Pawan Kripalani’s Phobia may tease you with cliches of the genre. There is an eerie silence that is built up to a shocker of a moment. The background score sometimes lends a helping hand to Kripalani. An apartment that boasts of a mysterious ex-occupant. There are mirrors, perfect and fractured, projecting the broken soul of the protagonist. A half-sincere, half-cynical cry for communion with the dead. There are figures crawling on the floor, under the beds and creepy neighbors, but slowly and surely Phobia reveals itself to be more than these cliches. Every time your head goes, “oh that is it”, Kripalani comes up with something more to knock you down.
The film begins with a Kafka quote – “I am a cage, in search of a bird“. When we first see Mehak (Radhika Apte), she is describing her recent discovery about her past life – where she was a dog. Or more accurately, a bitch. Nothing in Phobia exists without a reason and is a testimony to how intelligently made it is. Mehak, after being sexually assaulted, begins to suffer from agoraphobia. As she suffers from a fear of open spaces and social interactions, we are made to feel claustrophobic with Kripalani situating all the action in the interiors of an apartment. And because agoraphobia is the theme here, Kripalani doesn’t feel forced to gravitate towards the bad habits of the genre. There are no dark, badly lit scenes in this psychological thriller masquerading as horror. Everything happens under the lights and it is all about the fear within, how danger lurks closer than we think. The film actually ends during the festival of lights. The very point of Phobia is the fear of the big bad outside world. That is why even though it is not as inventive or as zeitgeist propagating, it reminds you a lot of Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night. Like that Persian film, Phobia wears its feminist hat with some style and vigour though aesthetically they are very different films. The allegory of rape, sexual harassment and violence against women runs through Phobia just as powerfully as blood gushes out during one moment in the film. Outside of her experience, the only man in her life we meet is Shaan (Satyadeep Mishra) whom we never really understand and Mehak seems to have the same problem. In the beginning of the film, he invites her to his apartment which she declines. Later he helps her move to a new apartment and that very evening brings dinner with a side of condoms! He is not always the nice guy and lets his guard down at times. When she has her panic attacks, he calls her retard or psycho. Remember the dog story? He repeatedly blames her and never takes her word on anything she has to say. Hits home? And it is not just a male problem. The very reason Mehak has to move is her sister who begins to blame Mehak for all the issues, even the familial ones. The doctor doesn’t believe her either. The only person who understands Mehak is Nikki (Yashaswini Dayama), the young ebullient neighbor kid who believes Mehak’s every word and proudly announces to Shaan that she is studying political science.
There can be words written, speeches delivered, experiences shared but if you are looking for someone to bring out the invisible, ever present fear a woman feels in the unsafe open spaces of this country (or anywhere), Apte has come up with what is referred to as the lived-in performance. As Mehak, she is a woman with infinite fear and most excellent talent for passing them on to you. Only this fear may be more real than one might think. Mishra is ace too, playing the man Shaan really isn’t and doesn’t want to be but caught in this position because of Mehak’s condition. His character is the window to Kripalani’s subtext forever hiding under the bed and Mishra manages to bring that out without force.
Kripalani also has some fun with us as he keeps suggesting an easy denouement and then when we aren’t looking, we see something unexpected. It makes you go “of course!” when you see it but that is still some clever plotting. Phobia goes for a strong ending as Mehak begins a journey towards being unbent and unbroken, even as the larger point stands about all the fear and harassment in suburbia.
(An edited version of this was published in The New Indian Express)