Radhika Apte takes on a challenging and exhausting part in a film that centres entirely on her character.
Traumatized by a late night experience in a taxi, artist Mahek (Apte) develops a severe case of agoraphobia (a fear of certain spaces and situations). She is unable to leave her house, not even to step out as far as the landing to throw out the garbage. Her closest – and seemingly only – friend Shaan (Satyadeep Mishra) then takes Mahek to stay in a new apartment (he gets her there by dubious means) that he feels will help her overcome this fear.
Director Pavan Kripalani uses this space with great effectiveness to show us Mahek’s growing troubles as the walls begin to close in around her (metaphorically of course). The subsequent plot goes something like this: a young woman named Jiah, whose whereabouts are currently unknown, once inhabited the apartment. Mahek finds Jiah’s diary and begins to imagine all kinds of things, including getting obsessive with Jiah’s life and fate. Mahek’s paranoia is deep-rooted and she soon begins to believe the apartment is haunted.
Kripalani touches on many of the obvious scare tactics – the presence of a bathtub in a green-tiled bathroom is a set for something sinister lurking within, shadows in the dark, cats lurking in dark corners, an unhinged neighbour called Manu (Ankur Vikal), an odd music box and the peephole with its fisheye perspective on the outside world. Even Shaan behaves perfectly suspiciously.
Mahek finds an unlikely ally in her quirky young neighour Nikki (Yashaswini Dayama) who buys into the conspiracy theories. Together they begin investigating Jiah, the neighbour Manu and even attempt a séance to reach Jiah’s spirit.
All this time, Shaan remains Mahek’s solitary voice of reason. Even her sister, with whom she previously shared an apartment, has abandoned her by now. But Mahek is cautious of Shaan’s intensions knowing full well that he harbours romantic feelings for her and all her paranoia and mistrust is channeled towards him.
This leads to one major misstep in the film – a sudden speech on a woman’s right to choice, labels and violence against women etc.
Phobia works not least because of the production design, editing, background music and direction, which are all on form. While there are the usual loud bangs to make you jump, and creepy shadowy figures, growling drains and so on, there is also balance of humour as Mahek’s behaviour sometimes verges on the comical.
Kripalani had shown his handle of the genre with the very scary Ragini MMS. What his Darr @ The Mall didn’t quite pull off, he incorporates in Phobia, as Mahek’s therapist tries to engage her with the outside world using virtual reality gizmos. The mall freaks her out!
With Phobia he cements his skill with suspense and mood and it helps, hugely, that he’s got Apte with her uninhibited performance sucking us into her claustrophobic world.
Mishra, Vikal and Dayama are well cast and perform well as the players around Apte. What a spirited performance by this actress. Phobia is a strangely satisfying psychological thriller with one of the best performances of the year so far.