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Gaslight Teases Taut Horror, Turns In Cheap Thrills

This is #CriticalMargin, where Ishita Sengupta gets contemplative over new Hindi films and shows. Here: Gaslight.

Gaslight Teases Taut Horror, Turns In Cheap Thrills
Poster for Gaslight. Disney+ Hotstar

Last Updated: 02.16 PM, Apr 01, 2023


Pavan Kirpalani’s new film gaslights us into thinking it is smart. It’s not.


IN Gaslight, the new Pavan Kirpalani film streaming on Disney+ Hotstar, a girl sees odd things happening around her. She informs a group of people about it. They disbelieve her. She insists that it is not her imagination, and that she is certain it is true. They ask for proof. To this she replies that she might be the only witness but how is it not enough?

For a long time, I was convinced the filmmaker’s recent outing is a metaphorical take on how society is trained to disbelieve women by manipulation, a phenomenon so pervasive that it bears a word in the modern zeitgeist — gaslighting. I was convinced too that the genre of horror was an inspired choice, to literalise the granular dread that accompanies a woman’s existence. Even the presence of a wheelchair-bound protagonist at the heart of the narrative — reminiscent of Ashwin Saravanan’s 2019 psychological thriller, Game Over that played on familiar tropes — bears a reason: Her dependence on the machine is a stand-in for the perceived disadvantage of her gender. But Kirpalani, who has helmed the terrific Phobia (2016) and the unhinged Bhoot Police (2021) in the past, is not making that film — which is both a good and a bad thing.

In his venture, a young woman Meesha (Sara Ali Khan), estranged from her family, returns home after years only to find her father missing. Her effort to find him is thwarted by the strange sights she witnesses in the palace (she belongs to a royal family). The rest of the members include her step mother Rukmani (Chitrangada Singh), old helps, and Kapil (Vikrant Massey), a man her father had provided shelter to as a child. Going by the title it is clear that Meesha is being gaslighted, the central idea no different from the 1944 George Cukor thriller of the same name where a man deceives his wife by convincing her that the things she experiences are solely in her head. Who is doing that here, is the question.

Kirpalani amps up the atmospheric dread by deftly utilising the archaic geography of the setting. One jump scare follows another, calibrated by sound. He takes his time for world-building, throwing red herrings at us and compelling us to reckon with the inherent grammar of the horror genre: gaslighting its audience. I also liked how the director turns the conventional subtext of the word on its head to make commentary on class distinctions, prompting a riveting reading that the rich gaslight us into believing their acts of self-serving charity as selfless philanthropy.

The problem with Gaslight is precisely what plagues most thrillers. Affronted with the fear of being accessible, the filmmaker attempts to outsmart the audience. The result is a film riddled with far too many twists, each hurtling towards us at a breakneck rate. In the last 30 minutes, the film comes crashing down with disorienting speed. My grouse is not that the revelation is predictable but that Kirpalani, who shares the writing credits with Neha Sharma, offers nothing beyond that. Instead, he goes four steps backwards and introduces at least four plot inflections which, in retrospect, make the film lesser than what it had lent an impression of.

There are loose threads aplenty but he sidesteps them in lieu of a safe ending. For instance, I found the contradictions in the character of the absent father fascinating. Everyone not only remembers him differently but also, those variations have sexist undertones. It comes down to a young boy and a girl nursing distinct recollections of an adult man; the germ of an idea enfolds tremendous narrative potential. Kirpalani does not explore this.

Instead, he busies himself with outwitting us, which only hampers the film. Take for example the casting. On the surface it is as meta as it gets: Sara Ali Khan, an actor hailing from royal lineage, is the heir apparent here. She is posited against two outsiders, tellingly depicted by Massey and Singh. But the very convenience of this arrangement gives away the fact that it is only a smokescreen, undoing what I believe was Kirpalani’s intent.

It is never not rewarding to watch a film open before us in unseen ways. Conversely, it is frustrating to witness a film squander its potential and sacrifice the promise of its premise at the altar of cheap thrills. Kirpalani’s outing is the latter. But for what it’s worth Gaslight gaslights us into thinking it is smarter till it can’t anymore. If nothing, the film lives up to its title.

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