Director Pawan Kriplani continues with the horror-thriller genre with his third film, Phobia, that stars Radhika Apte in her first leading role in Bollywood. As they say, lower your expectations to the point where they would be met. The film and Apte's performance surpasses anything you might have imagined.
Imagined and real. The two come together in a potent, disturbing mix. The film isn't about screechy white ghouls or masked ugly horrors. Phobia is a psychological thriller that proves to be equally, if not more, terrifying. It's the story of young, carefree, strong-willed artist, Mehak Deo and the demons she must battle when an unfortunate sexual molestation scars her psyche. Returning home from her exhibition opening night, Deo falls asleep in the cab, which immediately reminds you of the infamous incident in Delhi two years ago when a similar mishap befell a young girl who dozed off in the taxi while returning home and was allegedly raped.
Following this incident, Deo finds herself struggling with a condition known as agoraphobia in which the person avoids situations and places that could trigger a panic attack. Shaan (Mishra), Deo's close friend tells her several famous artists suffered from it, too. In Deo's case, she finds herself resisting virtual reality therapy, even being unable to step outside the house. Close relationships such as the one with her sister played by Bhattacharya comes under strain while a new friendship is forged with a young neighbour during her healing process. The good part is that Deo recognises and wants to get better. On Shaan's advice, Deo finds herself in a new rented apartment, with the idea being that the change would help her get better. Slowly as she peels off the layers of the home's previous occupant, poring over diaries, paintings, clothes, photographs of a young girl like her, Deo's fears spiral into something bigger than herself.
More than half of the film is spent living out Apte's phobia with her, as the film takes you on a ride inside her mind, exploring a space that any one of us could find ourselves in.
Without giving too much away, the points to ruminate over as we negotiate a world of changing gender roles, is that if even the urban, empowered, strong women are at risk of being preyed upon, by men, both strangers and friends, what could be happening to those lesser privileged and facing abuse of greater intensity? The film also subtly calls upon men to introspect their nature, while highlighting the power of human or rather a woman's fortitude and intuition. It points to hope, as the young artist turns her pain into prose, and her angst into art.
It's a story of not just about the monsters you meet in the outside world, but the ones you let into your private, vulnerable space.
Life is about facing your fears. For this reviewer, it meant venturing into a shunned genre of films. But the ride of a little over 90 minutes proved to be immensely rewarding. Take a bow, Kriplani and Apte, I came out feeling braver after watching your horror film.
Director: Pawan Kriplani
Cast: Radhika Apte, Satyadeep Mishra, Nivedita Bhattacharya, Yashaswani Dhyama