Pawan Kripalani’s Phobia looks like the scary love child of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and Todd Haynes’ Safe. From the former, we get the young woman (Radhika Apte’s Mehek) alone in an apartment, the older sister, the young woman’s gradually disintegrating mind, her not-easily-explained attitude towards men and sex, and imagery involving hands. From Safe, we get the woman with agoraphobia, a doctor not quite sure how to cure her, and the suggestion that she move into her own space – or is it a cage? Phobia opens, aptly, with a quote from Kafka, “A cage went in search of a bird.” A library’s worth of dissertations can be written connecting the quote and the film. Without a bird, a cage has no purpose, no meaning. Cruel though it sounds, a cage needs a bird in order to be a cage, to fulfil its destiny as a cage. Is Mehek – who finds herself unable to step out of her home after a sexual assault – the bird who longs to fly away from her situation? Or is she the cage, seeking answers that she can trap in her paintings? (She’s an artist.) Who? Why? What? When? How? More than bird or cage, Phobia may be about the “search.”
Phobia is the rare film that’s invested in all kinds of horror. There’s standard-issue physical horror – clichés of the genre like black cats and disorienting reflections in mirrors, along with bone-rattling sound/editing effects. There’s psychological horror – surreal dream-images; the manifestation of a mental breakdown through external effects, like a spider climbing a wall with exaggerated click-clacking sounds that suggest it’s wearing stilettos; one can even see the house Mehek moves into as a Charlie Kaufman representation of her self, for after the assault, she is in “a new place.” There’s supernatural horror – a séance, and is that a ghost climbing out of the bathtub? And even ontological horror, where the rug of “reality” is pulled neatly from under our feet. By the end, we may have witnessed not Mehek’s journey so much as the flashback of one of her paintings, how it came to be.
But Phobia works even without all this mental masturbation, because it follows time-tested suspense/horror clichés to the T. Despite disturbing experiences, Mehek continues to be stupid and stays alone – if she left, there’d be no movie. And there are quotes from crowd-pleasing films. There’s a bit of The Eyes of Laura Mars, with future events manifesting themselves in the present. There’s also a bit from Rear Window, involving amateur investigation of a supposedly murderous neighbour. Were it not for the abstract ending (and the superior-sounding title, which will surely cage this film in urban multiplexes), the average horror-film fan will find quite a bit to enjoy. I laughed at the cheapo, atmosphere-puncturing inscription on the T-shirt that Nikki (a perky Yashaswani Dayama) wears: Bhoot Raja Baahar Aaja. Nikki lives next door to Mehek and becomes the indulgent Grace Kelly to Mehak’s confined-in-a-room James Stewart. Whenever Nikki is around, Phobia is almost playful. I laughed again when she pointedly calls Shaan “Uncle.” Shaan (played by Satyadeep Mishra, who makes us care for a borderline-prick) is Mehek’s maybe/maybe-not boyfriend, but he’s certainly not the kind of guy who likes being reminded of his age.
Shaan could be a cage himself. He wants to trap Mehek into a relationship, and she won’t commit (not even to casual sex), so he has his way by somehow willing the universe to unleash an attack on her, so he can cage her in a flat and finally be with her. Seen through this prism, Phobia is a chilling riposte to Bollywood’s apparent embrace of female characters bursting out of their cages, in films like Jai Gangajal and Mardaani. Here, all women end up as failures in some way. The psychotherapist fails. (She seems to think that grocery shopping and splurging at malls is the therapy all women need.) Nikki ends up battered and bloody. The girl who made a statement by running away from her boyfriend (Ankur Vikal, making you wish you never end up with a neighbour like him) returns and succumbs to his oily charms. Mehek’s sister doesn’t seem to be bothered about Mehek after a point. Mehek herself is a question-mark. The cautious ending makes it seem like she’s liberated from her condition, but we don’t know if she’s really free, if she’s slayed her demons (the film is set during demon-slaying Diwali time), whether she’s won her “jee-tod ladaai” between the real and the imagined, or even if she’s sexually free. The song that played in the cab when she was assaulted is “Gandi baat,” from R… Rajkumar. Is she going to hear it in her head every time a man comes near her? Is sex always going to be… gandi baat?
Kripalani composes his frames carefully, with slow camera moves – the mere action of a man coming through an open door becomes queasily creepy. But it’s his heroine who makes the movie. Phobia, in the end, is a show-reel for Apte, for the things she can do with her large eyes and girl-next-door gorgeousness. Kripalani leaves the “horror” to the sound, camera and editing departments, so Apte needn’t give an external performance, cuing us to this and that – she digs deep in, she makes it internal. My favourite moment – in a performance filled with potential favourite moments – came when Shaan begins to dance and tries to lead Mehek outside the apartment. Apte makes you see a woman who wants to face her fears and yet, is terrified of facing those fears. Thanks to Phobia, she may finally be the bird who flew away from the cage of minor roles.
- Repulsion = see here
- Safe = see here
- The Eyes of Laura Mars = see here
- Rear Window = see here
- Bhoot Raja Baahar Aaja = a cheapo ‘boo’ line, ‘Come out, O ghost king’
- Jai Gangajal = see here
- Mardaani = see here
- “jee-tod ladaai” = full-fledged fight
- R… Rajkumar = see here
- gandi baat = dirty stuff
Copyright ©2016 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.