After watching Robert De Niro in Cape Fear, I couldn't sleep for several nights. Not because Cape Fear was a horror film (a genre that always leaves me petrified), but because De Niro portrayed his character in a manner so chilling it made me numb with fear.
Twenty minutes into Ram Gopal Varma's Bhoot, I experienced the same sense of terror. I wondered if I'd get out of the cinema hall alive. Already, the sleek title sequence, with its astonishing visual effects and stunning background score, had me trembling with trepidation. I remembered the film's tagline -- 'Be Afraid' -- and felt even more nervous.
As I watched Vishal (Ajay Devgan) and Swati (Urmila Matondkar) move into their new rented home on the 12th floor of a plush apartment complex in Mumbai, I wasn't sure my weak heart would survive this ordeal.
Cinematographer Vishal Sinha's spooky camera -- sneaking up on the dozing watchman (Sabir Masani), relentlessly following the lift going up and down, creeping on to the kitchen loft and finally plunging down from the 12th floor balcony -- made my hands go clammy. Worse, Dwarak Warrier's merciless background track had me jumping out of my skin at the slightest provocation.
Of which, there's plenty. Because Vishal has chosen to live in this house despite the real estate broker warning that the previous occupant had jumped to her death. But while he is not too hassled by this revelation, he keeps it a secret from his wife.
Eventually Swati does find out and become distressed. She wanders around the house at night and, suddenly, strange things start happening to her. Up to this point, Varma's grip on the narrative is absolutely perfect. He had got his audience where he wanted them and, like everyone else around me, I started worrying about what he was going to unleash next.
Again, Sinha's camera commenced its terrifying journey and the audio track assumed a menacing pitch. I was hanging on the edge of my seat till I realized... there's nothing happening. There is no unpredictable twist waiting round the corner.
Instead, there's more of the same thing: Swati getting increasingly disoriented, Vishal agonising over his wife's mental state, the lift going up and down, the watchman staring at Swati suggestively, thunder, lightning, rain and yet another tilted shot of the building accompanied by a frenzied background score.
I heaved a sigh of relief and sank back into my chair. At that moment, Varma and his horror show had lost me.
After this, the story meanders into nowhere land. Vishal consults a reputed psychiatrist Dr Rajan (Victor Banerjee) who tells him his wife suffers from a multiple personality disorder (or some such important-sounding ailment).
The maidservant (Seema Biswas) in the house speaks in a weird voice, looks half-mad herself, and tells Vishal that Swati is possessed by a ghost and he should get an exorcist to tackle the situation.
Meanwhile, a murder takes place and Inspector Liyaqat Qureshi (Nana Patekar) arrives on the scene. With his entry, the slightest anticipation one felt was gone. Instead of heightening the drama, Patekar's comic mannerisms made me (and several others in the audience) giggle. Was he meant to be Johnny Lever's substitute or did he think he was being menacing?
Nor could Rekha's arrival salvage the situation. Here was an opportunity to do something special through her interaction with Urmila. But that scene was over and done with in a flash. Then came Tanuja, who met with the same fate. By the time Fardeen Khan walked in, I was past caring.
A classic case of a great cast being wasted on a screenplay that does no justice to their talent.
Contrast this with Varma's earlier Kaun where there were just three characters (Urmila, Manoj Bajpai, Sushant Singh) playing mind games with one another. The onus of keeping the audience glued was on the exchanges between them and the reliance on atmosphere was not as heavy. The denouement was truly unexpected and therefore spine-chilling.
Here, the director and his talented crew have concentrated all their energies on building up the mood. But since their story itself lacks the ability to keep people guessing, all the audiovisual wizardry is wasted on a worthless cause.
So are the stars. Victor Banerjee is a delight to watch at any time, but why drag him down from Kolkata for a part that doesn't require anything special? Ditto for Seema Biswas and Tanuja. As for Rekha, not only is she badly made-up (a description one would never dream of using for Rekha), it is almost criminal to cast an artiste of her calibre in such an ill-conceived role.
Ajay Devgan looks tired, but executes his part well. His is the soothing presence in the nerve-wracking scenes at the beginning of the film.
But it is Urmila Matondkar's mind-blowing act that actually saves Bhoot from its shaky script. Watching her work up a maniacal frenzy or slip into a pathetic state of helplessness, only to let out a deathly scream, is an experience not worth missing.
For a cinema that hasn't produced anything beyond the Ramsay brothers' blood-and-gore concoctions, Bhoot definitely gives a new dimension to horror films in Bollywood. But surely Varma has the ability to do better than this? He should give his favourite genre another shot.
Cast: Ajay Devgan, Urmila Matondkar, Fardeen Khan, Rekha, Tanuja, Nana Patekar, Seema Biswas
Producer: Nitin Manmohan
Director: Ram Gopal Varma
Cinematography: Vishal Sinha
Sound designer: Dwarak Warrier