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Dibakar Banerjee gets down to the business of scaring viewers

Team ‘Ghost Stories’ on their horror film that’s now streaming on Netflix

Priyanka Roy Published 01.01.20, 03:33 PM
A moment from Dibakar Banerjee’s segment in ‘Ghost Stories’, now streaming on Netflix

A moment from Dibakar Banerjee’s segment in ‘Ghost Stories’, now streaming on Netflix Source: The film

Ghost Stories, now streaming on Netflix, has directors Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee, Karan Johar and Zoya Akhtar coming together once again after Bombay Talkies (2013) and Lust Stories (2018) for this four-in-one film that explores the supernatural. The Telegraph recently sat down in Mumbai with Dibakar Banerjee — and actors Gulshan Devaiah and Sukant Goel — to chat about their film that’s embedded in the world of zombies.

Dibakar, why horror? More importantly, what took you so long to experiment with this genre?


Dibakar Banerjee: It’s all Karan’s (Johar) fault! (Laughs) When we were doing Bombay Talkies, we kept thinking about what the next one would be and then Karan came up with the idea of love and lust and that became Lust Stories. And when we were doing Lust Stories, it was Karan who started saying, ‘Let’s do horror’. Of course, he later tried to back out of it because he was too scared to make a film that would scare him! (Laughs)

Gulshan and Sukant, horror’s a first for the two of you too…

Gulshan Devaiah: Yes, and I don’t think I can do it ever again. I won’t have the courage to do this again…

Dibakar: Kya baat kar rahe ho, yaar?

Gulshan: Aap banayenge toh shayad sochna padega! (Laughs) I got a call and Dibakar met me in his office and narrated what is essentially a half-hour story over two hours! (Everyone laughs) It was fantastic, though. It was a great opportunity and I wouldn’t let it pass, simply because I think he’s the greatest filmmaker in this country in the current times.

Dibakar: ‘In the current times’ meaning today?

Gulshan: Yes, today. I don’t know about tomorrow! (Everyone laughs)

I had been sitting at home and fantasising about working with him, and it came true. I wish it was a feature film (smiles), but we have made a good start. The script is insanely good… I wouldn’t change a thing that he’s written. It’s so, so layered.

Sukant Goel: The fundamental reason I did this film was because Dibakar asked me to do it! (Laughs) At this point, I am doing anything that comes my way and if something as interesting as this comes without me having to bang my head against the wall, then it’s a given that I will take it. That it’s horror is only a bonus because I love watching horror. I’ve often thought about how one should approach a horror film… like, should one be serious in a horror film... do you actually explore your craft in a horror film or simply work within the conventional tropes of the genre like most horror films in this country are made. For instance, The Conjuring was a film that really went beyond conventional horror.

What, for you, makes a good horror film?

Dibakar: A true horror film really has to be about something else. The DNA of my segment in Ghost Stories is embedded in the zombie genre, or rather the kind of stories where creatures that are part of our imagination come to life. What drives a good horror film, at least in the type of story that I have attempted here, is the fear of extinction. We all know that we won’t be around after a few years, and that scares us. Also, as a group of people, we might not be around… and that could happen sooner rather than later. If that fear of group extinction is embedded in a story, no matter what the plot is, then that works. The best zombie films, right from the European and American zombie films from the ’60s and ’70s to now, have that core… where you are about to be wiped out.

The zombie genre also reaffirms the fact that there is life after death, and that’s what fascinates us. We all like thinking that after we die, what if we turn into all-powerful monsters? And that feeling of we becoming something else is also very, very attractive… almost like an aphrodisiac. These two themes go into making a zombie film very interesting. Our film is definitely about something else, deep down. What you eat also becomes a part of you. So, eating is also a deep part of our film.

What were the biggest challenges of getting into a genre you hadn’t attempted before?

Gulshan: I have to tell you that this is the toughest thing I have ever done in my life. But I am very proud of myself as well. I will let the audience decide what they think of my performance, but I am proud that I had the mental strength and the physical endurance to go through this. I don’t enjoy horror… I turn down horror films every other week. Having said that, I never approached Ghost Stories as a horror film. For me, it was more of a physical performance, and it pushed me in various ways. After a point of time, it was just Dibakar helping me through the performance because by then my brain had turned into jelly! (Laughs)

Dibakar: I had told him that the primary reason I wanted him on board was because what we really needed was a cool, slick, almost attractive monster and yet someone who is horribly monster-ish. Gulshan makes for a very attractive monster, almost sexy (everyone laughs). He had physically transformed and was weighed down by prosthetics. We were discussing what kind of a walk he should have… should it be a Hrithik (Roshan) walk or should it be a gunslinger’s walk, like Clint Eastwood. I wanted him to be Clint Eastwood, but he picked Hrithik Roshan (laughs). So here we had a sexy and cool monster whose brain you could almost see clicking and ticking. Uska dimaag hamesha chal raha hai and that’s why I wanted Gulshan. He only had his eyes to emote with.

Sukant: I was constantly left wandering how truthfully can you express fear. I don’t remember the last time I was scared by anything dark or supernatural. I used to be very scared before... I have now left that fear far behind. The only thing that scares me now is dogs barking! (Everyone laughs) So just to keep that element of fear alive within me before I went on set, I would walk on the road below my house at night where dogs would bark at me! That’s something I tried to do, so that on set a wee bit of that fear would get recreated. Also, as I mentioned, I kept thinking how meaningfully could one make a horror film without thinking of it as just something that was needed to scare people.

Gulshan: Honestly, while making it, all of us forgot it was a horror film.

Do you think horror films in Bollywood rely too much on external tropes like loud background music and jump scares and not on the story itself?

Gulshan: That’s also a kind of horror film that has its takers. There are people who innovate and there are others who blindly copy it and it becomes a genre, for better or for worse. Our film is scary, but it comes with meaning and is open to various interpretations, if people are open enough to pick them up. Jump scares can be incredibly fun, I believe.

What’s been a seminal horror piece of work for you?

Sukant: The Shining and The Conjuring. I haven’t watched a lot of Korean cinema… I hear it’s very scary and I plan to binge watch soon.

Dibakar: It will have to be The Blair Witch Project (1999).

Gulshan: I haven’t been able to finish it! It scares me like hell!

Dibakar: It’s so scary and yet there’s not one gory shot. True horror is all inside the brain and that film captures it beautifully.

Gulshan: I get scared shitless by The Evil Dead (1981) also!

Dibakar: I find a lot of humour in The Evil Dead….

Gulshan: I can see that now! But not when I was 10-12 years old. But I am sure that even if I watch it now, I will go back to when I was a kid and be scared shitless again! (Everyone laughs)

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