The year is 2003.
I am eleven years old and just beginning to get into horror films. Ram Gopal Varma’s Bhoot (Ghost) starring Ajay Devgn and Urmila Matondkar has been released in cinemas and a well-meaning but reckless relative has generously offered to take me and my younger brother to see it. An hour and fifty-three minutes later (excluding intermission), I leave the theatre a changed person, astonished by my profound capacity for fear, and with an even more profound appetite for it. Over the next few years, my brother and I will steadfastly refuse to travel alone to the first floor of our house, obscurely convinced that untold terrors of the supernatural variety lurk there. I will also simultaneously seek out every horror film and book I can get my hands on. I am, irrevocably and undeniably, hooked.
Cut to 2020.
Karan Johar’s Dharma Productions has announced the release of Bhoot Part One: The Haunted Ship. The news is exciting in its unexpectedness because the horror genre is outside this production company’s usual wheelhouse. In India, Hindi-language horror films are relegated to a niche status; most are budget productions with middling names attached to them. Bhoot Part One: The Haunted Ship, therefore, represents something of a departure from this trend, helmed by a prestigious team and starring Vicky Kaushal, beloved by fans and critics alike. Done right, and coming on the heels of other inventive horror offerings like Tumbadd (2018), Pari (2018), and Stree (2018), it could signal the mainstreaming of a hitherto woefully neglected genre. Does Bhoot Part One, then, live up to this challenge?
Reader, it does not.
Though the title of the movie is an undeniable throwback to the 2003 production, the two are standalone films with no common link. Based on a real incident from 2011 when a cargo ship ran aground on a Mumbai beach, Bhoot Part One tells the story of survey officer Prithvi Prakashan (Vicky Kaushal) who is charged with the task of clearing the Sea Bird, a shipping vessel, off Juhu beach. Fresh from the tragedy of losing his wife Sapna (Bhumi Pednekar) and young daughter Megha in a rafting incident, Prithvi is a haunted man and thus the perfect choice to explore a notoriously haunted ship. A man who skips prescribed pills so he can continue experiencing hallucinations of his dead wife and daughter, he is supposed to embody the well-worn trope of the unreliable narrator who is unable to distinguish between bizarre supernatural occurrences and his own crumbling psyche.
The set design of the ship is gorgeous; ten stories high and unmoored from its place, its stately and ravaged interior is meant to mirror the corridors of Prithvi’s own tormented soul. The conceit, unfortunately, is poorly executed. Before Prithvi can even climb aboard the ship, its resident ghost claims the lives of a thrill-seeking couple who, in a moving tribute to the difficulty of finding a little privacy in an expensive mega metropolis where people live cheek by jowl, decide to use the abandoned ship for a tryst. The woman’s dead body is promptly found and broadcast on news media. The viewer, therefore, is not in doubt for a second that the haunting is real, and the film’s attempt to signal a deeper subtext about the vagaries of grief and its psychic toll on a person by representing Prithvi’s perspective as warped by his own demons is merely wasted screen time.
Grief, which has no social script, has always had a special relationship with horror. The best of global horror explores the terror, unpredictability, and isolation of grief, often the result of some traumatic loss, and is able to accommodate its spiky lineaments in ways that perhaps no other genre can. Hideo Nakata’s Dark Water (2002), J. A. Bayona’s El Orfanato (2007), Nick Murphy’s The Awakening (2011), Guillermo del Toro’s Mama (2013), and Ari Aster’s Hereditary (2018) are just a few recent examples of the same. The figure of the ghost, so central to a vast majority of horror films, is an embodiment (en-spirit-ment?) of that very grief. As scholar Murray Leeder writes in Cinematic Ghosts, “the ghost is a powerful, versatile metaphor. It can signify the ways in which memory and history, whether traumatic, nostalgic, or both, linger on within the ‘living present.’ It can be a potent representation of and figure of resistance for those who are unseen and unacknowledged, reduced to a spectral half-presence by dominant culture and official history.”
The ghosts of Sapna and Megha represent Prithvi’s guilt at being unable to save his family while the apparition on the ship encapsulates a sordid tale of betrayal and revenge that we will gloss over in the interest of remaining spoiler-free. While the trappings of loss and grief are all there—in Vicky Kaushal’s unshaven face and bloodshot eyes, in shots of his messy, uncared-for apartment, in his reckless endangerment of himself—they remain just that: trappings. The true physical and emotional vulnerability of grief—the quality that makes viewers invested in and fearful for the protagonist of a horror narrative—is markedly absent from the film.
Part of the reason, interestingly enough, has to do with Vicky Kaushal’s new off-screen image. In January 2019, Kaushal starred as the lead in Uri: The Surgical Strike, a military propaganda film based on a real incident from 2016 in the contested region of Jammu and Kashmir, where four terrorists attacked Indian security forces. Tensions between India and Pakistan were at an all-time high in the aftermath, spilling easily into the cultural domain, where Pakistani actors and artistes were summarily banned from Indian productions and those who resisted in the name of promoting peace and amity were held hostage to majoritarian sentiments. The film is a dramatization of retaliation by Indian troops, the retaliation itself being met with scepticism from only a few quarters but general laudatory celebration from mainstream media and civil society. The film went on to become a massive commercial success and a line of dialogue spoken by Kaushal—“How’s the josh (energy)?” “High, Sir!”—a testament to the strength and aggression of a new breed of patriotic Indians has since been a viral mainstay of cultural discourse, is routinely chanted at military academies, and was even repeated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at an event later that year. Kaushal, who received a National Film Award for his role, transformed overnight from an indie presence to a symbol of aggressive, jingoistic machismo.
That whiff of machismo haunts Kaushal in Bhoot, to the detriment of character and plot. Early in the film, there is a scene of Kaushal singlehandedly rescuing a dozen female victims of human trafficking; he tackles three men at once with his bare hands in pouring rain at the docks as the women cower behind him. Later, his best friend Riaz (Akash Dhar), a supporting character, makes subtext text by comparing him to superheroes. The climax also relies on superhuman feats of strength, the camera lovingly tracking Kaushal’s muscular frame in long sustained shots. There is not a moment in the film where the viewer fears for Kaushal’s safety; heroic redemption seems inevitable. In Bhoot Part One, therefore, neither the haunting nor the haunted are much more than ciphers for a derivative hodgepodge of elements from better films. Creepy dolls, wall-crawling young women, voiceover lullabies, jump scares—we’ve seen it all before. The musical score by Ketan Sodha is effective when it is restrained in the service of building tension but succumbs to the temptation of operatic excess when the action heats up.
The scariest part of Bhoot Part One: The Haunted Ship is the threat, embedded within the title itself, of a sequel.