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Book excerpt: How the Ramsay brothers made their first horror film

In Don’t Disturb the Dead, journalist and author Shamya Dasgupta traces the legend of the Ramsay brothers, and how their name became synonymous with horror movies in India.

books Updated: Jun 23, 2017 09:40 IST
Shamya Dasgupta
Don’t Disturb the Dead Ramsay brothers

India’s first horror movie
None of the brothers actually admit to having butterflies in the stomach when Do Gaz Zameen Ke Neeche was released, an ‘A’ certificate giving it a sort of illegitimacy – and ‘B’-grade status –straightaway, making sure that a large chunk of the overall audience was not going to give it a second glance. The family audience, as the industry calls it, wasn’t going to watch Do Gaz Zameen Ke Neeche at all, as they wouldn’t most of the Ramsays’ later films either.

‘We knew that,’ Tulsi says. ‘We had made a low-budget film and we knew that only some young boys and girls would come to watch the film. You know, they will get a bit scared, they will cuddle a bit, thoda darr, thoda romance (a little fright, a little romance).’

Sriram Raghavan, director of highly acclaimed films, including Johnny Gaddaar, was one of that darr–romance brigade. ‘One new movie would release every seven-eight months; I thought of them as clutter breakers. They had quite a dedicated audience already. The fun I had when the Ramsay movies came! My first date – I took a girl out for a date, and we went to watch Guest House (1980) in Alankar theatre in Pune. The chills, the thrills, the girls, shadows in the dark. It was great fun and great value for money.’

As for Do Gaz Zameen Ke Neeche, Ram Gopal Varma, an avowed Ramsay fan, was quoted saying in a Time Out Mumbai article, ‘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.’

‘INDIA’S FIRST HORROR MOVIE’, screamed the posters. There weren’t many of those, though, and most of the promotion was done on radio, where scary voices told listeners about the upcoming film, with sound effects and whooshing sounds making the point clearly. It released in twenty to thirty theatres in Bombay, say the brothers. The details are a bit fuzzy after all these years. But that it made around Rs 50 lakh in profits is fresh in the memory. ‘People said that Hitchcock’s brother had come to India to make a film,’ Arjun laughs.

‘It was a good film, it came out well, yes,’ Gangu says, going quiet for a while as he reminisces. Then he asks me how old I am. I tell him. ‘So you were not even born when Do Gaz Zameen Ke Neeche came out. You must have grown up seeing such slick films, all show-shaa. But at that time, remember this was 1972, no one had seen a film like this. You have seen so many horror films, suspense films. You can buy DVDs and video cassettes, you can watch films on YouTube … But that’s now. At that time, people were scared, people were shaken.’

And it was a hit.

When the Ramsays got spooked

Tulsi and Arjun remember two separate, but equally spooky, stories from the making of the film.

Both stories are, appropriately enough, situated in a Mahabaleshwar graveyard. The brothers had taken permission from the father of the church that was in charge of the cemetery. They needed to dig the ground for a sequence and the locals helped them choose a spot where they wouldn’t be offending anyone or trespassing in any way – ‘Don’t disturb the dead,’ as Arjun has said, eyes dramatically wide, many times over our interactions.

According to Tulsi: ‘The boys were digging, and, suddenly, they discovered half a body. Not a skeleton, but a body.’ Not only was everyone a bit shaken by the incident, it got worse when the villagers turned against them, threatening to cause trouble and prevent the shooting from taking place. ‘We managed to pacify them, and we prayed with the father and lit candles on the grave after replacing the body and covering it appropriately.’

Arjun’s story comes from a later date of the shooting. ‘We had packed up that day, it was 3 a.m., if I remember right. Everyone had left, but the crew was wrapping up the wires and cables and other stuff. So Arjun Ramsay [he speaks of himself in the third person for effect] stays back to oversee the work, takes out beer from the icebox in the dickey of the car, and sits down to drink. It was a bit scary. It’s human nature. There are night birds making howling sounds and the cool breeze. Suddenly I hear people screaming, one guy crying “murday ne pakad liya, murday ne pakad liya (a dead body has grabbed me)”.

I ran to where the noise was coming from. I was very scared. But nothing had happened. He was carrying a big heavy light, must have been 25 kilos, and had slipped and his leg had gone into a grave. There was a casket, but it was old, and because of the weight, his leg went in, and he thought a dead body had grabbed him.’

Though the conversations with Tulsi and Arjun took place separately, both of them displayed a similar penchant for providing sound effects as they told a story, Tulsi more than Arjun, it has to be said.

Tulsi’s eyes, warm and smiling, light up when he tells a story, especially a spooky one. Shhh … shhh, he says, his lips pursing, hands spreading slowly when he talks about the wind blowing among trees or of leaves rustling. Arjun does the same. Thhuck, thhuck, thhuck, Tulsi describes footsteps. Whooo, whooo, whooo – heavy breathing. He draws his breath and then exhales. His hands move rhythmically and his eyes narrow, then widen. You’re willingly drawn in. The man knows how to create the right atmosphere – on screen and off it.

Excerpted with permission from Don’t Disturb the Dead: The Story of the Ramsay Brothers, Shamya Dasgupta, HarperCollins.

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