A ‘horror’ film with a marked difference, Phobia juggles with familiar elements of the genre – fear, shock, surprise, mystery – with a steady sense of thematic purpose. Pavan Kirpalani’s third directorial venture (after Ragini MMS and Darr @ the Mall) is spine-chilling enough not to call too much attention to its inherent whimsicalities and the attendant slip-ups. Whatever flaws there are in the film – and there are many for sure – are offset by a riveting performance by Radhika Apte as a successful painter who has more than just the ravages of a psychological disorder to contend with.
A sexual assault survivor, the film’s female protagonist is an independent-spirited artist Mehek Deo who is trapped and terrorized by sounds and apparitions in a high-rise apartment. She is unable to leave this constricted, terror-inducing space because she is petrified of stepping out into the open. Even hauling the garbage bags across the landing to the bin at the end of the passage is a chore that reduces Mehek to a wreck. The dimly-lit interiors of the flat hold a slew of horrors – blood-curdling sounds emanate from its walls, lights crackle and flicker ominously, a severed finger shows up in the freezer, and a bloodied body crawls out of the bathtub, among other unspeakable things. With these basic narrative pieces in place, the director builds a nerve wracking drama that probes an agoraphobic woman’s fightback in the face of grave mental and emotional stress. Phobia is a taut and evocatively filmed psychological thriller about a woman whose mind plays terrible tricks on her, but it is equally about the hostile, predatory world that she is a part of and feels threatened by. So her battle with the demons within mirror her fight with the ones that haunt her outside.
Mehek believes that the house she lives in is the site where the previous occupant, another woman, was murdered and she suspects the mysterious giggly, wide-eyed architect next door, Mannu (Ankur Vikal) of perpetrating that heinous crime. Late in the second half, the protagonist, her baffled boyfriend Shaan (Satyadeep Mishra) and a chirpy young neighbour Nikki (Yashashvini Dayama) get together to perform a séance in order to summon the spirit that they think is hovering over the house. Kirpalani does well not to turn Phobia to a maze of pseudo-religious mumbo-jumbo, preferring instead to keep the drama boiling within the realms of pop psychology. One might dismiss some of the plot premises as too conveniently simplistic, but the context that Phobia creates for the heroine’s unstable state of mind ties in perfectly with her fierce distrust of men as a tribe. There is a reference in the plot – it comes from Mehek’s elder sister Anusha (Nivedita Bhattacharya) – to a fall that she suffered as a child from the first floor of a building.
That leads to a question: is that blow to the head acting up now and pushing her into a dark abyss that neither she nor her shrink can fathom? But that aspect of the tale is quickly swept into the background as a more traumatic experience during a taxi ride rattles Mehek. It leaves a scar on her soul that refuses to go away. There are parts of the film that are left unexplained. Among them is the pivotal bit about the heroine’s psychic powers that enable her to see what lies ahead in the immediate ‘future’. The climax of Phobia, which unfolds in the course of a long Diwali night, hinges on this ability of the protagonist and it might have helped the film’s cause had there been a more logical basis for it. Be that as it may, Phobia is a genuinely scary film. This despite the fact that it is neither about malevolent ghosts out for vengeance nor about the destructive undead on a rampage. Phobia opens with an art exhibition where Mehek Deo’s paintings are on display.
The film ends with a freeze frame of a particular painting that is revealed to the audience at the very outset. This artwork serves as the opening and closing brackets within which the protagonist’s harrowing tale is condensed – it provides the film’s thematic bedrock and raises it way above the level of an average scarefest. Phobia wouldn’t be half the film it is without the mercurial Radhika Apte. Watching her on the screen as emotions flash across her visage is an unalloyed delight. For the most part, the film is hers alone, and the camera revels in capturing the character’s innermost feelings on her malleable face and expressive eyes. It is like being witness to a solo pantomime act in which a world of sensations is conveyed without a word being uttered. Phobia is a canny flick that places known genre conventions in fresh light, the kind that bestows new life on them. Watch this film for the many surprises it springs and, of course, for Radhika Apte in full flow.
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