Karan has shut himself into his house for several months. It’s not a bad place to retreat from the world. The spacious apartment on the second floor of a neighbourhood in Delhi has all the creature comforts that a recluse needs. There are colour-coordinated accessories and funky wallpaper, and claustrophobia is vanquished by the balcony from where Karan can spy on his neighbours, Rear Window style.
Karan (Ali Fazal) is trying to be a monk for reasons explained later in the Netflix original movie. But the world won’t let Karan hide in his tastefully appointed cave. A movie about conscious loneliness turns out to be quite a crowded house. Karan’s friend JD (Jim Sarbh) keeps the phone line buzzing. The local food-delivery service frequently confuses another address for Karan’s. Neighbour Pinky (Barkha Singh) and her bodyguard bully Karan into hiding a hot-pink suitcase containing a bound man. Journalist Saira (Shriya Pilgaonkar), keen on writing a story on this Indian embodiment of the Japanese concept of hikikomori, noses her way into Karan’s life.
Samit Basu’s screenplay, which he has directed along with Shashanka Ghosh, never quite gives a real measure of Karan’s psychological isolation. The play-like narrative unfolds over a day and a half, and is in a great hurry to keep Karan distracted from his monastic mission. A hurriedly edited montage reveals Karan’s average morning, and there is no sense of time crawling for a man who has not stepped beyond his front door in months.
If there is a feeling of the clock hands moving very slowly, it comes from the screenplay. Karan’s conversations with JD (who is depicted through a series of holograms) border on the jejune, which might have something to do with the fact that they have been friends since school. JD calls whenever he is in an inappropriate situation – post-coitus, in the toilet, mid-massage – and if this is some way to give Jim Sarbh something to do, it doesn’t quite work.
As Saira enters Karan’s space, the comedy shifts gears into something resembling a romance. Saira calls herself a journalist but never once reaches for her notepad. This reporter with the amazing memory has her moments of inspiration, but seems to be hanging around for more than a juicy story. Is that why Karan supplies her the questions that she should be asking?
Meanwhile, there is the person trapped in the suitcase – a recurring gag that collapses soon after it is introduced. Pinky and her strapping bodyguard pop up from time to time to introduce a dose of fake Delhi flavour, but the movie could really have set anywhere and it would have made no difference.
Had the filmmakers been more curious than Karan about the realities that lie just beyond the front door, House Arrest could have been a commentary on urban loneliness or a study of how Indian cities make the opening of the front door an act of courage. The frequent references to hikikomori – in which Japanese adults and teenagers choose to lock themselves away from the world – suggest that a big revelation for Karan’s choice is just around the corner. Why has Karan chosen to become housebound? Could it be the staggering pollution in Delhi? The seething anger on the capital’s streets? A personality tic that has exploded into a neurosis? The actual answer is surprisingly banal.
Barkha Singh has her moments as the stereotyped Delhi belle Pinky, but none of the other characters is memorable. Karan tells Saira, I should have been weirder. But he isn’t interesting to begin with, and the movie that sets out to be explore his unusual condition follows suit.