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Horror movies are back, and how!

Horror movies are back. But the trend that arguably began in 1949 with Mahal had its real moment of glory in the ’80s when the Ramsay brothers ruled the genre.

bollywood Updated: Nov 20, 2010 18:09 IST
Jerry Pinto

Yeh hai Saamri. Vaibi duniya ki parchaaieeyaan mein lipti hui is khamosh aur sunsaan haveli ka maalik. Jaadu aur tilasmat ke ilm ka maahir, jiske naam se khauff larazta hai, dahshat dhalti hai, Saamri hawaaon ko pehchaanta hai, unke rukh badalna janta hai. Saamri ke paas bepanaah daulat hai phir bhi woh duniya ke is bheed mein akela hai. Dost, rishtedaar sab usse kinaara kar chuke hain; kuch khauff se, kuch jaadu tone ke dar se. Saamri is haveli ke khufiya aur paushida raaston se vaakif hai. Woh Kaali Maa ka bhakt hai. Maasom aur baag jism se badruk ko nikaalna Saamri ka daaye haath ka khel hai.

So began Saamri, one of the best-remembered of the Ramsay brothers movies. In the writing of those introductory lines, one can smell the sincerity of the author. No irony was meant. The Baroque Urdu was intended to smite audiences with the deep significance of the events to come. The deep resonant voice was supposed to scare us senseless and then Kali’s sword would come swooping down over our very heads.

After all, this was the third 3-D film India had produced, after Chhota Chetan and Shiva Ka Insaaf.

Hisss"It was also India’s first 3-D horror film," Shyam Ramsay notes with some pleasure. Seated in the office of his distributor for his latest film, Bachao, he is the picture of legacy Bollywood, a man with a furrowed brow, a compliant smile and many assumptions about what the masses want and need out of their movies. Or their horror movies.

* * *

The first ghost to walk got a glorious start. Mahal was directed by Kamal Amrohi; it starred Ashok Kumar and Madhubala; it had Joseph Wirsching as cameraman. It is also said to have launched the singing talent of Lata Mangeshkar on to the world with Aayega, aayega aanewaalaa. But was it a horror film? In her paper on the film, Dr Rachel Dwyer, Professor of Indian Cultures and Cinema, SOAS, argues that it could as well be classified as Gothic as noir as fantasy.

Mahal, she writes, “also has many elements of a ghost film with a heroine who sings in a disembodied voice and seems to vanish with other tricks of light and shade. Ghost stories are popular in Indian mythology and Sanskrit literature (the popular stories of the ‘vampire’, the vetal vimshati), as well as in modern literature…, and popular belief in ghosts abounds.”

Nor does Valentina Vitali, who teaches film studies at the University of East London, see Mahal as a horror film. In an essay which will appear in a forthcoming Oxford University Press book, she writes: “In India, horror films are like a glitch in the system: none seems to have been made throughout the history of Indian cinemas except between the late 1970s and the early 1990s, when the genre saw a brief moment of glory with the Hindi productions of the Ramsay brothers…”

While the academicians debate the issue, let us assume that Mahal was a horror film. It had a ghost in it and the ghost seemed intent on doing the hero some harm. (Spoiler warning. Skip next sentence if you are going to see Mahal.) If it is unmasked in the end as a human, well, so are the monsters and ghosts in many other so-called horror films, especially in India.

This was probably because film was seen as a special case in India. It could go where other media could not reach. It could speak to the illiterate and, it was therefore assumed, the superstitious. Thus, it was often necessary to distance the film from the world of the real. Jaani Dushman began with a very obviously handwritten notice that says: Jaani Dushman preton ke upar aadharit kalapanik kahaani hai. Jo bhoot-preton mein maante hain unke liye is film mein koi sandesh nahin hai. Jo nahin maante hai unko manaane ka koi prachal nahin hai. (Jaani Dushman is a fiction film based on demons. This film has no message for those who believe in the supernatural. It makes no attempt to convert those who do not believe.)

Raj Kumar Kohli’s Jaani Dushman (1979) was the horror film’s shot at the big time. It had a huge star cast: Rekha, Sanjeev Kumar, Jeetendra, Neetu Singh, Sarika, Shatrughan Sinha, Sunil Dutt, Reena Roy. The secondary cast had Varmaeveryone from Amrish Puri to Vijayendra in small roles. Although the film did try to set out a coherent and logical plot – it actually offered five ways in which one might identify an evil spirit: sweating, biting the lips, tremors in the hands and feet, no blinking and a fear of fire – it bombed and with it, all hope of resurrecting the horror movie went down in flames.

Part of the problem was the special effects. You have to only watch the way Amrish Puri has his head turned in a 360-degree angle (a la Exorcist) to see how bad things can get.

No wonder most of the Ramsay films are now viewed as cult films. In the video circulating library to which I go, they are secreted together in an untidy clump: Shaitaan Khopdi and Tahkhaana all together.

“These are films to laugh at,” says Satish, a young man who is borrowing one on the day I visit. “They have these stupid stories in which the demon walks as if he is hundred years old but when the heroine runs in the opposite direction, he’s in front of her again. Means, if he can just get from here to there, why walk like that? And they all wear atta (wheat flour paste) mixed with colour on their faces. That’s the demon.”

Isn’t there a good Indian horror film? There is, he says. Raat.

* * *

That year, 1992, was a good one for the Bollywood horror film. There were two films that actually made the grade in one way or the other. There was Junoon, made by Mahesh Bhatt and there was Raat directed by Ram Gopal Varma. Neither was terribly original in its story line.

Junoon worked its way down a fairly beaten track. Man goes into jungle. Man hunts on pooran mashi ki raat when hunting is forbidden. Man kills tiger. Man turns into tiger. The only difference was the moment of transformation, which was achieved with the help of special effects experts from Hollywood. The man in charge was Ken Diaz (whose other screen credits include The Mask of Zorro and Erin Brockovich) with some assistance from Jay Arthur Wegeve and Michelcary.

Hitherto, such transformations took place in a series of laughable stop-motion changes: Reena Roy and Jeetendra turning into the ichchhadhaari naag and naagin in Raj Kumar Santoshi’s Nagin (1976) are a good example. There are hundreds of ways of making sure the audience doesn’t see as much as it should: reaction shot from a stricken young woman, a pillar as the camera circles the man who is turning into a beast.

But what Raat did becomes apparent even when you revisit it. The first scenes are a series of well-thought-out jokes. The titles run on darkness but then the film was called Raat (or Raatri in Telugu). There’s only a sliver of light showing through and then the sliver widens, and daylight floods the screen. We are in a small town or a village about to turn into a town. Only, it is completely deserted. The camera tracks around, wandering like a lost soul. And then a bus heaves into view, a red interstate bus. The doors open, Revathi descends. She wanders through the empty town, trying to fill in the blanks as we are. A white Ambassador seems to represent sanity and normalcy. Only when she passes by, the doors open. She looks in and what she sees has her screaming, running…

We never saw what she saw and that makes it all the more terrifying. But Shyam Ramsay does not believe that will work.

“In Jaws, you don’t see the shark. Hardly, you see it. But for us, that will not do. If the audience has come for a Ramsay film, then they want to see the monster in the first 20 minutes. So, you show them the monster and then you can go away and do a comedy sequence or a romantic song or whatever. But you have to show them the monster.”

He knows what he’s talking about. He’s spent nearly 40 years in the business. Even the young Turks admit that he has been an influence. “I was most scared of this Ramsay Brothers film called Do Gaz Zameen Ke Neeche. After I saw the film, I got down from the bus to avoid a route that goes to my house through a graveyard. I walked two kilometres to avoid it,” Ram Gopal Varma told Leo Mirani in Time Out Mumbai.

* * *

Horror is back. Or so they say. “Bachao is another first,” says Shyam Ramsay. “It is a kind of comedy-horror. The star cast of a film go on location to shoot a horror film.”

Comedy has always played an important role in the Ramsay oeuvre. Sannata had a full-length spoof on Sholay with Leela Misra playing Basanti and Jagdeep playing Gabbar Singh.

Hissss has Mallika Sherawat as an ichchhadaari nagin. This means that she is at least 300 years old and since she has lived to this ripe old age, she can take on whatever form she wants. Other ichchhadhaari naagins of note have included Sridevi and Rekha.

Pritish Nandy Communications has tied up Carey Fitzgerald’s London-based High Point Media Group to develop what he calls I-Horror. (This follows in the Bollywood tradition. J-Horror is Japanese Horror, the originator of such blood-slick monster successes as Ringu, Ju-on and Audition.) Shiney Ahuja is all set to have an Accident; this sounds a bit like the Thai film Shutter but we may be wrong. Anurag Basu claims it is in the league of the psychological thriller, The Tenant. Sanjay Khanduri will be making The Pilgrim Express and Kushan Nandy will make Of Brothers and Sisters.

The standard explanation for horror films has always been that they represent the subterranean desires and fears of the world. The success of Twilight can be linked to the bogey of AIDS; body fluids must not be exchanged and so vampires can be used to suggest the terror of infection. Ringu’s nightmarish scenario – playing a videotape can destroy your life – can be read as the new terror of the media, that you could be on the next MMS that is being passed around, that your secrets are being spilled on Facebook.

What is it about us and ichchhadhaari naagins?

Most Indian horror films are framed around the problems of modernity. There is always someone who does not believe in the old legend, who opens the bandh darwaaza, who breaks the pot in which the tantrik has captured the spirit. Then the spirit / demon / chudail takes his or her revenge. Who can conquer this spirit? In the case of Ram Gopal Varma’s Bhoot, (which was a reworking of What Lies Beneath), we see this worked out logically. When people start dying after Vishal (Ajay Devgn) and Swati (Urmila Matondkar) move into their 12th floor flat, Inspector Liaqat Qureishi (Nana Patekar) is called in. He can’t crack the case. Ratiocination and logic just don’t work; they’re too ‘modern’. Then a psychiatrist (Victor Bannerjee) is called in to help Swati. Help comes from the underbelly of society, from the places where New Agers love to tell us, people are closer to nature. The house maid (Seema Biswas) calls in a psychic (Rekha). Rekha’s role was only an updated version of the tantrik who was almost always played by Premnath. In the world of horror, it is our own ancient texts that will reveal the way forward when everything else has failed.

Sometimes the problem has to do with the land. The house which the newcomers take possession of has been built over a cemetery or the home of a spirit. Guddu Dhanoa’s Hawa is a good example but you can multiply this by any number of examples down to Anand Prakash’s Mahal, where a hostel is opened on the site of an old mahal where a spirit lived. This spirit raped a woman whose son comes to study in the college and bound by filial loyalty, he releases the spirit. You can see where this is headed. As our cities crawl out of their boundaries and as open land is colonised and concretised, the monsters come out of hiding. Some might even spot the Yayati complex playing itself out in Mahal as the son’s body is taken over by the father’s spirit which then visits young women in several bathrooms.

“See,” says Shyam Ramsay, “aaj ki audience sharp ho gayi hai. They are aware. They see films on television from all over the world. So we have to innovate. We have to be conscious of our content. It has to be appealing.”
As long as fear stalks the human mind…