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Horrors elsewhere is a recurring column that highlights a variety of films from around the world, especially those that don’t originate from the United States. Fears may not be universal, but one thing is for sure – a cry is understood, always and everywhere.
India saw fewer and fewer horror films shot in the 1990s. The main reason being that they were no longer making a profit as they did in previous years, but the filmmaker Ram gopal varma was never one to follow the herd. RGV, often referred to only by his initials, played an important role in shaping modern Indian horror. One of the most critically acclaimed horror films of the 90s was actually one of his own, Raat. And throughout the decade, RGV has done their best to keep the spirit of the genre alive with their other films like Govinda Govinda and Deyyam. It was at the beginning of 1999 that the public feasted on an RGV film destined to become a cult hit. Indelible performances, nightmarish imagery and a shocking storyline explain why Kaun? continues to haunt Indian viewers today.
Kaun? (or “Who?”) has an evergreen setup; a woman living alone fears for her life as a storm brews outside and a killer lurks nearby. The unnamed protagonist, played by Urmila matondkar, is already nervous after hearing about a recent series of murders on the news. So when a foreigner named Sameer Purnavale (Manoj Bajpayee) rings the doorbell and asks Mr. Malhotra, the single woman says he’s in the wrong house. Instead of continuing on his way, Sameer keeps coming back and harassing the woman.
The character of Matondkar tolerates his obnoxious visitor longer than anyone else in the same situation; she goes so far as to make him a sandwich and leaves the curtain open so that he can watch television with her. Even a lie that her husband is sleeping upstairs is not enough to deter Sameer. Instead, he tells the woman that he saw her husband wake up and move through the window, and that he would like to talk to him. Caught up in his own lie and fearing someone else is in the house – could this be the killer all over the news? – the protagonist lets Sameer in. She soon regrets her mistake.
What is immediately obvious Kaun? is its shorter runtime; it lasts less than 100 minutes. On average, a typical Bollywood photo can last up to two hours or more. RGV instead opts for a more streamlined narrative that doesn’t have the bells and whistles of other Indian films, namely those famous musical numbers sporting film gripping songs and choreographies. RGV follows in the footsteps of the song-less thriller Ittefaq and keeps the tone relatively tense without any creative interruptions. Indian audiences have come to expect these colorful song and dance routines in every movie, regardless of genre, so not having them seems unhealthy. Meanwhile, other viewers unaccustomed to Bollywood productions might appreciate the direct storytelling better.
The greatest performances of Kaun? are equally exaggerated and convincing. Bajpayee annoys every corner of his lopsided portrayal. Her sustained use of “madam” lifts the hair and does nothing to relieve her victim. Meanwhile, the wide-eyed star is caught in a reactionary position for nearly two-thirds of the film before beginning to take on a more assertive role, akin to the “final girls” in mainstream slasher films. Its logic, or lack thereof, will certainly raise questions. Bringing in a third character, a stone cop named Inspector Quresh (Sushant singh), adds to the growing tension because now the protagonist has doubts about the intentions of these two men.
Even if all of Kaun? takes place inside a house, he manages to escape the boredom of other “bottle” stories. Movement is one of the main reasons the viewer stays engaged despite the unique location. The camera never stays still for long and doesn’t dwell too much on anything or anyone in the scenes. The spacious and bright house of the woman is gradually transformed into something less livable to better cope with the growing peril that awaits her. As the rain hits the exterior, the interior darkens in both tone and appearance. It is in the third act that this effect reaches its peak; the comfort seen earlier is now far away and has since been replaced by utter dismay.
Without revealing anything, the conclusion of Kaun? is a daring feat. Audiences have come to expect these stories to end somehow, but they’re going to be surprised; they will be carried away by this result. It’s no wonder the movie became a cult movie all these years later. Stories of a similar class – of women threatened by both male abusers and their own unwavering paranoia – would never think of going down this road as such a decision is risky. RGV and screenwriter Anurag Kashyap have invested so much work into their character designs and personalities, so an ending as unexpected as this can leave a bitter taste in your mouth. On the other hand, the most twisted viewers will feel rewarded; maybe even reinvigorated by what has unfolded in the last twenty minutes.
Kaun? is unorthodox in the rich, living world of Bolly-horror; its history is less regionally unique and more universally appealing. And while the film runs the risk of being an average thriller of a woman in peril simply dressed in new clothes, the boldness of the finale is guaranteed to leave a lasting impression. Kaun? manages to extract a new flavor from a long-traveled story.