Producers Mahesh and Vikram Bhatt, when not tapping into heavy social ethos that touches on class and communal unease (Saaransh, Zakhm, Arth) churn out lighter fare by devising clever horror films (Fear, 1920, Shaapit). Their immensely successful 2002 offering Raaz, in addition to sending newcomer Bipasha Basu’s stock sky high, also proved to be the biggest box office hit of that year. With Haunted, the Bhatts combine the horror genre in two versions, a traditional format and also a new-for-Hindi movies 3D version. Even with plot pitfalls and camera gimmicks that have been employed elsewhere originally, Hauntedsets loose a sufficiently intense primal supernatural fury to forge yet another ground-breaking standard bearer for the genre from the Bhatt banner.
The name Mahaakshay may not register initially. The actor also goes by the name of Mimoh and is veteran actor Mithun Chakraborty’s son. Mimoh underplays Rehan, a recent graduate who returns from the United States to settle his family’s real-estate deal on a property in Simla. Ever the skeptic, Rehan brushes aside the servants’ warning about the house being possessed and, all alone, camps out at the large empty mansion, only to find that the mansion indeed has other uninvited inhabitants. The usual one-spirit ploy gets a make-over. There is not one but two spirits haunting the house. The benevolent of the two spirits is a female ghost named Meera (Bajpai), whose letters reveal to Rehan an 80-year-old mystery involving the malevolent entity (Zakaria, spot-on as a maniacal beast). Taking sides in what appears to be a supernatural battle being waged on his property every night, Rehan is transported back in time to attempt changing history.
On the surface, Haunted appears shallow and recklessly exploitative. Here is a movie that was never intended to be anything other than a formulaic B-movie matinee that, perhaps because of the 3D novelty, would become a “commission earner.” The film’s poster is a cheapie knock off from Tomas Alfredson’s 2008 buzz-creating Swedish vampire flick Let the Right One In. And yes, the haunted bungalow and the piano-playing apparition that unexpectedly lets out blood curdling screams have all been used before. Indeed, the most visually striking imagery that Bhatt reaches for is from the classic Hindi horror films of the 1960’s, especially Kohra and Yeh Raat Phir Na Ayegi.
And yet that is the secret. Haunted turns out to be an unsettling experience precisely because the filmmaker lulls the viewer into a sense of complacency before lashing out with unexpected twists. By the second half the gripping story, with truly-I-did-NOT-expect-that turns, one is almost forced against one’s will to overlook the narrative gaps and go along for one heck of a heebie-jeebies roller coaster. One overlooks the fact that even though the characters are Hindu, they decide that the last resort of fighting the evil is to turn to the local Catholic priest. The priest, in turn, directs them to a Sufi shrine that holds magical powers to fight the demon. Heh, sometimes a little literal leap of faith can go a long way!
The special effects are absolutely magnificent. As Rehan and a companion walk on a hillside they are oblivious to an apparition that is following them, just above their heads—silently gliding from tree to tree. This creature, in what is surely the hallmark for all true other-worldly creatures, can walk up and down a tree with easy, gravity-defying steps. When the floating ghoul is discovered, the foot chase through the trees is nothing short of an edge-of-the-seat suspense-filled race to the finish. This is despite the fact that the same gimmick was used by Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. The steel daggers from Crouching Tiger here are supplanted by tree trunks used by the floating ghoul as flying arrows—the delivery of which, without a doubt, would enhance the 3D version of this scene. Suspend belief and just enjoy the show!
Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.