With Ghost Stories, acclaimed filmmakers Anurag Kashyap, Zoya Akhtar, Karan Johar and Dibakar Banerjee return to Netflix hoping to scare the audience out of their wits with a collection of four short horror films. I met them with the directors and quizzed them about their own personal fears and the added pressure of having to scare the viewer in their new venture as part of Ghost Stories.
Q: Hi guys and welcome to The Quint. I’ll start off by asking you, this is the first time that any of you are doing a horror film, so what was the first thought that came to you when the proposal of making a film for Ghost Stories came your way. I’ll start with you Zoya.
Zoya: I was very excited because I haven’t done anything like this before. I am quite a fan of the classic ghost story and I just wanted to explore this so I was very very excited to do this.
Dibakar: I was grateful. I was grateful that I was getting the funding. I was like mauka mila hai bhaago leke, don’t discuss anymore, run.
Karan: Yeah, I suggested it ironically and then it was the biggest scare I got was to kind of actually execute it because it was not something that I had done before or have any interest in doing. It was something that I thought would put me in an uncomfortable position as a filmmaker which is always a good position to be in sometimes and I took it as I wouldn’t say challenge, I took it as an opportunity to venture into another terrain altogether and hopefully deliver something that goes with the anthology and doesn’t stick out.
Anurag: I just saw it as an opportunity, I’ve always wanted to do a ghost, horror story.
Q: Did you co-write Kaun?
Anurag: Yeah, I was the writer of Kaun.
Zoya: Really? I love that movie.
Anurag: That was the second script I wrote. My first solo credit.
Karan: Even Bhoot you had something to do with na?
Anurag: I started with the idea, but then I had moved on. But I wanted to do horror and the same time the kind of horror I like, which is slow burn, kind of atmospheric, is kind of hard to sell as a film. So this for me is an opportunity to do... because I had tried selling a horror script for three years, three and a half years, nobody wanted to buy into it. And then I lost the rights on it. This for me was an opportunity to create that kind of a horror, that if it works, I can use it as a reference to pitch my feature, if it doesn’t work, I’ll learn.
Q: John Carpenter - the Hollywood filmmaker who’s popularly know for horror has said that ‘horror is a universal language, we are all born afraid, we are all afraid of things - death, disfigurement, loss of a loved one’. So I just want to know from each of you, what are your fears? I am not talking about phobias, fears.
Anurag: The last one, loss of a loved one. Anytime, even when I come on social media, only thing I am scared of is I am putting my people at risk. They are people I care about, people who work with me, people who are my friends and things because everybody starts getting phone calls because they know I don’t listen. So, that’s my only fear.
Karan: I think that is pretty much my fear as well. I don’t really fear things, I don’t get afraid of situations or people or circumstances because I feel like I have the resilience to rise above it. But what is not in my control is life and death, that is not in my control. And I think I’m all about my emotional equations and relationships and every time I have lost, like I did lose my father, and that was something I was afraid of. And you know when it happened, you feel that’s exactly what you were afraid of all along, similarly now I have so many loved ones in my life and in my immediate surrounding, that’s my big fear, the loss of people, not my own death, because you don’t want to live without those people.
Dibakar: I have all of them, all of them, name one fear and I have it.
Anurag: I also fear losing my memory.
Dibakar: You’ve added one now.
Karan: But you know what, if you lose your memory, you won’t realise it. It’s not something you should be afraid of.
Anurag: I forget names, like I will one day forget your name. It happens to you?
Zoya: Yeah, some times you’re just like...
Karan: It happens to me with recall.
Zoya: Recall... you know it, but you don’t know it... I have a fear of very closed spaces, I get claustrophobic, I don’t like being in elevators with too many people.It makes me extremely uncomfortable.
Dibakar: That’s a phobia... fear...?
Zoya: Fear... okay, like an emotional fear. I think I have a fear of losing loved ones, I think that’s a general, common one. I have a fear of irrelevance maybe...
Dibakar: All of us...
Zoya: At the end of my career if I am mediocre or irrelevant, that would just be a shame. That’s my biggest fear, work wise but otherwise there are fears like rats and closed spaces, crowded spaces.
Q. When you are directing a drama, your immediate need to is to evoke a certain relatability or empathy with the character of your film, but when you are directing something like a horror film, there is a need to scare, so was that an added burden when you were making the film - okay am I scaring enough?
Zoya: You know I feel that most of the good ghost stories or the good genre stories that I have seen, tap into that core of human fear. They tap into something very core to a person which is why they resonate, which is why they scare you, I mean the trappings can be different but thematically they are playing with the human emotion anyway. So if you know that, if that’s your context, that’s your bed, and what are the fears you are pushing with people, I think then you build over that. So you don’t have to do anything extra because it’s horror. I mean for me with this story, I think I explored themes of the fear of abandonment, the fear of ageing, the horror of ageing actually, and fear of death. I knew those were the themes I was playing with and then it was easier for me to navigate the story emotionally and dramatically.
Dibakar: I kind of agree with her, because I think that every horror film has to be the perfect mix of two things - what are you afraid of? And what are you afraid for? So these two things will make that perfectly engaging horror story. In Shining, you are afraid for that child, who is bicycling all over the Overlook Hotel. It’s that. All the classics make you engage. Blairwitch Project - you know that these three stupid college kids are heading for something wrong and you’re saying don’t go there, don’t go there and yet they go and that’s the ultimate fear.
Karan: I think that because the genre was so alien to me, I just think I had to get the beats of telling the story right. Within that I designed a few so-called scare moments and they were designed, they were part of the narrative, but I didn't want to treat it like a jump-scare. Like a serious jump-scare. I felt like I had to underline it with some humour, that was the challenge to enter the 'sur' of the film, you know, the tonality. Because anyway the syntax of horror is alien to me, and then to find it within this narrative, I was all over the place trying to figure it out. A lot of it happened on the set itself. There was a lot of trial and terror happening and it was like it was. I was in the company of really talented technicians, and I think that really helped me bring out the best that was in me for that genre.
Anurag: I wanted to creep people out. My thing was I just wanted to take people into a place where they are like "Oh my god!" It wasn't a burden. We just wanted to do things. There were one or two choices, hard choices to make, do we show this or do we not show this? We were pushing in a direction and I didn't have to fight for it. I'm also telling a story from the perspective of a woman, and you know you can't have a male perspective when you're telling the story of a woman and her trauma. So, I put that as a discussion between the people and I was part of the discussion sitting between Clover and the writer who is arguing with Clover, who is arguing with the makeup woman and everything and they all had dealt with things and the issues that were very personal to them. I left it to them - should we show it and if we do then how much do we show it? And I took the decision that came forth.
Q: Okay my last question is: The OTT platform is of course such a great avenue to make new content and one of the biggest attractions of this platform is that there is no censorship. Of late there have been moves of trying to regulate, most recent being there was this Panchjanya article which talked about this one particular show...
Anurag: I think that conversation has stopped now.
Q: No, but you never know because it is making a case...
Anurag: My take on censorship is the same. Everything must co-exist. This is what I keep telling people.
Q: Do you think self-regulation is the way out instead of a body that watches over?
Anurag: Not just self-regulation, it is self-censorship. People practise it. I’m saying in spite of me being against censorship, I have things I would not put out in movies. I have my own responsibilities that I think are my responsibilities and some which people say must be my responsibility, I don’t think is my responsibility. I will not handle my audience with gloves. I want them to grow and make adult decisions. If they want to call themselves an adult, being an adult is not about being 18. It is making your own decisions. So I would put them in uncomfortable situations because with some things you have to make a choice. So for me I am totally anti-censorship.
Karan: I’ve always felt that with censorship, and I wish we can move towards whether it comes to cinema, I wish we can move towards certification and not censorship. I wish there would be like the BBC - British Board of Certification - which actually gives you an accurate age limit for each content and film that you put out. Whether it is 12, 15, 18...
Anurag: But also I think all OTT platforms have child locks.
Karan: I think vis-a-vis I would not want there to be censorship because it is such an amazingly liberating platform and I think it is really up to the best interests of the parents and if they feel that there is something that children should not have access to then that is something that you’ll have to do on your own. But for cinema I definitely believe in certification and not censorship.
Dibakar: I think I completely agree with Anurag and Karan and whatever Zoya will say I know I’ll agree with it. There’s one twist in the matter which is about the current situation. It is okay to talk about self-censorship, but sometimes what we call self-censorship is an outer layer. And the inner reason for not doing something is ultimately fear. You are afraid. As I said we are all afraid of ourselves and we are afraid of something. And that situation happens. When the state very smartly not showing itself to be the source of the fear lets loose certain forces and then says “How can we help? That happened, that happened...we are not stopping you. We are stopping you because there is unrest, civil unrest, lack of peace and lives will get lost, do you want your film to be responsible for that?” And then that begs the question, that what the hell are you there for? You’re supposed to be the state. You’re supposed to protect every voice that exists in your society. And you’re saying “What can we do? These voices are getting very violent, they are breaking buses, they are doing this, they are burning so to stop them and to stop innocent lives... we are stopping you from getting your film into this festival that you have planned” and then the big money that colludes and finances, because unfortunately our films are made by other people’s money, and then the big money and big capital that colludes with the state says “Hey listen, it is just an event. Why are you being the bitter guy? Why are you stopping this nice party from going ahead? Drop this film. Drop that film no. What will happen?” What happens then? That’s something that all filmmakers, all media people and all the members of the audience should be very, very watchful about and raise a voice against it. Which finally I hope there is.
Zoya: I agree with each one’s points. And I don’t believe in censorship. I absolutely believe in certification. I am also aware as a filmmaker, as a storyteller what I’m putting out there. Because I think people need to know. They’re putting a consciousness out there. So I hope there is a certain amount of awareness that I hope filmmakers have. But having said that you know you watch the news, you read the newspaper, I’m a woman that lives in this country, the kind of stories I read about that’s happening to women and it is all over, it is for any child to read, for any child to see, after that if you’ll tell me to censor a love scene, it’s a joke. It is a joke. It doesn’t make any sense to me.
Q: Absolutely right.
Dibakar: On that lovely, friendly note we part on Ghost Stories.