Bhoot

An old-fashioned scarefest set in a haunted, high-rise apartment, "Bhoot" (literally, "Ghost") piles on the shocks in effective style until jumping the rails at the end with an over-hasty resolution. Beyond traditional Indian markets, fantasy fests and latenight programmers should investigate.

With:
With: Ajay Devgan, Urmila Matondkar, Nana Patekar, Rekha, Fardeen Khan, Victor Banerjee, Tanuja, Seema Biswas, Sabeer Masani. (Hindi dialogue)

An old-fashioned scarefest set in a haunted, high-rise apartment, “Bhoot” (literally, “Ghost”) piles on the shocks in effective style until jumping the rails at the end with an over-hasty resolution. Despite its absence of songs, abbreviated running time by Bollywood standards and lack of comedy and romance, the $1.4 million movie has bucked predictions of B.O. failure and done surprising biz since opening May 30. Beyond traditional Indian markets, fantasy fests and latenight programmers should investigate.

Varma, who has a rep as an innovator within commercial Hindi cinema, has been trying for some years to break the mold of having to include musical numbers. He almost succeeded with his powerful gangland drama “Company” (2002), which dispensed with songs in its second half, and here he finally has his way. Last notable pic to do without ditties was B.R. Chopra’s murder mystery, “Ittefaq,” in 1969.

Though it contains its fair share of Hollywood refs, including “The Exorcist,” film is different from the recent spate of Bollyhorrors in that it plays as a sustained mood piece, with almost zero conventional plotting. Varma has since admitted the movie is basically a remake — with characters shifted around — of his 1991 horror movie, “Raat,” (Night) made in both Telugu and Hindi versions, but the technique on display in “Bhoot” is of a much higher order.

Despite being told that the previous tenant jumped to her death, stock analyst Vishal (Ajay Devgan, the psycho in “Company”) takes a 12th-floor apartment in a Mumbai city-center block. Soon, his wife, Swati (Urmila Matondkar), starts to feel she’s not alone, with the ghostly figure of a young boy appearing in doorways and mirrors.

With its repeated shots of the building, elevator shaft and weird watchman (Sabeer Masani), film recalls any number of Hong Kong and South Korean urban horror tales, though its stress on atmosphere pure and simple, without any comic inserts, is fresh for Bollywood. Much of the first half has little or no dialogue, as Swati goes about everyday chores and the soundtrack and visuals keep up a steady diet of shocks and false climaxes.

A doctor says Swati is just suffering from somnambulism. But when one night she screws the watchman’s head from front to back, Vishal isn’t so sure.

Post-intermission, laconic police inspector Liaqat Quereshi (Nana Patekar) investigates the watchman’s death. Meanwhile, Vishal also starts having visions and consults a shrink, Dr. Rajan (Victor Banerjee). On the suggestion of his spacey maid (Seema Biswas), Vishal calls in a spiritualist (kohl-eyed Rekha) and the now gurgling Swati is tied to the bed as the truth (and the villain) is uncovered.

Given the long build-up, the solution is a tad rapid, and the finale, set in an underground garage, rather extravagant. By focusing so much on shock effects and not enough on character development in the first half, film doesn’t pack as much punch as it should later on, with Rekha’s spooky role particularly sketchy. Most of the acting honors are taken by Matondkar, who’s admirably restrained as the possessed Swati, and Patekar, dryly stone-faced as the cop.

Soundtrack effects by Dwarak Warrier are especially detailed, and Salim-Sulaiman’s “Omen”-like music is also a valuable assist. Limited visual effects are fine.

Bhoot

India

Production: A Dream Merchants Enterprise production. Produced by Nitin Manmohan. Directed by Ramgopal Varma. Screenplay, Sameer Sharma, Lalit Marathe.

Crew: Camera (color, widescreen), Vishal Sinha; editor, Shimit Amin; music, Salim-Sulaiman; art director, Priya Raghunath; costume designers, Mahesh Malhotra, Arjun Khana, Shahid Amir, Raghuveer Shetty; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS Digital), Vinod Subramaniam; sound designer, Dwarak Warrier; action director, Allan Amin; visual effects, Huzefa; assistant director, Jijy Philip. Reviewed at Cineworld Feltham 14, London, June 12, 2003. Running time: 115 MIN. (I: 54 MIN.; II: 61 MIN.)

With: With: Ajay Devgan, Urmila Matondkar, Nana Patekar, Rekha, Fardeen Khan, Victor Banerjee, Tanuja, Seema Biswas, Sabeer Masani. (Hindi dialogue)

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