Leavened by humour and powered by an energetic, bristling spin on the werewolf genre. ‘Bhediya’ marks a step-up for Indian cinema’s creature-horror genre. It is disappointing that the film-makers have not acknowledged the debt to ‘An American Werewolf in London’, not just in the interwoven comedy track but also, chiefly, in the eye-popping special effects of a human being morphing into a large wolf-like creature – as impressive in 1981 as it is now in 2022. The European folklore of a werewolf is age-old, but the afore cited film was the game-changer in the genre. Director Amar Kaushik and writer Niren Bhatt try to distract from the origins of the idea by shifting the tale to the forested hinterlands of Arunachal Pradesh and infusing a strong eco theme to the narrative.

The ruse works, bolstered by a consistently strong script, assured direction, solid acting and dollops of humour (the sparse audience in the Auckland Saturday afternoon theatre laughed liberally). This werewolf’s last leg is 20 minutes too long, and loses valuable momentum when it mattered the most. However, this is still a solidly good film which is why it is all the more disappointing that it has earned a mere Rs. 7 crore (USD 1 million) on opening day – another demoralizing result given by the deteriorating domestic audience whose tastes have devolved as the third year of the pandemic howls to a close.

The werewolf genre has had some excellent entries starting with ‘An American Werewolf in London’ (1981) a unique beast that chose to interweave a light comedy track with a straight-arrow creature-horror story that slowly builds to an ending of all-out ferocity. Not just B-grade schlock-meisters but also certified bigshots can be bitten by the werewolf bug, which explains Mike Nichols directing ‘Wolf’ (1994), a taut flick that re-enabled Jack Nicholson to reprise his ‘Shining’ fever-eyed madness with bonuses like Michelle Pfeiffer at her beauteous best. India clawed into the fray with Junoon (1992) directed by Mahesh Bhatt – in the land of the tiger, why feature a wolf instead of the real McRoy ? – ending up with a dark thriller that scared the shorts off me in childhood.

After a prologue that has turbo-charged power but not that much of a genuine scare factor (which could also describe the film in general), pic cuts to Bhaskar (Varun Dhawan) and his cousin Janardhan (Abhishek Banerjee) who journey to the forested interior of Arunachal Pradesh as Bhaskar has landed a lucrative deal to build a road connecting the provinces to more commercial areas. Jomin (Paalin Kabak) joins them as the local liaison. All Bhaskar has to do now is to convince the stupid locals who do not know what is good for them, that instead of the more expensive option of the road skirting the forest, it is much cheaper for the road to cut through the forest and who really cares if the tribals’ homeland, lakhs of trees and animals are all destroyed in the process? Moreover, we are all screwed by climate change so why stop now?

The village’s residents, surprise surprise!, protest against this marauding road. Another natural spanner is thrown into Bhaskar’s derriere when his car crashes in the jungle and a large wolf decides to take him down. Medical attention later, Bhaskar realizes that his body has undergone ominous changes. He’s now muscled out to a sculpted six-pack, his sense of smell and hearing have intensified several-fold and in the night, he does not remember what happens… except that the village is shaken by news of people being attacked and killed in the after hours. Janardan and Jomin, no fools, put two and two together and decide to keep close tabs on their pal, and are petrified when they see their worst fears coming true…

Amar Kaushik is able to effectively execute the consistently whirring script by Niren Bhatt, often finding more success with comedy than with dark thrills. Abhishek Banerjee, as the “hero”s friend, Janardan, is excellent as the main facilitator of the laughs. Presented frowsily as a nerd who’s not smart enough to crack the IAS exams but game enough to somehow scamper through a pickle, he wails with consternation on realizing the awful reality of what he’s witnessing, but through that misery, is able to shoot rapid-fire dialogues that get the laughs while also generating humour through his woebegone appearance. The placement and unintended effect of the song ‘Tera Suroor’ is a touch of teasing comic genius. Another inspired musical stroke, especially for the 90s kids, is the “Jungle Jungle patha chala, chaddi pehen ke” from the Japanese anime-style Jungle book dubbed in Hindi which played on TV halcyon years ago, introduced here to wonderfully winking effect, when hapless Bhaskar wearing his chaddi alone, stumbles home dazed through forests and fields after gory nights.

In the scenes of terror, as the eponymous ‘Bhediya’ emerges from the night to wreak hell, Kaushik’s direction is not as inspired. Depicting that level of horror and terror that chills the heart and sears the mind, requires a keen understanding of what unsettles and unhinges us, and transferring that as cleanly or as messily as possible on-screen. India’s own creature-horror film ‘Junoon’ (1992) was no ‘Exorcist’ but it gave the creeps much better than ‘Bhediya’ does. Background music can be of invaluable help in accentuating this terror – here it is too peppy to genuinely unsettle – compare this with Sandeep Chowtha’s eerie, fear-intensifying master-class in ‘Kaun’.      

The film’s last quarter drags on for too long – what should have ended with a bang, ends instead with an inappropriate song and dance which feels all the more wrong given the climax was a poignant finish to notes of intensifying darkness. But, as a saving grace, the film-makers do not sell out when the narrative is still going on – maintaining the film’s thematic and tonal integrity throughout. While the special effects involving the movements of the wolfs are terrific, the marquee graphics involving the human-to-wolf transformation are at least 41 years old. The songs are just gratuitous in a film like this – in the current day where songless films are doing well – these tuneless tack-ons simply subtract focus, add silliness and extend the runtime.

Kriti Sanon, as the film’s female lead and one of the precious few ladies seen in this film, is winsome as the mostly clueless, always slightly anxious veterinary doctor. Her last act could have been taken to the next level, and while she could have done it, that final outstanding leap does not occur to the director. It is laudable that local people from the Arunachal Pradesh locales were recruited for many roles, and their acting skill varies ; unfortunately none truly stand out. Varun Dhawan impresses again with his movie selection – as if he is atoning each year for what his dad did. He does a decent job, particularly good with the comic scenes, but the other side of the character, like ‘Bhediya’ itself, does not roil enough. 




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