Pavan Kirpalani has given us one of the best horror films of all time in the form of “Phobia,” starring Radhika Apte. It’s the movie that educated me about agoraphobia and showed us what the fear of stepping out of one’s house and being in the company of many people can feel like. In addition to that, it had interesting twists and turns that kept me wondering about the narrative long after the credits had finished rolling. That said, it’s probably the only good movie that he’s made. It is commendable that he has stuck with the horror genre and given us “Ragini MMS,” “Darr @ the Mall,” and “Bhoot Police,” where he experimented with CGI and rooted those stories in an Indian setting instead of seeming like a Hollywood rip-off. Kirpalani’s latest venture, “Gaslight,” is no different. This time, though, he has come up with a new challenge where you have to squint at your screen throughout its 111-minute runtime to actually see what’s going on.
Co-written with Neha Sharma, Pavan Kirpalani’s “Gaslight” opens with the death of a woman. Then we travel to Morbi to see Meesha (Sara Ali Khan) returning to her palatial home. She’s apparently the daughter of Ratan (Shishir Sharma) and Gayatri, who lost the ability to walk after an accident. The people who occupy her home are her stepmother Rukmani (Chitrangada Singh), Ratan’s employees Kapil (Vikrant Massey), Padam Kaka (Vinod Kumar Sharma), Lajjo (Ashmita Jaggi), and several other workers. Meesha clearly hates Rukmani for splitting up her family. But the primary thing that’s on her mind is Ratan’s absence, especially since he’s the one who requested her to return. Matters get worse when Meesha starts to see Ratan’s ghost roaming around in the halls of the palace. And with the entry of her distant cousin, Rana (Akshay Oberoi), and SP Ashok (Rahul Dev), it becomes apparent that Ratan’s disappearance and the supernatural sightings have something to do with antagonizing Meesha and getting her to sign away her half of the estate.
To be fair, Neha Sharma and Pavan Kirpalani want to say something about the fake benevolence of upper-caste and upper-class people and how that can scar the lives of people from minority communities in “Gaslight.” But, given how they spend a majority of the film’s plot on red herrings and a ghost and then dump the anti-casteism aspect of the narrative on the characters and the audience at the last moment, it fails to be impactful in any way. Sharma and Kirpalani even try to talk about the infidelity of upper-caste men, but how they are the first to react violently when anyone else does the same things they do. However, since the film ends up painting the individual from a minority community as the big bad villain of the story, it does more harm than good. I think they try to show that the character’s “villainy” is the result of years of oppression and torture, but the writing is so bad that his actions feel heinous and not an act of rebellion. Just like any bad horror movie, “Gaslight” just seems like an endless barrage of exposition. None of the characters have a conversation. They discuss plot details but rarely talk about what they’re going through, thereby making for a dull viewing experience.
I am using the term “viewing experience” very loosely because you can hardly see anything in “Gaslight.” Since the first few frames of the film are underwater and hence incredibly murky, I thought that the rest of the film wasn’t going to look like that. I was wrong. It always looks like someone has turned the brightness down to zero, be it on land, during the daytime, at night, in an exterior setting, or in an interior setting. If you are really interested in watching this film, I’d suggest adding a plug-in that increases the luminance of your screen to 9000 because that’s the only way you’ll be able to actually see what’s going on. By the way, the movie doesn’t look like this by mistake. This is clearly a choice made by Kirpalani and cinematographer Ragul Herian Dharuman. Why? Well, I’m assuming they thought that the dark images would complement the “dark” tone of the story. Instead, they just ended up with muddy and ugly frames. Kirpalani tries to scare you with the editing and sound design. However, the execution is so amateurish that those moments feel unintentionally hilarious. The final moments of “Gaslight” have some dynamic imagery and lighting, but it’s too little, too late.
When it comes to the performances, Sara Ali Khan is supposed to be the lynchpin of the film. However, she is the weakest aspect of “Gaslight.” Look, she gets constantly berated for being a nepo-baby and for the projects that she chooses. But, credit where credit is due, this should’ve been a slam dunk because she gets to be front-and-center in a movie with Vikrant Massey and Chitrangada Singh. However, the writing, the direction, and her subpar acting chops keep her from shining in any way whatsoever. Well, maybe she can learn something from Massey. Between 2019 and 2023, Vikrant Massey has been in 2 shows and 11 films (including this one), and no matter how good or bad these projects are, he always outshines everyone else in the cast. Without doing too much in terms of his looks, he totally transforms into the characters he plays, thereby allowing us to believe in his motivations and emotions. Chitrangada Singh is quite good, even though her character is quite stereotypical in nature. Akshay Oberoi chews the scenery because he knows that’s the only way he’s going to be noticeable in this film, and it works. Rahul Dev looks like he’s bored. As for the rest of the cast, they are fine.
In conclusion, “Gaslight” is an unwatchable movie. As in, you have to really struggle to watch it because of the boring storytelling and the god-awful visuals. I can’t even recommend the film by saying that it has its heart in the right place because it apparently wants to be a story about how upper-caste folks oppress and patronize everyone who doesn’t belong to their community. But then it fumbles the bag in the third act in such a horrible way that its “eat the rich” theme sinks like a stone chained to another stone. In case you aren’t a fan of horror and you want to brag to your friends that, despite being a scaredy cat, you have watched a horror film in its entirety, then you can wade into “Gaslight.” I don’t like categorizing movies as “background movies.” However, I can’t deny that this one falls squarely in that bracket. Even if you are completing your Ph.D. thesis or making a move on your potential partner and you put this film in the background, you aren’t going to be distracted by it. If that sounds like a good enough reason to watch “Gaslight,” then Disney+ Hotstar is right there.