During one of these nighttime jaunts, the complex’s creepy night watchmen is discovered dead, his head wrenched completely around. With all fingers pointing toward Swati as the main suspect, Vishal seeks the help of a benevolent psychiatrist, Dr. Rajan (Victor Banerjee), and Sarita (Rehka), a much-celebrated medium, in the hope of breaking the spell Manjeet holds over the couple.

Full disclosure: I can’t speak with any authority to the intricacies of Bollywood cinema, having only seen a few Indian features over the years, but my understanding is that straight-up horror offerings are a rarity (with 1990’s Bandh Darwaza often singled out when the topic comes up). In doing a little post-viewing reading, the consensus seems to be that Bhoot is not a typical Bollywood offering, running less than three hours and featuring no musical dance numbers. However, it does have the presence of some top-flight Indian stars, which can only have helped its popularity in its home country where it was, by all accounts, quite successful.

For the seasoned horror fan, there is very little here to distinguish Bhoot (“Ghost” in Hindi) from the hordes of other ghost/possession thrillers out there. However, this is also part of its charm, watching another culture appropriate these well-worn tropes and make them their own. Director Varma doubles and triples down on the musical stings, cranking the volume EVERY SINGLE TIME anything remotely unsettling occurs. It’s either hilarious or annoying, depending on your frame of mind, and yet, perhaps because of our Pavlovian response, it still manages to do the trick. We jump, we laugh, we settle in and wait for the next scare, which is this case is about every three minutes.

The characters and performances are pretty stock, with action star Devgn holding down the fort as our “stoic with deep undercurrents of emotion” male lead, counterpoint to Matondkar’s flashier turn as the flighty romantic transformed into a vessel for Manjeet’s malevolent, vengeful spirit, coming just shy of doing a Linda Blair impression before it’s over. The supporting cast are equally diverse if one-note: Seema Biswas (Bandit Queen) is goofily over the top as the superstitious housekeeper with her hands always dancing close to her face, with Nana Patekar stone-cold serious as our local badge (always happy to show his name tag, just to prove that he is, in fact, Inspector Liyaquat Qureshi), and “Queen of Bollywood” Rehka brings amazing screen presence to her small role, all smoldering eyes and flowing locks. Probably the most recognizable name in the cast for Western audiences is Banerjee, star of David Lean’s 1984 epic A Passage to India, who lends a welcome subdued gravitas to the proceedings.

While Varma and screenwriters Lalit Marathe and Sameer Sharma are cribbing heavily from other popular fright flicks, most notably The Exorcist and Ringu and their various offspring, as well as a passing nod to Carnival of Souls, it somehow doesn’t diminish the pleasure of watching these cliches viewed through a different cultural lens. In some ways, in fact, it makes the film more accessible to Western audiences, not to mention the fact that the Hindi dialogue is peppered throughout with lines spoken in English, a fascinating experience to witness and one that had me wondering, “Why that line in particular?” Varma also sets the right tone of ballyhoo with his opening title card, “This film of mine is just an attempt to SCARE you and in no way reflects my belief in the supernatural. I also caution PREGNANT WOMEN and people with WEAK HEARTS to view it at their own risk.”

As charmingly derivative as it might be, Bhoot’s biggest detractor for most fans will be its length (again, short for a Bollywood production, but still longer than it needs to be for the story it has to tell). For those with patience and goodwill, however, it’s a not-bad entry into one of the largest purveyors of cinema in the world, which should be rewarding in its own right.

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