Gaslight (2023) Movie Review: If there is one contemporary auteur in India who is trying to infuse fresh breath into the horror genre, it is Pavan Kirpalani. Having helmed features like Ragini MMS (2011), the highly underrated Phobia (2016), and the more-recent goofy ghostbusters styled Bhoot Police (2021), Kirpalani has repeatedly tried to innovate an otherwise much-maligned genre in Indian cinema.

Gaslight (2023), Kirpalani’s fifth feature, continues to showcase his formal grasp to elicit dread, but the film’s unpolished screenplay struggles to justify its gothic premise.

The estranged princess of Morbi, Meesha Singh (Sara Ali Khan), returns to her royal household after receiving a letter from her father, King Ratan Singh (Shataf Figar). Meesha had left the place fifteen years ago following her mother’s suicide and an accident that rendered her diplegic. When Meesha finally arrives at the Mayagarh Palace, she is greeted by her father’s second wife, Rukmani (Chitrangda Singh), who informs Meesha that her father is away on a business trip to pacify a worker’s strike.

Despite Rukmani’s attempts to make her feel at home, Meesha is skeptical of her claims considering it was Rukmani who caused strife in her parent’s marriage. But if Rukmani’s femme fatale persona wasn’t enough to convince Meesha that something was off, she begins to hear frightening sounds at night. As Meesha investigates amidst the dark stairways and empty rooms of her gothic mansion, she begins to feel a spectral presence resembling that of her father.

Naturally, no one believes Meesha’s claims or her nocturnal visions. Rukmani comforts Meesha by telling her that her father will return soon—this assurance is supported by the police superintendent, Ashok Tanwar (Rahul Dev).

The only person willing to help Meesha is Kapil (Vikrant Massey), an orphan rescued by her father in childhood and who currently acts as a manager of the royal estate. When Meesha’s nightly hauntings become increasingly terrifying, she begins to wonder if she is losing her mind or if Rukmani and her secret accomplice are gaslighting her.

Unsurprisingly, Kirpalani has a firm grasp of horror filmmaking as he infuses his gothic sequences with tension and dread. One of the earliest scenes involving our protagonist chasing after a silhouette wearing a magician’s outfit is remarkably tensed—and it is unfortunate that Kirpalani and his team struggle to top this setup.

The rest of the sequences are formulaic standard Indian horror tropes—music playing in the middle of the night, a tattooed soothsayer conducting seances, and disturbing phone calls. But even when Kirpalani harks back on these traditional means, he is aware of the craft of weaving these clichés into polished takes.

However, where not even the director’s horror roots can salvage him is in the film’s clumsy screenplay. Most viewers would arguably gasp at the twists that emerge as the narrative unfolds in the third act, but most of these feel somewhat unearned.

Kirpalani and his co-writer Neha Sharma focus too much on uncovering their big picture without realizing their hasty strokes makes the entire revelation underwhelming. The moments leading up until its big reveal seem to be too polished to catch the viewers off-guard, but these clumsy tricks feel more like a betrayal than crafty storytelling.

A good mystery (Knives Out and its recent sequel being an example) should thus unfold so that when the audience decides to revisit the film, they can smile and realize how the clues were peppered throughout the ingenious screenplay. Plus, the overt title of the film already spoils much of what is to come. Adding to this narrative shortcoming are the various misguided character decisions in the film’s final act and one of the clumsiest use of Chekov’s gun.

Sara Ali Khan is convincing as Meesha, but the film’s standout is easily Massey as Kapil—an orphan navigating class relations in a eugenics-bound society. Chitrangda Singh’s dialogue delivery sometimes lacks the mystic demanded of her witchy character. However, it is her character arc, from standard femme fatale to a paranoid Lady Macbeth, which emerges as the most convincing in the entire bunch.

Kirpalani, who has always had feminist leanings in his projects (remember Phobia?), does enough subversion in his female archetypes even when he indulges in them. However, the film’s other ideological leanings struggle to conjure as much nuance.

Joining the bandwagon of the current landscape of ‘eat-the-rich’ films, Gaslight attempts a commentary on class privileges and aspirations. Still, it oversimplifies it to settle for a liberal humanist outcome. While Kirpalani and Sharma do not condone the inequities emerging from class relations, their critique lacks the perceptive, sharp edge of recent films tackling the same topic.

Moreover, by only surrounding the orphan Kapil in this debate, Gaslight renders characters like Lajjo (the maid at the palace) and Padam (the everyday benign chauffeur working for Ratan Singh) invisible as if they are content working amidst an oppressive imperial system.

Plus, by overtly privileging the mental health of one specific character to elicit sympathy, the film’s class critique appears relatively underdeveloped. It is not as pathetic as the Sooraj Barjatya/ Karan Johar universe but is neither as illuminating as the depiction Shyam Benegal pioneered in his early work in the seventies.

To end this review, let’s again borrow a metaphor from Rian Johnson’s Glass Onion. The Benoit Blanc mystery ends with our lead character Helen burning down the empire of the haughty Miles Brown. In Gaslight, the Mayagarh Palace remains standing—a structure of oppression disguised as a charitable children’s organization, oblivious that philanthropy is just one way that the rich gaslight us into becoming subjects of the capitalist system.

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Gaslight (2023) Links: IMDb, Wikipedia
Gaslight (2023) Cast: Sara Ali Khan, Vikrant Massey, Chitrangda Singh

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