On the gnarly evolutionary tree of Indian horror films, 13B undoubtedly creates a new branch. With one hand firmly gripping many successful tricks used to scare unsuspecting moviegoers in recent genre hits across the globe, and the other hand wielding its own frightening weapon of choice, Vikram Kumar’s film blends elements of classic horror, a supernatural infestation not too different from Poltergeist, with a new twist—surely, your television doesn’t have a mind of its own, does it? Kumar’s deliciously disturbing chronicle of events at a highrise with an ominous 13th floor calling card almost single-handedly drags Indian celluloid horror from its 1960s white-sari-clad-ghost heyday by way of the Ramsay Brothers 1980s witchy-screams-at-midnight to forge a new type of fright-fest.
The titular address is a recently purchased, upscale family homestead headed by upwardly mobile architect Manohar (Madhavan), his devoted wife Priya (Chandra), and his mother (Dhillon). As the new occupants of the condo settle into their routines, Manohar soon notices troubling oddities. When used at home, the camera in his cell phone won’t quite photograph as it should; the faces in the photos become mysteriously distorted. Even more perplexing is an elevator that becomes inoperable only when Manohar uses it. As Priya and her mother-in-law get hooked on a “new” TV serial, Manohar realizes that the serial is actually playing out the freaky events he has been witnessing. The only problem is that the TV serial plays out the creepy events before they actually happen.
Borrowing elements of Hideo Nakata’s 1998 cult-hit Ringu (re-done in Hollywood as The Ring), Takashi Miike’s 2003 entry Chakushin Ari(rechristened in Hollywood as One Missed Call), the masterful 2007 Spanish horror anthem El Orfanato (The Orphanage), a slew of possessed tech-gadget episodes of The Twilight Zone, and axe-wielding blood fest standard-bearersFriday the 13th and Halloween, director Kumar and lead Madhavan give the plot a plausible Indian flavor while exploiting subtle superstitions of tech-driven modern life. Never mind that the number 13 portends a bad omen in Christian mythology but generally has no meaning in India.
The subtlety is conveyed by the seemingly inconsequential things that loom much larger role as the plot progresses. There are rabbit ear TV antennas (remember when?), and grainy news footage from the 1980s (a superb homage to pioneering Indian TV network Doordarshan’s pre-satellite TV signal delivery for the masses). Cryptic clues also abound: a diamond is found at a murder scene; a policeman commits suicide; a dog barks at something in an empty room; things—unspoken and unmentionable—are buried out back; public figures unknowingly acquire stalkers.
Even the jittery camera acquires complicity in the pervasive sense of déjà vu. Well-acted and cunningly constructed, 13B taps into the steel grip that TV can have—in this case over India’s booming middle class.
Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.