Phobia (Bollywood 2016): The Puzzle That Almost Fell Together

Romance + Cheesy Dialogues + Over The Top Action + Running Around Trees Or Large Flower Fields + Song And Dance = Bollywood… right?

Nope.

People who haven’t watched some of the latest Bollywood movies out there have no idea what they are missing out on. The Indian cinema has matured and how!

Phobia (2016) is a case in point. Starring the talented Radhika Apte in her first leading role in Bollywood, this movie has all the ingredients for a successful psychological thriller.

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The story revolves around Apte’s character Mehak, an artist who one night becomes the victim of an attempted sexual assault by a cab driver. The event shakes her up mentally resulting in agoraphobia, an anxiety disorder that leaves her unable to get out of the house and in public.

Despite attempting psychological treatment at her home, Mehak is hardly able to cope with her mental state. This leads to heated arguments with her sister. To defuse the situation and to allow Mehak the time to cope with her phobia, a close friend Shaan, played by Satyadeep Mishra, takes her to an empty apartment to stay with the intention that she might be able to get better if she is left alone in peace.

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The apartment, owned by Shaan’s friend, was previously rented to another girl, Jiah played by Amrit Bagchi, who had suddenly disappeared leaving behind all her belongings, including a diary. As Mehak begins living in the apartment, strange things begin to occur. Ghostly apparitions to visuals of an unknown presence begin appear. She begins to believe Jiah had been murdered in the apartment and was trying to reach out to her.

Unable to leave the apartment and too frightened to stay inside, Mehak finds herself in a situation so tight it makes you feel claustrophobic. The film keeps you on the edge of your seat constantly wondering if everything happening in the apartment is actually a spiritual entity or a hallucination of mentally traumatized character. At one point during the story, CCTV cameras are introduced in the apartment and I was hoping that this does not go the Paranormal Activity way. Fortunately, the cameras were just an add on to the story and not a major element.

Phobia puts you in an uncomfortably tight situation. You want to leave because you’re running out of air to breathe. But your curiousity just keeps you wanting to know more.

The movie is a great example of how good horror and psychological thrillers work. Show, don’t tell. You’re taken through scene by scene as events unfold and left to connect the dots yourself.

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All the actors have done a remarkable job in the characters they play. And at no point do you feel the characters are wasted. In fact, the movie does a wonderful job of portraying each character as realistically as possible. So, don’t expect them to suddenly break into a song and dance. Not going to happen. Which is also why the focus is so much on the story and presentation.

Apte, who plays Mehak, has acted brilliantly as a disheveled, traumatized woman who despite her situation remains strong and smart. Mishra plays Shaan, a character who is a close friend of Mehak and is trying to help her. But he also has an ulterior motive. He is smitten by her and has been trying to bed her again ever since a drunken one-night stand. At some point in the movie, you begin to question Shaan’s motive behind isolating Mehak, leaving him to be her only point of contact.

These factors make each character’s actions more believable.

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However, I won’t say there aren’t any issues in the movie. There are some and especially the ending.

The ending of the movie is where all pieces of the puzzle come together giving meaning to all that has happened so far, and this is also where I take the most issue with the story line. Although I’m not going to reveal the ending and spoil the fun, this is a potential spoiler warning as I explain my issue with the ending.

Possible Spoiler

As I mentioned earlier, this movie fabulously uses the one rule of all great storytelling. Show, don’t tell. However, the ending, which obviously is left to your intepretation, is limited to only one conclusion. At least as far as I can tell. And I didn’t like what I intepreted from it because it took away all the prior premises of the storyline and introduced a completely new element to explain everything.

This new element made it less realistic than it initially was. It’s like working on a jigsaw puzzle and you can tell it’s either going to be a chicken or a duck, but then when you put in the final piece, it turns into a cow. Unexpected? Yeah, sure it is. And it’s quite possible you might not find the ending an issue at all. This is just what I felt.

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In a story where you already have so many good elements going for you, introducing a new factor that is equally difficult to swallow at the end reduces somewhat the believability aspect.

Let me try to explain it a little more with an example. Imagine you’re watching a Superman movie. You’ve watched it all the way to the climax. You know everything you need to know. You know of Superman’s powers, his Kryptonite weakness, the main villain in the movie. And he’s even using Kryptonite to fight Superman. But then suddenly Superman presses some magical button and a robot comes flying in and punches the villain, helping Superman to win.

Sure, it would explain why Clark Kent had suddenly started working late nights behind closed doors in the movie. He was building a robot. But that’s against the nature of the character and a completly unexpected factor with little believability.

I’m not saying Superman is in Phobia or any of the characters get superpowers, I’m just saying that’s what the ending felt like. When a story has many unusual aspects, as in this case the agoraphobia, potential supernatural elements/hallucinations, plot twist possibilities, you don’t want to introduce another unusual element at the very end. Then the audience just feels cheated. You could work the ending with what you already have. What makes even the unbelievable elements believable in a story is that their possibility has been introduced well ahead to the audience to give them time to digest it.

It’s like reading a detective novel and you’re diligently tracking every clue to a logical explanation but then you find out the big reveal is based on a clue that was kept hidden from you or never mentioned anywhere.

Conclusion 

Phobia has everything you could ask for in a psychological thriller. The presentation of the story is really good and the actors have done just brilliant. Characters are well thought out and the acting is realistic. There isn’t any over the top drama or effort to explain the story, keeping the audience well engaged throughout.

I do have an issue with the final piece of the puzzle but that may just be me. Others may find the ending to their liking. Overall, this is a must-watch movie.

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