It was a ‘first day, first show’ morning in my neighbourhood theatre. At 10.30am, there were exactly six of us at the counter buying tickets for Ram Gopal Varma’s Agyaat. There were two college-going guys who looked so bored they could have been straight out of their book-keeping and accounting class. There was a couple who stuck to each other, and who was accompanied by a friend who also looked bored because the couple were so into each other that they had nothing to say to her. That girl and I exchanged a few sympathetic glances; after all, she and I were going to watch a horror movie alone.
The anticipation was exciting. I went with some hope, because for all the brickbats that this film-maker received in the last few years—trash movies one after the other—I believed the maverick edge in him would resurface and blow my mind again like Satya, his masterpiece, did. I had also liked one of his earlier horror films, Kaun.
The show began. I sat alone in a row. Within the first two minutes, a tasteless ‘item song’, choregraphed atrociously, burst into the screen. Priyanka Kothari, who RGV says is his new muse, did pelvic thrusts and tried to look seductively at the camera. It was rip-roaringly funny. As the intended horror was unleashed, the laughable moments doubled, and then tripled. I could hear a rapture of giggles from the girl with the couple during a scene that was meant to be particularly scary; she was obviously no longer bored. The couple, of course, were no longer in each other’s arms.
So you get the picture; it is a horror film gone completely wrong. Agyaat is only one notch above RGV’s worst so far, Ram Gopal Varma ki Aag.
The story goes: A film crew arrives in a thick, lush forest for a shoot. They are stranded for three days because the camera stops working and another one can’t reach the location for two more days. The crew’s jungle guide proposes they spend the two nights camping in the jungle. On the very first night, they have a tryst with an unseen presence through a shrill noise. Thereafter, there is one death sequence after another and many running, hiding, crawly-creepy sequences in between.
Who will survive? Who is the killer? There are no convincing answers.
Varma is dealing with two of his pet themes here—the supernatural and the film industry—and yet Agyaat is so laden with caricatures and gimmicks that you could mistake this attempt to be the director’s first in the genre. The film crew consists, strangely of only eight people: The producer, Mr Murthy (Ishrat Ali), is a bumbling idiot who reacts to every crisis with a hoarse “aiyo aiyo”; the director, JJ (Howard Rosemeyer), is a bald, Rituparno Ghosh lookalike who composes a frame in his mind everywhere he goes and who is a puppet of the star; the star, Sharman Kapoor (Gautam Rode), is a rude hulk full of tantrums who mistreats his assistant with blows and slaps; Asha (Priyanka Kothari), the actress, has not much to do except show skin and simper (she does a form of workout in the thick of the jungle which requires her to thrust her pelvis and hands; the camera stays in her pelvis and navel); Laxman (Ishteyaq Khan), the star’s assistant is a village bumpkin, a bhaiyya, who holds on to his ‘mata ki locket’ to stay safe; the cinematographer Shakky (Kali Prasad Mukherjee), the artsy guy, who smokes and philosophizes every death that takes place; the first assistant director, Sujal (Nitin Reddy), who is sane, sensitive and in love with Asha; the second assistant director, Sameera (Rasika Duggal), who is a sweet bespectacled middle class girl in love with Sujal; and the forest guide, Rakka (Joy Fernandes), who can somehow speak good Hindi but never blinks his eye.
There is no acting on display in the film, so I won’t go into that at all. The technical crew is made to show off. The camera moves—and tilts, jerks, circles—far more than the castaways themselves. In horror films the camera couldn’t perhaps be steady although it has been done, and done with very beautiful effect by Stanley Kubrick in The Shining. The music, the background score and sound effects are shrill and loud.
The idea that drives Agyaat, which is ‘fear of the unknown’ has great potential for any writer of fiction. It works especially well in psychological thrillers. It has been a classic theme. In Predator, director John McTiernan used it, and recently it was used in The Blairwitch Project. In RGV’s hands, it becomes just a tool to move the plot forward. The ‘unknown’ or agyaat that is killing this film crew is a breeze with a coo that ruffles trees and chases humans through dead leaves. The characters are neither imaginative nor deep to imagine it and interpret it. Their reactions to the horror around them are trite: lines such as “Yoh hamein ek ke baad ek mar raha hai” abound. With the dense, beautiful forests as its backdrop, Agyaat could at least have been an enjoyable Predator-meets-Shyamalan films mishmash. The underlying messages—that the fear of what can’t be seen or heard is far more dangerous than that you can see and hear; that nature in its purest form can’t be messed with—are lost in the pointless noise.
The hero of the film is really the forest. The Sinharaja forests of Sri Lanka are overpoweringly primitive, mysterious and gorgeous. There is no way a bunch of stupid people can brave it.
When the six of us walked down the stairs of the theatre, I saw quizzical expressions on the faces of the six who survived the torture. They seemed to ask the same old question: What has happened to Ram Gopal Varma?
(P.S: The end cerdits said: “Coming Soon, Agyaat 2”)
Agyaat released in theatres on Friday.