Phobia: Not your regular horror film, yet it is

When Radhika Apte acts in a film it definitely has something in it. This is the perception that I had after I heard that she was being cast in Kabali (2016). The statement was completely justified. She was very convincing in her albeit limited screen space and time and proved her mettle. One of the most important aspects of a non-Tamil speaking actor's finesse is shown in the lip-sync to the dialogues. Radhika Apte was phenomenal in this aspect. To me, that was one good enough factor to be a good artist. If you can speak the other language, you are G.O.A.T, but if you can at least lip-sync and make it look natural, then definitely you are made of some substance.

Having said that, I was really interested in the films she was part of. I wasn't disappointed in Parched (2015), was disappointed with Baazaar (2018), left wondering with Sacred Games (2018-19) and was amazed by Phobia (2016). The premise of the film is not an unusual or an unexplored one. In fact, the horror genre is one genre that has seen different avatars - more than any other genres. For instance, we have drama, comedy, dramedy (a mix of the both), slapstick comedy, comedy, romance, rom-com and so on. Each of these is a separate genre (except for a few where they are mixed). But, there is no one genre that has evolved as much as horror. Earlier, we used to get plane vanilla, jump-scare horror movies (remember films like Khilauna Bana Khalnayak, Mahal, Raat) where someone/something gets killed, the spirit inhabits a "suitable" body to exact revenge. Slowly, the films moved on to the spirits time travelling (Haunted). Fast forward even further we have ghosts as friends (Bhootnath). And, today, we have horrex films (a once-money-minting-but-now-weak concept of mixing sex and horror), horror-comedies (Golmaal Again) and even the weirdest horror-adult-comedy (Iruttu Araiyil Muratti Kuthu). We talk about evolution arcs of characters in a film, well, look at the evolution arc of this genre!

Let's get back. This film talks about Mehek Deo (Radhika Apte), an artist, who develops Agoraphobia after an accident that occurs while returning home after one of her art exhibitions. The film starts off with a bunch of questions like "What made her fear venturing out?" "Why does she not want to have sex with her friend (or boyfriend?)?" and aims to answer these questions by the end of the film. There is a strong message towards the end of the movie which completes one of the objectives of film-making of this age - being socially responsible (I vehemently disagree with this school of thought though).

What makes this film work for me is the build-up of the plot, the seamless shift in the genre and the connection to the opening scene of the film. Of course, there is this stellar performance of Radhika Apte, the brilliant background score, the essential and clichéd elements attributed to the presence of the supernatural viz. an old apparently dementia affected woman, a black cat, a raising from the dead scene, a spider spinning its web, the jump-scare BGM and so on. I like the director (Pavan Kirpalani)'s take on the effects of a traumatic incident on an individual's mind and behaviour and Radhika Apte shines brilliantly as a paranoid Mehak. The script is really tight with little loose ends. It is the characterization that is a bit of a letdown.

Though the absence of Mehak's sister Anusha Deo (Nivedita Bhattacharya) is justified with a few dialogues, there is no sight of her in the second half of the film. There is no clear evolution of Shaan (Satyadeep Mishra), Nikki (Yashaswini Dayama). Also, I would have liked to see how the relationship between Mehak and Shaan started and the way it develops into the current stage.

Jaya Krishna Gummadi's cinematography beautifully takes us into the psyche of the phobic Mehak and scares us along with the background score of Daniel George. The editing (Pooja Ladha Surti) is tight and no part of the film looks botched or patched up. The premonition scenes provide the aha moments and the build-up to one of the unique climaxes in Indian cinema makes it a unique experience.

The minimal collection in the box-office only makes one wonder, "Will we ever enjoy or even acknowledge content-driven films?" "Why do such films need promotion on a large scale if the content is really the king?"

This film is available on Zee5 and Airtel Xstream.

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