In Indian cinema Ramsay Brothers are considered the pioneers of horror films. They were hugely predictable to say the least. An abandoned castle, curse of the "aatma", religious signs, gods as antidotes, some steamy songs and that’s the end all and be all of the horror genre in Bollywood.
"Ghoul" produced jointly by Blumhouse, Phantom Films and Netflix is a clinical effort to re christen the Indian horror film genre.
"Ghoul" The plot
The word Ghoul in Arabic texts means "Demon" or a "Rakshasa" in Hindi. Set in a not so distant future, the story is about its protagonist Commander Nida Rahim (played by Radhika Apte) who is a military recruit who specialises in advanced interrogation techniques. She arrives at a remote military detention centre which is used to house dreaded criminals to interrogate a dreaded terrorist "Ali Saeed" who knows certain secrets about national security. The story is about the bizarre happenings in the detention centre and how "The Ghoul" amongst them manipulates people against each other and brings out the dirty secrets about the interrogators, soldiers in the open and turns the table. The film's central conflict is about the battle between Nida Rahim and the Ghoul who keeps changing bodies. A host of characters in the detention centre like Colonel Da Cunha (played by Manav Kaul), Ali Saeed (Mahesh Balraj), Dad Rahim (brilliant cameo by TV veteran S.M.Zaheer) add to the central story line. The climax is not the traditional good vs evil story finale, it is uplifting and terrifying at the same time.
Can a Horror Film be highly political in its framework and narrative?
Current Affairs reflect in horror films across genres in global cinema. Be it "Hostel" (reflection of the Nazi era in Germany), Be it "Gruz 200", Be it "Inglorious Bastards" which was not exactly a classic horror story but has enough firepower to chill you any day of the week, they all are deeply political and use horror, demons, monsters as metaphor of something gone drastically wrong in the food chain. "Ghoul" in those respects is a grade A horror film with super performances and a deeply religious overtone.
The World Of Ghoul
The film is set in a dystopian future. The film gives caveats that the military and state are in full control of India. There are sectoral colonies housing different kinds of people. The detention centre aptly called "Meghdoot 31" (Meghdoot means someone who is fair in judgement) is inspired by the vision of the Nazi concentration camps in Germany as shown in films. Badly dilapidated, zero sunlight, dirty hallways, blood flowing through like water and an uneasy feel to the whole place. High end interrogation tools and chairs are the highlights of the centre.The film also stresses on the fact that communication technology is next to redundant and people are not that technically advanced any more. This is evident in the scene where Radhika Apte receives a "SMS Message" on her Nokia 3310 which is a nearly extinct mobile phone. This of course is attributed to the authoritarian government. The setting of "Ghoul" is heavily borrowed from "Silence Of The Lambs" detention area of FBI where Hannibal Lecter is set. The story plays heavily on the military and its loyalty code. Because of the sectoral population, there is a sense of loss of diversity. It smacks of an India which is not diverse. There no jokes, humour in the film is something which is badly missed. In addition , in the beginning the film borrows its world from "Fahrenheit 451" where the military is seen burning books, taking minority family members away on suspicion of rebellion. The filmmakers have clearly shown the demise of democracy and free speech and shows the fierce control of the state over its citizens.
Right from the word Go, the story shows how badly minorities are being targeted and treated. 80% of the prisoners in Meghdoot 31 are Muslims. There is a "Maulavi" prisoner inserted in the story who preaches the philosophy of the demon who will take revenge for the atrocities done to the minorities.
In the lighter moments between Nida Rahim who plays a Muslim soldier in the Indian establishment and her father who is a Professor who is a staunch civil rights crusader and Nida is an employee with the state talk of everything that is wrong with the society where nobody can ask questions and mass killings are on the rise to "sensitise" and "clean up" the citizenry in a scientific way. As the story progresses, Nida's father gets arrested and tortured for spying and revolting against the system. There are slogans of hyper nationalism chanted by all soldiers across the story.
The filmmakers have tried to strike the balance in the film’s discourse by making the protagonist a Muslim female soldier whose tribe is actually hunting down minorities. The team at Meghdoot 31 has negative feelings for Nida as she is a Muslim and its evident in her conflicts with fellow soldier Laxmi Das who insists that Nida is a terrorist and a spy. In the climax, it is shown that the deep state believes that minorities are fuelling terrorism. It’s a scathing attack on the system and "Ghoul" actually demonises the fictitious Indian state in its chosen world.
The Blumhouse Effect
Anurag Kashyap, Vikram Motwane and the "Phantom" crew teamed up with Jason Blum and Blumhouse to make "Ghoul" for Netflix. So Blumhouse is the biggest horror genre content producer in Hollywood with marquee films like "Paranormal Activity", "Insidious", Oscar winner "Get Out" and dozen others who have ruled the box office for decades now. "Ghoul" embodies a lot of its storytelling from Blumhouse. Political and Societal causes for crime, Odd looking characters, low budgets, state of the art sound mixing and editing, a limited duration to the story, an appealing and uplifting finale etc. These are all Blumhouse showcase techniques.
The rise and rise of Radhika Apte
Apte is a single talent torchbearer of alternate cinema content in India. Her next door looks, beautifully etched characters, a weird and powerful screen presence are hallmarks of Radhika Apte and her growing body of work. Her work in "Sacred Games", "Perched", "Maajhi", "Padman", "Lust Stories" are winning her fans all over the globe. In "Ghoul" , Apte had the challenge of a solo female lead in a horror infused story. She has no love interest, no glamorous appeal in the story but she leads the story for the viewer on her shoulders. She gives a measured and brilliant performance as Officer Nida Rahim whose sole job is to fight for the country but unknowingly she is deeply connected to her father and his teaching as well.
Apte and Manav Kaul lead a cast which has given solid performances in a difficult story.
(An avid movie and TV buff who learnt movie production at New York Film Academy and worked as talent manager at the The Gotham Group in Hollywood.)