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BHOOT. Director: Ramgopal Varma. Players: Ajay Devgan, Urmila Matondkar, Nana Patekar, Rekha, Seema Biswas, Fardeen Khan, Victor Banerjee, Tanuja. Music: Salim-Sulaiman. Theatrical release.
Ramgopal Varma, with his superb filmography, has single-handedly re-written the suspense genre in Hindi films. What was lacking from his celebrated career graph was an out-and-out horror flick. Not any more. The journey that started with village witchcraft in Raat (1992) and evolved into psychotic rage in Kaun? (1997) now descends into total supernatural anarchy with Bhoot. Boasting a high spine-tingling quota, Bhoot is an awesome chronicle of fear.

The plot is simple. Vishal (Devgan, moodily handsome) and Swati (Matondkar, gorgeously vulnerable) are a power couple that eagerly accept rental on a penthouse at a fashionable Mumbai high-rise. Swati soon begins to see and hear inexplicable things. A face in the mirror gives her accusatory stares, lights flicker in empty rooms and kitchen cabinets fly open by themselves. And that is only a start.

As Swati’s experiences turn more macabre, Vishal realizes that the insidious intrusion into the couple’s lives—and especially what haunts Swati—may only be solved with the help of either a psychiatrist (Banerjee, taut) or a clairvoyant (Rekha, stunning and at ease). Before this terrifying mess can be sorted out, one horrific murder in the building distracts everyone, including a relentlessly nosy cop (Patekar, humorous at self-caricature).

Varma is an absolute master at creating tension out of inconsequential incidentals. All this is done with an acute eye towards subtlety. While there are plenty of visceral visuals to shock the eyes, this creep show is memorable less for what it shows than for what it doesn’t show. Having the camera briskly follow the footsteps of a ghost walking away from a burning funeral pyre or sensing a nighttime apparition standing next to one’s bed (as Swati does) and being unable to move or scream is the very stuff of childhood nightmares—and exactly what Varma captures brilliantly.

The deft camerawork extends to a child’s world view played out by the presence of a stuffed raggedy doll that may have witnessed the apartment’s past and now serves as a silent testimonial to the domestic uncertainty rooted into Swati’s new life. The doll mysteriously turns up in places it cannot have logically traveled by itself. Swati, who unwittingly becomes attached to the doll, fails to grasp the doll’s association with cold, dark places—corners of the apartment where someone who is terrified may have hidden, or worse, may still be hiding.

Sliced differently, Bhoot essentially feeds off of Varma’s own vastly underrated Raat along with Hollywood standard bearers Exorcist and Sixth Sense. In Varma’s hands, however, this lack of plot originality shaves off only a thin layer of luster from what is overall a glowing, literally haunting work. Opening with an unusual but telling viewer advisory for pregnant women, Bhoot follows the wide-eyed track of Raat and Kaun? by adding to Varma’s tradition of tense, songless works.

Ultimately, Bhoot registers a bone-chilling metaphor against modernity in Mumbai’s astoundingly tight housing market. The subtle can’t-we-just-all-get-along warning lingers like an uninvited presence in the room long after Vishal and Swati get their dues and Varma, arguably India’s finest living filmmaker, has vacated the premises. If Bhoot fails to send shivers down the spine, nothing will.

Aniruddh C.

Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator, Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.