Usman Mukhtar’s short film is a horror flick that packs an eerie punch.
f you’ve been to a derelict rest house in Pakistan’s mountains or an old colonial building in a small town, at some point you will have felt a frightening shiver up your spine. Tales of djinns, bhoots and churails have always been a part of the South Asian storytelling.
Available on YouTube for internet TV viewers, Usman Mukhtar’s directorial debut in the horror genre borrows from this vibe. He has set his short film in a university campus, more than a century old. The place has a creepy past. The action happens in a high-roofed room set in an eerie quadrangle. Gulabo Rani has an atmospheric vintage feel awash with sepia tones. At the centre of the slow burn is a menacing female ghoul or churail.
The short film is quiet horror that packs an eerie punch.
The story begins with a straightforward tale of ragging at a university campus. However, a tilt towards the supernatural takes it to the edge of reason. A flickering tube-light, a figure cloaked in black, a gentle half-laugh coming from nowhere make for some scary moments. Akhtar, a new student, is assigned a room in a derelict part of the student housing, leaving his classmates flummoxed at this housing choice. He is warned by the head-boy that he may be in haunted territory. Three of the worst rogues in his class set out to make his life miserable.
Privilege, male chauvinism and a lack of respect for their alma mater are compounded in their interaction with Akhtar who is more interested in studying than hanging out with cool guys. He takes their bad behaviour to heart, cries in pain and is thrown off guard when they tell him that his room may be haunted.
Gulabo Rani has an atmospheric vintage feel awash with sepia tones. At the centre of the slow burn there is a menacing female ghoul or churail.
The film is set in the ’80s or ’90s. One can make out the popular 1980s toy, the Rubik’s cube, on Akhtar’s desk. However, the wardrobe choices; sleeveless sweaters, checkered shirts and straight pants point to the 1960s. Next, the appearance of an Android cell phone leaves one wondering about the time period. Also, Akhtar is seen listening to Begum Akhtar on a record player which is so ’50s-’60’s. One cannot imagine students in the 1980s listening to music on record players. The muddle can throw you off a bit. It is best probably to enjoy the retro feel without taking apart the details.
The success of a horror movie hinges on the right sounds emanating at the right times. Gulabo Rani wins on this count and will keep you riveted. Its original soundtrack is also praiseworthy. Raat Kay Musafiro by MRKLE and Nimra Gillani of Zindagi Tamasha fame; and Khauf, another collaborative piece by MRKLE, Nimra Gillani and Yasir Jaswal are wonderful. Raat Kay Musafiro sets the mood for the entire film. It’s safe to say that without it Gulabo Rani would be no more than half the eerie entertainment it is.
The main lead, Usama Javaid Haider as Akhtar, is an amazing find. You see him literally shift shapes, just like the creatures he encounters in the film.
The film hit the festival circuit with a bang. Haider won a best actor award at the Bucharest Shortcut Cinefest and Gulabo Rani the best short film award LA Sci-Fi & Horror Festival in 2022.
Usman Mukhtar is also the co-producer of the film with Meiraj Haq. The film was launched with Eastern Terrestrial Studios.
Watch the film if you want to relive the scary ‘true’ stories heard in your childhood and youth when you huddled with the family on a cold winter evening after dinner and thought the stories were a figment of your aunt or cousin’s imagination. Gulabo Rani will tell you otherwise.
The writer is a journalist. She has worked in various editorial positions including editor for HELLO! Pakistan and assistant editor for Newsline. She writes on arts and culture.