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 FEATURE # 3
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Fear is the key
(21/06/2008)

The ghost, in films and in real life, is an enigma for all of us. The very intrigue it raises in our mindset, making us vacillate between belief and disbelief, between the reality of science and the unsubstantiated illusion of fairy tales are made of, makes the ghost a very attractive proposition for the mainstream filmmaker. However, it needs a lot of talent, imagination and technical skill to create a very good 'ghost' film.
It calls for a rare skill that may elude even the best of filmmakers who try their hands at it and fail miserably. The Hollywood blockblaster Ghost with Demi Moore still remains a favourite with cine-goers; it has the right mix of a 'ghost', love story and intrigue woven around a well- conceived script.

In Hindi films the story goes back to Kamal Amrohi's Mahal (1949). It is categorised in the horror genre but is really an enchanting love story where the 'ghost' in the film, played with just the right dose of mystique by the beautiful Madhubala, was not a ghost at all but pretended to be one when she suddenly found the man in a painting she had fallen in love with appear in flesh and blood. This concept is married to the rebirth theory. Brilliant Black & White cinematography blended with one of the most captivating musical scores by Khem Chand Prakash makes Mahal a milestone in Hindi cinema, ghost or no ghost. Many years later, the theme of a woman pretending to be a ghost in a suspense thriller was encored in Hemant Kumar's blockbuster Bees Saal Baad (1962.)

The next best 'ghost' film is Bimal Roy's Madhumati (1958), the biggest money-spinner among ghost films in Indian cinema starring Vyjayantimala and Dilip Kumar as ill-starred lovers who unite only in their next birth. This is the only ghost film to have won Filmfare awards in several categories and was the biggest commercially successful film from the Bimal Roy stable. The film was set against the backdrop of mountains with an ancestral, dilapidated mansion providing the right ambiance.

In the beginning, ghost films manipulated a varied array of technical gizmos such as smoke machines, sudden fade-outs and superimpositions, female ghosts stereotypically attired in gossamer white saris with a signature song custom-designed to mark their presence in the film. Female characters monopolised the celluloid ghost for a long time. Thought %u2013to-be appropriate sound effects ranging from jingling anklets to creaking doors, banging window-panes, shattering of glass, an ancestral home with cobweb-covered walls, massive chandeliers, oil portraits of a decaying aristocracy, sudden gusts of wind, torrential rains, a thick forest mushrooming from nothing were the other mandatory devices called for in a ghost film.
Vivek Sharma's Bhootnath is no different. "I believe in angels, " he says in a graphic when the film opens, throwing up a completely different perspective of the ghost, Kailash Bhootnath, changing forever the ghost's attitude, as an 'outsider', towards earthy relationships like friendship within and without the framework of the family, and emotions like forgiveness, love, hate, anger and revenge. B & W scores over colour for ghost films because of the varied shades of gray that the cinematographer can play with between the extreme polarities of black and white.

The dividing line between the horror genre and the ghost genre, the suspense genre and the ghost genre, appear to be rather thin. In reality, this may not always be true. A suspense film often makes use of the 'ghost' to evoke fear and mystery but it is not a horror film. Films like Ram Gopal Varma's Bhoot (2003), Darna Mana Hai and Darna Zaroori Hai on the other hand, uses the ghostly storyline to generate feeling of horror and generously speckles the narrative with several ghosts. Amitabh Bachchan has enacted the ghost in several other films before Bhootnath. One of them was in a segment of Darna Zaroori Hai, another was in Hum Kaun Hai, a mangled plagiarisation of the Hollywood horror film The Others, and one more was in Rakeysh Om Mehra's Aks where the ghost of the killer who he was persistently trying to nab possesses him. All three films bombed at the box office.
Lata Mangeshkar's Lekin directed by Gulzar with a lilting musical score by Hridaynath Mangeshkar starring Dimple Kapadia and Vinod Mehra flopped despite being a lyrical love story seen from the perspective of the man who understands the pain of the ghost. Fashion designer Manish Malhotra's I See You (2006) lifted from the Hollywood film Just Like Heaven, is about a comatose girl whose spirit visits the hero and they promptly fall in love. The film could not motivate an ace cinematographer like Ashok Mehta to go beyond the London setting and its colourful cityscape to come to grips with the element of the surreal in the film.

A ghost taking 'possession' of a live person is old hat so far as Bollywood films go. Bhool Bhulaiyan is a classic example of the 'possession' bit through the character played by Vidya Balan is a commercial hit. But Gehrayee (1981) directed by Aruna-Vikas Desai, starring Padmini Kolhapure possessed by the spirit of a woman who died mysteriously, fell flat on its face though it was a well-made film.

The ghost whose spirit wanders across terrestrial territory in search of revenge for its wrongful death is rampant in Hindi films too. Ghazab (1982), based on a southern hit starring Kamal Hassan, threw up Dharmendra in a strange double role, one as a ghost and one has the ghost's live twin. Ram Gopal Varma's Bhoot, sort of plagiarised from What Lies Beneath, also dealt with a live woman possessed by the spirit of an avenging woman killed by her lover. Rajeev Mehra's Chamatkar is another film starring Naseeruddin Shah as the ghost who motivates the hero Shah Rukh Khan and his daughter Urmila, to avenge his murder, 20 years after his death. Ram Gopal Varma's Darling (2007) despite a showstopper with a gorgeous figure like Esha Deol playing an avenging ghost, fell on its face and few even remember the name of the film. RGV make matters worse with his attempt at comedy. But comedy has been used to beautiful effect as a means of wholesome family entertainment in Bhootnath though the exaggerated family melodrama towards the climax undercuts the beauty of the first half.
Shoma A. Chatterji
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