Bhoot (2003)

This Hindi horror film begins in urban haunting mode, but turns into a literal remake of The Exorcist, complete with a Lee J. Cobb-like cop (Nana Patekar) fumbling at the edges of the case when a minor character gets his head turned the wrong way round. Bombay yuppie Vishal (Ajay Devgan) gets a good deal on an apartment in a luxury block, but doesn't tell his wife Swati (Urmila Matondkar) that it's going cheap because Manjeet (Barkha Madan), the previous tenant, died in a mysterious fall from the balcony (along with her son, though this doesn't come up until very late in the game). In the first act, stay-at-home Swati gets unnerved in the building, which comes complete with an insolent and intrusive caretaker and an apparently simple-minded maid, as she glimpses ghosts in mirrors and out of the corner of her eye. Then Swati is possessed by Manjeet and sets out to get revenge on the people involved her, including a culprit (Ferdeen Khan) we don't meet before he is accused. Vishal calls in a psychotherapist (Victor Banerjee) who is distracted by his own daughter's terminal illness, but then has to resort to aTantric practitioner Sarita (Rekha) who eventually persuades the ghost not to take revenge because the innocent Swati would be prosecuted for the killings.

The performances are fine, with Matondkar going from smoothly urbanised young woman to hollow-eyed harridan, and director Ram Gopal Varma tries for the subtle supernatural effects of recent Hollywood ghost stories, unusual in a culture where horror pictures tend to be shrieking fables. However, it has a subtly conservative tone, criticising the Westernised couple and authority figures like the cop and the doctor for abandoning tradition and being overly rational and materialist, whereas true wisdom lies with old-fashioned characters who might otherwise seem like credulous cranks. An effective, irrelevant dream sequence has Swati nod off in a cinema where Spider-Man is showing, and waking to find an entire audience of ghosts have turned in their seats to stare at her.

First published in this form here.

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