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Cinema || Phobia (Horror of the Times)

It would not be a tremendous exaggeration to state that psychological thrillers have lost their erstwhile charm. It is certainly, in part, due to a flooding of the genre with generic specimens and partly due to the insistence that the story be framed from the shrink’s chair, rather than the vantage point of the patient’s couch.

Delving into a diseased mind is no mean feat and even when one undertakes that journey despite the friendly warnings, one returns with a painting unfinished, strung together like theories that are destined never to meet, the parallel curse of possessing a brain that isn’t ready to stoop to mimic the diseased.

It is perhaps not possible to decrypt the sick mind without understanding the root of ‘Art’, the expressed and the suppressed forms of it. While the former is a healthy release that has the inexplicable power to penetrate and influence other humans, the latter is a harrowing codex that refuses to let out the location of the key – not until the player has given up every hope of ever returning to sanity.

At its worst, one might claim, suppressed ‘Art’ becomes a phobia. What is art if not spills that are not consumed – nor allowed to consume one, and instead crystallized in colours of creation for humanity to behold.

Even as an incident of molestation effortlessly becomes a major plot point of a film – a work of ‘Art’, it is nothing but a memory of sheer horror for the protagonist Mehak (Radhika Apte) that haunts her living hours – locking her up in the confines of her last bastion as she begins to perceive the rest of the world the same way a child perceives the dark attic of the house.

Mehak being an artist, what would previously materialise in her paintings would now go on to consume her reality – ‘expression’ is too far a cry when the antennae of ‘interpretation’ itself is sent askew.

One infection begets another – the diseased psyche of a potential rapist strips the innocence off a gifted individual. The nerve-racking reality of the trauma, in turn, takes away the power to enumerate oneself to the outsiders, who quietly lose sympathy and patience with the severity of Mahek’s post-traumatic stress who ‘wasn’t even raped’.

The reality of victim-blaming lands the diseased mind of Mahek, body included, in a prison of her own, where she goes on to concoct a horror story that turns out to be crackling fodder for cinema.

Radhika Apte, in the first Bollywood film she is helming, delivers the performance of a lifetime in one of the finest psychological thrillers attempted on screen. Her steadfast vulnerability, even during the most outlandish facets of the ‘spill’ gives life to the fears that she contends with on screen – the outof-body extension of a botched innocence.

Satyadeep Mishra and Yashaswini Dayama aid Apte in realizing the narrative, even as Ankur Vikal pitches in with a silky ‘villain act’. The seamless edit by Pooja Ladha Surti has every placeholder pitched to precision, complementing the antics of gifted storyteller Pavan Kirpalani, whose superlative brilliance is etched in every minute nuance of the narrative, scripted by the trio of Kirpalani, Surti and Arun Sukumar.

Pavan Kirpalani has made a topical film alright, that tries to give shape to the psyche of a woman who has been exposed to the evils of abuse. It is a film for the present, no doubt.

What makes ‘phobia’ timeless is its insistence of a skewed perspective, a circle that not only makes sense but spirals into the great unknown where time is merely a fiction that we generate to justify our ornate timepieces. []

Film: Phobia
Co-Writer/ Director: Pavan Kirpalani
Co-Writers: Pooja Ladha Surti, Arun Sukumar
Released on May 27, 2016

First Published in Issue #5 of CultureCult Magazine (Summer 2016)