Recently we had “Tumbbad“, a formally conventional, yet mesmerizing, demons-infested tale of greed, reviewed here by yours truly. Another brilliant, yet differently dressed, debut comes also from India – “Ghost of the Golden Groves”, penned and helmed by a Bengali duo Aniket Dutta and Roshni Sen, hidden under the pseudonym Harun al-Rashid (after an Arabian Nights character who is always masked). These two titles are not even remotely same kind of cinematic works, but now it is possible to argue that horror scene in India is gaining momentum quickly.
“Ghost of the Golden Groves” comes from Bengal and relies a bit on its tradition regarding the art house cinema dating from the 60’s and Indian New Wave, but it is not the only clue needed for the interpretation of this diptych of strange ghost stories set deep in the backwoods and in the time when civilization started to visit those virgin lands. Some of the clues are spelled out, literally, early on: we can hear names Seijun Suzuki, Kaneto Shindo and Teshigahara, which are all the names of Japanese New Wave auteurs and if we were not listening carefully, Dutta and Sen will treat us with a couple of references to their work. Also, some other influences can be read: David Lynch, Alejandro Jodorowsky, acid western, experimental cinema as well as early and fairly basic science fiction B-movies, all of that shot predominantly in crisp black and white, or, better said, shades of grey.
The title is a bit misleading, there is not just one ghost, but more of them in those two stories that are connected only through the sheer strangeness of events and the clash of modernity and ancient, almost animalistic superstition as a lifestyle. The first, shorter part of the film titled “The Polymorph” is based on Dutta’s own short story, follows a survey officer from Kolkata named Promotho (and played by Joyraj Bhattacharjee, glimpsed in Ronny Sen’s astonishing “Cat Sticks“) who came to the titular forest to map the roads that would run through the area in the future. He is met with hostility from the locals and tricked by a demon who took the shape of a local performer, so he ends up lost in space and time.
The second story, titled “Maya” and based on a short story by Bibhutibhusan Banyopadhyay, follows a poor, unemployed cook (Soumyajit Majumdar) who becomes a caretaker of a secluded, old villa owned by an eccentric old rich man (Jayanta Banerjee), despite the warnings about what happened to the previous men on his job. He does not seem to care even when a gas-masked woman, obviously from the future, starts visiting him in his dreams, followed by a group of similarly dressed people referred to simply as the others…
It would be easy, lazy and plain to write off “Ghost of the Golden Groves” for its awkwardness, because here it actually serves the purpose to tell an archetypical story about the clash between the new and the old, the civilization and wilderness. And Dutta and Sen do their best to tell it in a quite unique way, laced with humorous moments and striking visuals, effectively creating a memorable universe and using the storytelling means to the maximum effect.
Two things stand out here. One is the use of colour, first just suggested in the film’s text when Promotho notices the green light in the forest only to be told by the carriage driver that people there see everything in black and white, then shown literally in cook’s dreams and finally in the epilogue sequence, where he recounts his story from a stage to the alien audience. That kind of use is far from usual, it might even seem counter-intuitive a bit, but it makes sense and looks good paired with the rest of the black and white material shot by Basab Mullick that captures the attractiveness of the deep forest and primitive villages, complete with the “decay porn” of the crumbling villa.
The second one is sound design that is being used as a storytelling tool in a fresh way. Paired with an eclectic choice of music (done by Dutta), that includes rock, folk, jazz, blues, as well as electronic and modern pop, it creates a lasting impression, making “Ghost of the Golden Groves” one of the most pleasant surprises and arresting first-time filmmaking efforts in the terms of the strength and clarity of auteur vision.