20 Years Later: Ram Gopal Varma’s Kaun? Is the Freakiest “Knock Knock” Story of Our Time


20 Years Later: Ram Gopal Varma’s Kaun? Is the Freakiest “Knock Knock” Story of Our Time

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

It is raining outside my window. I am alone at home. My cat purrs around my ankles. The doorbell rings. My heart skips a beat. I nervously walk to the door and look through the peephole. It’s the Dunzo guy, here to deliver the cigarettes I had ordered and forgotten about. Not a serial killer. I sigh in relief. Should I be worried? I live in a 2BHK, not in an empty mansion splattered with macabre souvenirs where most things unforeseen unfold. It’s all about the house, isn’t it? 

The horror genre loves its houses. Trapped inside, our protagonists are faced with the primeval fear of being haunted. Houses are, after all, where we are supposedly the safest; they are our territories. But when the call is coming from inside the house, we are left completely exposed. Over the years, home-invasion horror has come in various forms: Sometimes they are haunted by an evil spirit (The Conjuring, Manichitrathazhu), other times there is a murderer at large (Friday the 13th, Hush), and in some movies, it’s not exactly a house (Psycho, The Awakening).

Directed by Ram Gopal Varma and written by Anurag Kashyap, Kaun? shares similar tropes: There is a house and there is a serial killer. When RGV shot the film 20 years ago, with a single set, three characters, loose threads and under 15 days, it seemed like he was courting disaster, or worse, boredom. At first glance, Kaun? seems to have a pretty straightforward narrative. There is a woman, who we know as Ma’am (Urmila Matondkar) who lives alone in her vast bungalow (her only companion is an adorable meme-worthy kitten). On the news, she has just heard about a serial killer on the loose. Naturally, her fears are magnified when an eccentric man called Sameer Purnavale (Manoj Bajpayee) skulks around her house. It sounds simplistic on the surface, but the way Kaun? rephrases the narrative of horror was nothing short of revolutionary.

In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Hindi horror was at its monotonous peak, pioneered by the Ramsay brothers’ and their slew of pulpy masterpieces (Purana Mandir, Purani Haveli, Dak Bangla, Bandh Darwaza), which hinged on varying degrees of supernatural. They were also responsible for the Zee Horror Show, a 700+ episode series which stole plots from The Exorcist, Evil Dead, and Child’s Play. At its best, Bollywood horror was a cliché. There were, however, a few films that dared to stray away from the mould. One of them, Raat (or Raatri), was RGV’s first attempt at horror: a Hindi-Telugu bilingual film about a supernatural entity that infects humans via black cats. It was ingenious and blood-curdling, which explains its reputation as a cult classic today. But back in the day, it tanked at the box office. Even RGV moved on, making critical and commercial hits like Rangeela and Satya. That is until he decided to take another shot at thriller with Kaun?

To inspire dread, there are uneasy close-ups of religious sculptures and paintings around the house, half-lit and menacing.

Kaun?’s first half unravels as a slow, sinister dialogue between two people – one afraid because she’s alone at home, the other trying to breach her defenses. It’s elevated by Sandeep Chowta’s soundscaping. The doorbell alone, so crass and brittle, works as a perfect jump scare. The incessant rain blocks out the outside world, amplifying every minute sound inside. Each blur of motion is paired with appropriate acoustics: guttural wails, acrid screeches, hellish chanting, well-timed thunder strikes. 

RGV’s visual aesthetic is jagged. It’s why our initial perspective of Purnavale is cramped when he leers through an oval peephole straight into the camera. To inspire dread, there are uneasy close-ups of religious sculptures and paintings around the house, half-lit and menacing. On the other hand, the bloated proportions of the corridor when Ma’am finally opens the door to Purnavale is reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. These cinematographic distortions are perplexing: alternating crowded and expansive atmospheres inspire a feeling of volatility, similar to the Vertigo effect created by Hitchcock. 

Much of the uneasiness is also derived from Bajpayee’s visceral performance. We watch him with revulsion, as he pleads, cajoles, insists, demands, and finally worms his way inside the house. His creepiness is mainly due to the atonal shifts in his character. Initially, he drifts between sad loser and perverse clown, and later splinters into a third persona – an aggressive fratbro – when another man, Qureshi (Sushant Singh), enters the fray. The interplay between Purnavale’s comic melodrama and Quereshi’s rugged alpha-maleness (I had a teenage crush, what can I say?) is absurd: too funny to be serious, too bizarre to be lighthearted, but both raising violent red flags. 

At first, Kaun convinces us that Ma’am is harmless, so our suspicions are focused on Purnavale and Qureshi. But that assumption is subverted soon enough and it is here that we see the crux of the film take shape, a nagging feeling of doubt which soon evolves into full-blown paranoia. In the late ’90s, there was a photo advertisement for some TV brand: It showed a woman, terrified, framed in the light from her television. The caption read “I have seen this movie before. I know where the murder weapon is hidden. Then why am I so scared?” This is precisely the feeling that Kaun? oozes.

To have a Hindi film manage this Hitchcockian feat of psychological trickery was unprecedented in 1999.

That leads us to the sensational climax: The realisation that Ma’am, aka Urmila Matondkar, the innocent girl in Masoom and the beguiling pixie in Rangeela, is, in fact, the serial killer, blew our minds. It was deception extraordinaire: Her abrupt transfiguration from paranoid, lonely woman to unhinged, wild-eyed murderer is overwhelming. Her open-mouthed stare in the final shot is eternally engraved in my memory. 

I recently rewatched the film on YouTube on a bright sunny day. It didn’t really make a difference. Once again, I was trapped in that house, unsure of what is going on, skeptical if events will unspool the same way as last time. You see, Kaun? doesn’t depend on the fear of ghosts and demons or on the thrill of being chased by axe murderers: Spirits can be exorcised, axe murderers can be murdered. Instead, the film manipulates the audience into blindly trusting the villain. To have a Hindi film manage this Hitchcockian feat of psychological trickery was unprecedented in 1999. 

In the years since, Bollywood has been inundated with a litany of horror offerings – some still rely only on jump scares and fake blood, while a few actually dare to be experimental and innovative. Even then, Kaun? remains the gold standard of Bollywood horror for me: 20 years later, the film still holds up, reminding us that good and evil may not always be on the right side of the door. It epitomises the unpredictability of human beings by asking, Who among us deserves to be trusted? That is the greatest horror of all.