As excuses for setting films in apartments go, there’s nothing quite like agoraphobia, the anxiety disorder whose victims get panic attacks at the prospect of being in strange places and situations, and, in extreme cases, even leaving their homes.
In Phobia, Mahek (Radhika Apte) develops such a love for the four walls of her home after a sexual assault by a taxi driver. Her friend and admirer Shaan (Satyadeep Mishra) persuades her to move into a furnished apartment where a young woman named Jiah had once lived before disappearing. Shaan feels that it would be therapeutic for the deeply disturbed Mahek to live on her own in a new place, but he hasn’t accounted for the creepy neighbour Manu (Ankur Vikal), the excess of reflective surfaces, and the strange noises that emanate from the drainpipe. The apartment also has a bathtub – a sign of truly horrific luxury in our drought-ridden times.
A diary belonging to Jiah further stokes Mahek’s imagination, and it’s only a matter of time before she is convinced that a malevolent spirit is sharing her space. Tormented and yet too terrified to leave the house, Mahek persuades her bright-eyed neighbour Nikki (Yashaswini Dayama) to help her snoop around the place.
Meanwhile, poor Shaan, in the time-honoured tradition of horror movie boyfriends who wished they were in a romantic drama instead, reins in his desire for Mahek and tries to help her regain her sanity.
There’s a touch of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion to the dynamics between Mahek and Shaan, and several nods to other genre staples. Director Pavan Kirpalani, who made his debut with the frightfest Ragini MMS (2011), piles on a fair share of genuine scares, most of which are delivered through the sudden cuts so dear to this kind of movie (the editing is by Pooja Ladha Surti, who has also written the chatty dialogue) and a background score that cues in fear and anxiety. Faces flash before Mahek’s terrified eyes, the sounds set her on edge, and every door is a portal to a new kind of fear.
Kirpalani also finds unexpected humour in Mahek’s occasionally overblown reaction to her new surroundings. But the movie’s gender politics are not mined deeply enough, and Shaan’s predicament over Mahek lacks that one extra layer of sexual tension that would made Phobia a worthy successor to Repulsion. The smartest idea in the 94-minute thriller comes in the climax, in which Kirpalani dexterously reveals the real reason for Mahek’s agoraphobia.
The set-up is convincing, and Radhika Apta’s central performance as Mahek makes it doubly so. Apte has been steadily building up an impressive portfolio of performances, and she is in top form in Phobia. Mahek is no scream queen waiting to be consumed by the ghost in the living room, but a lively, intelligent and curious woman who presses on with her quest despite her escalating terror out of a sense of moral duty to discover what exactly happened to Jiah. The talented actress is in nearly every frame of the movie, and she shines whether she’s being petulant or plain terrified. Apte is amply backed up by Satyadeep Mishra and Yashaswini Dayama, whose chirpy turn is unlikely to go unnoticed.