More Hype than Anything
By MovieTalkies.com, 22 August 2008
After all the hype and hoola that director Ram Gopal Varma created about his latest film, Phoonk, a film about black magic, one at least expected to be scared. The best that Ramu manages to do in the film is to startle his viewers. There is nothing remotely scary about the movie, and like most Hindi films belonging to this genre, all that happens is a lot of noises, stealthy camera movements and people screaming and looking scared. So it's best not to treat this as a horror film. As a film about a man who is an avowed atheist, but is finally forced to acknowledge the presence of the dark, unexplainable other, it still makes sense.
But being the accomplished filmmaker that Ramu is, he gets his basics right. The premise is set very well indeed. The characters are established quickly and he very quickly moves in to establish the abnormal happenings in a seemingly normal household. The trappings are all in place, but that's all there is to the film. When we get to the actual stuff, it is a paper thin story, done to death by millions of Hindi filmmakers in B grade horror films. The only difference is that the Ramu's productions values are great; he commands a very competent cast, and he controls the film's tone, never allowing it to become hysterical. The build up is great.
The film opens on a very normal household, Rajiv (Sudeep), who is (Amruta Khanvilkar) is a believer and so is his mother. He has two children who he loves to death, specially his daughter Raksha. Into this normal household, enter Anshuman and Madhu (Ashwini Kalsekar). They are the contractors for his latest project. Despite his friend's warning about their being something weird about them, Rajiv persist with them as he believes that they are good at their job. Things start going wrong once Rajiv terminates the services of the couple as he discovers that they have been cheating him. He literally has them thrown out of his premises. Madhu promises revenge. Soon, things start going wrong at the construction site. The newly appointed supervisor dies in a freak accident at the site; his daughter disappears one day and is discovered in a park. She does not know how she got there. The workers' insist on building a temple at the site, which he desists. Then two bones, some lemons and red vermillion powder is found in his compound. Matters deteriorate further when his daughter starts acting as if she is possessed. Psychiatrists (KK Raina and Lillette Dubey) insist that she has a psychological disorder. But his mother and wife insist that she is possessed. But the attacks seem to only worsen and Rajiv is forced to believe that this is something more than just a mere psychological disorder. He quickly agrees to his friend's offer of finding an ojha or someone to exorcise the ghost. The man does his bit, and there is a confrontation scene with the Madhu and her partner, who have been in indulging in this black magic and voodoo to take their revenge on him. But the good finally wins over evil and all is well.
As we said before, Ramu excels in little details, like the scared maid always praying to Lord Hanuman before sleeping at night, the mother constantly writing the name of Lord Ram in her book, the suspicious looking servant and the almost spooky looking animal decorations in the house like the giraffe and the monkey. Then of course, there is the mandatory black crow and the black cat. The camera seems to focus a lot on the stuffed black doll that hangs above the girl's bed. All these details, along with the spooky dream that Rajiv has or the one that the maid has, help on creating the atmosphere. But when we come to the actual scene of the little girl being possessed, there is hardly anything scary about that. Zakir Hussain as Manja, the exorcist turns in a fine cameo. The confrontation scene is straight out of some tantrik tale as Rajiv and Manja interrupt a black magic ritual that Madhu is performing. It ends with her sticking pins into a doll. This is when the ojha does his bit with a small iron spike. It helps him to detect evil. But before he can vanquish the evil Madhu, she has everyone flung around with her black magic.
The film has a taunt screenplay and some very well crafted shots, designed to startle one. The soundtrack, like in Bhoot, plays a major role in the film, only in this one, it seems to get a little more enthusiastic. Comparing this film to Bhoot, one feels that the earlier movie was a lot more eerie. But again, like in the former film, the horror element has more to do with the atmospherics and the buildup. Varma excels in that department in this film as well. But the story has no novelty to it. We have seen it before in the film Raat from Varma himself. In fact, that film was a lot more effective than his later Bhoot and the present one.
The actors turn in a very good performance. The couple played by Amruta and Sudeep enact their parts very well. The child actor in the role of Raksha does a very good job. The others, like KK Raina and Lillette are adequate too. Zakir Hussain as the ojha is very effective. One almost didn't recognize him in the beginning, in his getup. Ashwini Kalsekar, with her large kohl lined eyes and designer black bindis is effective as well as the evil Madhu. She has a strong screen persona which makes her a good choice for the role. She plays it well, but one felt that the evil strak didn't quite come out very well. She was more loud than evil.
The film makes for interesting viewing. But from Ram Gopal Varma one expected a little bit more. If all he wanted to say was scratch the surface and even a so called rational Indian will believe in black magic, then yes, he manages to make the point, but only to an extend. The build up is not good enough for that point, as Rajiv seems more reactive. The character does not come across as a true blue rationalist. On either counts, Varma's intentions fail. What he does excel is in the atmospherics. So full marks to him on that count.