Anxiety is a difficult disorder to explain to people who don’t have it. While everyone experiences mild anxiety from time to time — be it a fear of heights or speaking in front of a group of strangers — it’s nowhere near the kind of crippling fear that can accompany serious anxiety attacks, a panic that can make an otherwise ordinary task seem terrifying.
Phobia comes as close to accurately depicting a panic attack as any film I’ve seen. It’s so effective that I’d caution those with a history of anxiety problems make sure you’re in a good mental state before you watch it. I thought about bailing a couple of times, it was that intense.
Radhika Apte stars in Phobia as Mehak, a single artist living in the city. She leaves an exhibition of her work early after feeling some bad vibes, falling asleep in the taxi on the way home. She awakes to find the cab driver molesting her behind some abandoned buildings.
Even though she escapes the attack, Mehak develops agoraphobia. Fearful of the outside world, Mehak hides in her apartment for months. Concerned by Mehak’s lack of improvement, her friend Shaan (Roshin Joy) and her sister Anu (Nivedita Bhattacharya) conspire to drug Mehak and move her to a new apartment, hoping that the change of scenery will fix everything.
Their actions exemplify one of the biggest challenges for anxiety sufferers: not being believed, or the fear of not being believed. By definition, phobias are irrational overreactions to perceived threats. My mother’s fear of snakes was so extreme that even a picture of a snake provoked the same terror as if one was actually slithering toward her.
Yet Anu and Shaan treat Mehak as though her fear can be diffused with logic. Shaan refuses to take out the garbage, hoping that leaving it will motivate Mehak to leave the apartment and walk down the hall to the trash bin. He doesn’t understand that the twenty-foot-long hallway might as well be twenty miles, as far as Mehak is concerned.
Mehak’s tortured attempt make it to the bin is Phobia‘s shining moment. Mehak breathes rapidly, her shirt soaked in sweat. She ties a makeshift rope of sheets to a shelf and then around her waist, as though she’s climbing out of the window and not stepping out into the hallway. If she falls, she’s afraid she won’t be able to retreat to safety. The whole sequence captures the overwhelming nature of a panic attack. Mehak’s terror is depicted perfectly by Apte, who is absolutely tremendous in the film.
Mehak’s condition only gets worse in the new apartment when she starts hallucinating sounds and images of a bloodied woman whom she assumes is “Jiya,” the previous tenant who suddenly went missing, leaving all of her belongings behind. Mehak is simultaneously too scared to go out and too scared to stay in. Shaan’s answer is set up security cameras in the house, as if Mehak’s haunted psyche can be soothed by proof.
The apartment itself looks like an upscale haunted house. There are mirrors everywhere and lonely paintings that take on a sinister air in the dark. The living room is separated from a hallway by a backless shelving system made up of niches ripe for peeping through. One of the bedrooms is full of artfully strewn about furniture.
Yet director Pawan Kripalani doesn’t deploy the horror tropes in his arsenal in the expected ways. He routinely directs the audiences gaze through mirrors and security cameras and the peephole in the door, but the anticipated jump scares never arrives. Phobia — which Kripalani wrote as well — isn’t about momentary thrills, but the persistence of Mehak’s fears.