404 is a good lesson to Bollywood that a fright film need not be brimming with blood, girls in tank tops and cheesy 3D special effects.
404 isn't the average Vikram Bhatt shockathon, it is a deliberately slow-paced mystery-psych-horror drenched in atmosphere, with a few clues up-front and much to talk about afterwards. It might bore the Ramsay lover to sleep, and it certainly isn’t made for the Ragini MMS and Haunted audiences. 404’s is a story that patiently unwraps itself, giving away little with each step, unwinding until its final scenes offer a world of revelations. Prawal Raman’s script doesn't rule out an otherworldly dimension to the story, but it is not necessarily present. Everything in 404 has a plausible explanation, whether something supernatural is happening is left for us to decide, and that's part of the fun.
Abhimanyu (Rajvvir Arora) enrolls into a prestigious medical college that has Gothic edifices and an illustrious history. Freshers were locked up in morgues when they resisted ragging, and the shadowy hostel room 404 is the site of an even more disreputable incident – a student had killed himself in there. As expected, young Abhimanyu pleads the hostel authorities to let him stay in the room, and professor Aniruddh (Nishikant Kamat), impressed by the boy’s courage and in an effort to whitewash the incident from everyone’s memory, obliges. Abhimanyu moves in, but something about the room feels off – he hears sounds he can't explain, lights go on unexpectedly and soon enough, a dead guy makes an appearance. We're never quite sure just who's involved, is there a ghost wandering around the campus? Or is the central character psychotic or possessed? Is someone suffering from split personality? Is it one of the seniors playing a prank for some ulterior motive? Raman gives us enough contradictory information to make us desperate to know, even as he ties us in knots fearing whatever answer he may provide. The sense of building dread peaks about three-fourths through then fizzles out, sadly. Too exhausted to care anymore, we're left with nothing to do but guess who'll die and figure out who might be responsible. It is common in horror flicks for the climax and resolution to fail to live up to expectations created by the buildup, but 404’s payoff is quite satisfactory.
Acting is another factor that raises 404 above the usual dreck presented in similar films. Director Raman does fine work with the actors, getting believable performances from his cast in the face of obviously ludicrous situations. Raman also knows about the fundamental silliness of horror films, he goes for the most baroque alarming effects with a completely straight face, even using loud sounds throughout to unsettle the audience. The jolt of suddenly seeing something creepy in a strategically placed mirror is frustratingly overused, though. Most of the cast turns in good performances, with Kamat being the standout as a concerned professor trying to keep things pulled together. Rajvvir Arora makes a strong debut here, Satish Kaushik and Tisca Chopra do well but add nothing to the story. Imaad Shah is completely miscast as a king hotshot college senior and hams to the hilt.
If you feel like watching a film that moves very slowly, gives you a handful of characters with minimal backgrounds, tosses a few ambiguous and spooky cookies your way and is ultimately satisfying once you put it all together, then 404 is definitely for you. The setup here is sufficiently compelling to make its many gimmicky flourishes just as nerve-wracking as they're supposed to be - we're always anticipating something awful. It’s got a lot more punch than that 3D Hindi horror film that arrived a couple of weeks ago.
First published in DNA