Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Shaapit (2010)

The young lovers Kaaya (Shweta Agarwal) and Aman (Aditya Narayan) are spontaneously eloping. Their ride back home is rudely interrupted by an accident caused by a ghost standing in the road.

Nobody is hurt, but when Kaaya's parents arrive at the hospital and see their daughter's engagement ring, they aren't happy at all. Their problem is not the secrecy of the elopement, though. It's just that they have until now avoided to inform their daughter  of…the family curse. About three-hundred years ago, the family's noble ancestors got into a bit of trouble. One of them, the brother of the Maharajah Rajnisingh, drove a woman soon to be married to someone else into suicide through his unwanted advances. The poor girl's father was a powerful magician, and so cursed the present and all coming generations of the Maharajah's family. Never shall one of their daughters marry and live. (In truth, the back story is more complicated than that and also includes an evil woman whose fault everything is, black-clad assassins and a musical number with fire-swallowers, but the characters will learn about it only much later.)

After having explained this, Kaaya's parents force the young lovers to part. Just living together instead of marrying seems to be an idea so alien to everyone concerned it's not even mentioned; I think it would have spared everyone a lot of trouble. After some intense sulking, Aman makes the solemn vow to find a way to break the curse, so that Kaaya and he can be together.

As luck will have it, Aman's best friend Shubh (Shubh Joshi) thinks he knows someone who can help - the parapsychologist Professor Pashupathi (Rahul Dev). While Pashupathi swallows Aman's bizarre story without blinking he is not willing to help the young man out, because he thinks that Aman's just having a fit of romantic self-aggrandizement he'll get over soon enough.

Aman is dead serious about the whole undying love business, though, and decides to prove his commitment to the Professor by stealing a haunted book from a library. Surprisingly enough, he manages this feat, if only by laying waste to the whole poor library (that barbarian). Obviously, nobody in this movie cares about things like the sanctity of libraries, so the Professor is now quite convinced of Aman's will and ability to see things through and agrees to help him. Pashupathi thinks that the only way to break the curse lying on Kaaya is to lay the ghost to rest who seems to be its focus and weapon. It's just like in a Supernatural episode, just with less classic rock and no shotguns loaded with rock salt. Remember when there were still ghosts in Supernatural? But I digress.

At first Aman, Shubh and the Professor are trying to keep Kaaya completely out of the loop of their investigations (for her own safety, etc, blah blah), but after Aman does something very stupid, they have to take her with them. Don't worry, potential reader afraid of women doing anything worthwhile in movies, Kaaya will soon enough land in a coma where she will spend the rest of the movie.

Anyway, their investigation leads the intrepid quartet (and later trio) first into a burnt-out cinema to get guidance from random ghosts and a tennis ball (a plan that is so stupid it works perfectly), then into an old prison, and then into the palace of Rajnisingh himself, until they will finally have enough information to know what to do about the ghost and the curse.

Genre movie specialist Vikram Bhatt's Shaapit (which seems to translate into "The Cursed") is a bit of a problematic one. It's a film front-loaded with flaws, but it's also a film that can be a whole lot of fun when watched with tolerance for these flaws and an appreciation for its sillier and more imaginative aspects.

First and foremost among Shaapit's flaws is its lead Aditya Narayan, who seems to come from a background as a playback singer rather than that of an actor. Now, the history of cinema is full of singers who turn out to be much better actors than anyone would have expected; unfortunately, it is just as full of singers who couldn't act their way out of their own toilet. Narayan certainly belongs to the latter class. He's pretty, in a fifteen year old (and yes, I know he's twenty-three) boygroup member sort of way, but he has neither the charisma nor the acting ability to be the character the audience has to spend most of its time with. In fact, he only has one facial expression, a rather puzzled look somewhere between "where am I?" and "what's my line?", and really nothing to recommend him as an actor.

One the plus side everyone with less screen time is perfectly serviceable.

Which is much more than one can say for the film's (mostly CGI) special effects. Those are perfectly dreadful, lacking physicality as well as any - in my book more important - sense for the design of frightening or at least threatening monsters. I suspect the ghosts wouldn't even be frightening enough for the next Scooby Doo live action movie.

There's also some terrible green screen work on display, but the film's combination of bad green screen and detailed-yet-fake sets is actually one of its good points. In contrast to the ghost(s), these things ooze charm and a sense of excitement; that they aren't "good" on a technical level seems beside the point, especially when talking about a commercial Hindi film.

So, what's good about Shaapit? Well, it really depends on what you are looking for in a film. As a horror film - that is a film out to scare, frighten, disturb or disquiet - Shaapit is a complete loss. As long as Bhatt pretends that his film is a horror film in that sense of the word - so for about its first forty minutes - it's not very good at all. The only "horror"s on display are the usual rote shocks on the level of a carnival's haunted house. If you're afraid of a film basically shouting "boo!" every few minutes, you'll be pretty afraid, though. Even the situations that should be traumatic for characters and audience don't feel that way. Bhatt also doesn't try to explore the pretty dreadful emotional situation Aman and Kaaya find themselves in any way you'd connect with "horror". Instead, he goes for a very Indian feeling version of melodrama, which would probably work just as well as the more "horror" way to go about it if there was only someone with a personality in the male lead.

Fortunately, Shaapit soon changes its track and transforms into something sitting between an actually supernatural Scooby Doo episode and an Indiana Jones knock-off, an investigative adventure movie with ghosts and Undying Love melodrama lurking in the background. And suddenly, many of the film's problem aren't all that bad anymore - the ghost that never was all that frightening now becomes more of a physical obstacle; there's room for a big flashback scene with a bit of swordfighting and the film's only musical number that has dancing (and is any good).

The film also allows itself to get silly, with a scene of time-travel based on the traditions of the Inga (no, I don't know either), which seem to be holding one's breath while submerged in a bath tub, a little séance - complete with digital headshaking, obviously, and a grand finale that is dominated by an extensive game of catch the urn. And while Bhatt doesn't manage much trying to be frightening, he turns out to be quite good at silliness and excitement, and while that's not what Shaapit initially promised, it's a lot of fun.


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