SLAMDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2023 REVIEW! Paranoia flares in director Shujaat Saudagar’s The Underbug as two characters face the ghosts of their past while being hunted by the literal ghosts of a safe house. Written by Saudagar, Abas Dalal, and Hussain Dalal, the film is set in a politically charged India, where two strangers (Ali Fazal and Hussain Dalal) are wounded during a riot and seek solace in an abandoned house. Not knowing which side either of them was on, the two decide to keep their religion and loyalties a secret from one another. However, their safety is a mirage as the strangers face the ghosts of the slain family that once lived in their hiding place.
The film conveys a constant feeling of being watched. As the two strangers search the house, they begin to have haunting visions of a small child and discern an unrestful spirit within the home. Each interaction gives an uneasy aura and palpable mistrust between the main characters. The supernatural occurrences amplify the mounting suspicion of the two, adding tension to an already volatile relationship. Ali Fazal and Hussain Dalal each portray the strangers with nuance as subtle anxiety builds throughout.
“…safety is a mirage as the strangers face the ghosts of the slain family that once lived in their hiding place.”
The Underbug uses dialogue sparingly to create eerie moods and intensify the emotions behind both characters. Having only each other to feed off, Fazal and Dalal maximize the conversations and squeeze as much character depth as possible as the two strangers contemplate their horrific situation. The performances of both leads create enigmatic characters and elevate a claustrophobic thriller to an interesting character piece. These two characters and the actors’ performances are some of the most compelling attributes of the film.
However, the narrative often struggles to find the build-up and thrills needed for the supernatural and psychological thriller it attempts to be. Saudagar crafts a strong sense of mystery and does subvert expectations in the climax. But, he does not build enough suspense to create the jaw-dropping twist the narrative goes for during the finale.
Creating unlikable yet fascinating characters is among the most impressive feats of The Underbug. The more the film reveals about the two, the further the likability or even relatability of the characters diminishes, yet fascination increases. Seeing them thrown into a terrorizing and dysfunctional scenario deepens the characterization and sharpens performances. Plus, the film is well-made, considering the small cast and tiny budget, a substantial showing of the skills of Saudagar. Unfortunately, a more heightened climax is missed, along with the steps toward the intended Shyamalan-esque twist. Yet, the standout performances of Ali Fazal and Hussain Dalal and the entrancing characters they portray will satisfy for at least a one-time watch.
The Underbug screened at the 2023 Slamdance Film Festival.
"…standout performances of Ali Fazal and Hussain Dalal..."