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Friday, January 14, 2022

‘Scream’ Got the Bollywood Treatment in 2003 Remake ‘Sssshhh…’ [Horrors Elsewhere]

Horrors Elsewhere is a recurring column that spotlights a variety of movies from all around the globe, particularly those not from the United States. Fears may not be universal, but one thing is for sure a scream is understood, always and everywhere.

While remakes seem like a strictly Western idea, make no mistake — every film industry does them. Almost surpassing Hollywood in terms of numbers, though, is the Indian film industry. A consistent source of remakes has been foreign horror, and many of these films’ inspired plots are often hidden beneath cultural particularities. A prime example is the 2003 remake of Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson’s Scream. The bones of the original story are here, but everything else feels absolutely unfamiliar to Ghostface fans.

Director Pavan S. Kaul and writer Arshad Ali Syed’s Sssshhh… begins with the murder of two college students, Malini (Simone Singh) and her boyfriend. Malini is slaughtered on campus by a knife-wielding stranger wearing a black cloak and a clown mask. The killer, dubbed the Joker, goes dormant until six months later when he returns to stalk Malini’s sister, Mehak (Tanishaa Mukerji). She and all her friends are now on the Joker’s to-kill list.

There is nothing too remarkable about the cold open; a woman is pursued by a masked assailant, then murdered without leaving a trace of their own true identity. This has happened before in the genre, and it will happen again many times over. Matching Drew Barrymore’s signature death is a tall order, and Kaul’s interpretation does not even come close. The patented element of menacing phone calls is avoided altogether until the next scene, and after that, it is ignored entirely for other more pressing ingredients like music sequences. Yes, Sssshhh… has several musical numbers during its hefty runtime.

For the uninitiated viewers, they will be surprised to learn that even Indian horror productions include these lively, foot-tapping performances. The film wastes no time either seeing as the music video-style opening credits feature the killer dramatically frolicking with backup dancers atop a snowy mountain. Anyone opposed to the idea of song-and-dance routines in their horror should be relieved to know Sssshhh… uses them sparingly in the first two acts. Be careful, though: there are some serious earworms on the soundtrack.

Next up is connecting the past to the present. With no closure about who murdered her sister, Mehak is trapped in a state of intermittent paranoia. Her uncle and police inspector Kamat (Shivaji Satam) has hit a wall in the investigation and hopes these killings are a thing of the past. Yet it only takes a single phone call to end the calmness. The Joker calling Mehak inside of a random convenience store rather than at her house is unusual. After all, a good slasher knows invading personal spaces and robbing people of their daily security are what really get under the skin. Sssshhh… corrects this miscalculation later on as the terror hits closer to home.

In the meantime, Mehak’s friends are introduced: Gehna (Suvarna Jha), Rocky (Dino Morea), Rajat (Gaurav Kapur), Nikhil (Kushal Punjabi), and Riya (Tina Choudhary). They all attend Simon College, the local university in this wintry, mountainside town that looks distinctly European. Joining the clique is transfer student Suraj (Karan Nath), who Mehak already met earlier when panicking in a convenience store. Both he and Rocky vy for Mehak’s affection, and their rivalry escalates when it comes time to narrowing down suspects in the latest Joker kill: a teacher is picked off in a public restroom like in Scream 2. Kamat urges both of Mehak’s suitors to place their feet next to the killer’s bloody footprint in hopes of gaining a match. Like everyone watching at home, the police realize how flawed such a test is when determining the Joker’s identity, but the film has to plant those seeds of doubt somehow.

The director absolutely loves tilting the camera to create tension. Even though this angle is indiscriminately used, it is cranked all the way up in scenes like Mehak’s first physical run-in with the Joker. She does the wise thing and immediately calls her uncle for help as the killer forces his way into her room. The tables are turned, though, when Mehak pins the Joker against a lit fireplace and incidentally sets him on fire. It is a crowd-pleasing move on the writer’s part considering how uninvolved Mehak is in her own survival going forward. 

Upon the Joker’s escape, Suraj suspiciously shows up at Mehak’s house. Scream fans know where this is probably going, and Sssshhh… does not disappoint in following similar narrative beats and indulging the same red herrings. From there Sssshhh… transforms into a quasi-remake of I Still Know What You Did Last Summer. As in, the characters suddenly vacation overseas after the Joker’s apparent death in another perilous encounter. The snow-white mountain town is replaced with a small and secluded island off the coast of Thailand. This is of course where the remaining cast members are picked off one by one when they are not second-guessing each other’s intentions. 

By now everyone is asking whether or not Sssshhh… is a faithful remake of Scream. Without giving the ending away, this film loves to color outside the lines while also retaining quintessential concepts. There is still a high amount of unpredictability going on here, though. A film like this is at its most effective when the viewers are forced to ponder what else could happen in such an offbeat and uniquely Indian reimagining of an American cult classic. While it is definitely not a patch on the original, and a number of things get lost in translation, Sssshhh… is a loud remake rich in regional charm and bold choices.


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