Phobia is a horror-thriller film that doesn’t just want to scare the audience but also outsmart them. Just when think they have solved the mystery, director and co-writer Pavan Kripalani knocks them off from their seats. That many didn’t foresee the twist, which draws both surprise and laughs, is telling of how unpredictable and cleverly crafted Phobia is. Making a comeback after Ragini MMS, which had one of the scariest first halves and a memorable dialogue in “Mi Chetkin Nahi”, Kripalani establishes himself as the beacon of contemporary Indian horror genre, the last one being Ram Gopal Varma, whose Raat, Bhoot and Phoonk can still induce nightmares. (Incidentally Varma gave Phobia’s lead Radhika Apte her first break with Rakht Charitra and has a film out this week in Veerappan.) Much like Bhoot, Kripalani also has a female protagonist confined to an apartment and convinced she isn’t its only occupant.Mehak Deo (a terrific Radhika Apte), a promising artist, has not been herself after she survived a sexual assault. The violent incident has scarred her emotionally and mentally to such an extent that she suffers from agoraphobia, the extreme fear of public or open places. In Mehak’s case, just stepping out of the apartment to dump the garbage or open the door to let in her nephew is impossible. It has been four months and her friend, Shaan (Satyadeep Mishra), who also fancies her, takes matters into his own hands. He brings her to a well-furnished apartment, once occupied by a flight attendant named Jiah whose whereabouts are not known, in the hopes that forced to be alone and independent, Mehak will gradually be able to conquer her fear. Is isolating a mentally fragile woman a wise move for her well-being? Kripalani and Arun Sukumar don’t want to address that instead to move the narrative forward, often with not much action, and spook the audience.An idle mind is a devil’s workshop. Once the said mind is lonely, it’s further doom. Kripalani relishes playing with horror genre’s familiar tropes to in turn play with the uneasy audience – lots of mirrors, untraceable sounds, a black cat with yellow eyes, a derelict room with but of course a flickering light bulb and flashes of figures running by. Kripalani adds a strange neighbour (Ankur Vilal) with a proclivity to laugh to the mix. There are also scenes which are a nod to J-horror films such as Dark Water and Ringu.
What Phobia does well is to subvert the genre. Mehak is convinced the ghost of Jiah haunts the apartment and that it is her responsibility to nail the killer. It’s here the film provides comic relief. Only her enthusiastic neighbour Nikki (Yashaswini Dayama) believes her. Shaan, who has so far failed both in his quest to help Mehak and get lucky with her, installs CCTV cameras to shatter Mehak’s theory.What makes Phobia compelling is how relevant it is to contemporary times. It looks at a survivor’s struggle to move on from a traumatic night, one which will remind audiences of a real case in Delhi. Cutting herself off from the world, Mahek still doesn’t feel safe. Kripalani raises the significant topic of a woman’s consent, and her fear of protecting herself from sexual attack. In Radhika Apte, the makers couldn’t have asked for a better actress to take on the responsibility of ensuring that the audiences are hooked to Mahek’s journey and fate. There are wordless scenes in which Apte demonstrates a range of expressions – her extensive background in dance comes in handy here – to suggest the dread of the unknown. Almost without make-up, Apte surrenders herself to play the part of a woman inching closer to a colossal meltdown. Her heavy breathing, her big, wide and alert eyes, her tentative, trembling walk, all contribute in making Phobia a fright fest. Karan Gour’s background score does a commendable job of heightening the tension. The makers tie the loose ends together albeit with a few contrived events and a few question lurking. Nonetheless with Phobia Kripalani succeeds in his mission to keep the audiences engaged and also constantly thinking.