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Bollywood repackages horror — and cashes in

Everyone loves a ghost story — a good scare to send a chill down the spine. Tales of haunted houses, of being possessed by ghouls and spirits are told and retold with great relish, writes Ruchira Hoon.

entertainment Updated: Dec 06, 2008 20:01 IST
Ruchira Hoon

Everyone loves a ghost story — a good scare to send a chill down the spine. Tales of haunted houses, of being possessed by ghouls and spirits are told and retold with great relish.

No wonder, Indian filmmakers have always found an audience for horror movies. Whether it was Madhumati (1958) with Vyjayanthimala prancing around or Raaz (2002) (smokey-eyes Bipasha Basu), scary movies have always hit it big at the BO. For a while, post-Raaz, it had seemed as if they’d lost out to feel-good NRI romances, but now they’re back with a boo. Think Phoonk, 1920, Raaz: The Mystery Continues, etc. These flicks don’t use blood and gore to frighten you out of your wits; they work by invoking elements of the occult, as also of the paranormal and supernatural.

Indians have a huge appetite for horror, says Komal Nahata, film trade analyst. And the scarier the film, the more receptive the audience. “Not too many directors explore the genre, nor do they make horror movies well. But if they’re well made and packaged with haunting melodies, it’s the formula for a hit.”

Most horror films are low-budget quickies, which is why they do better business than ones with, say, a star cast of Dia Mirza or Arbaaz Khan. According to Nahata, the last two horror films released, Phoonk and 1920, grossed

Rs 7 crore and Rs 6 crore respectively, almost twice what it cost to produce them. And there’s more coming our way, says Nahata. “The promos of Mohit Suri’s Raaz: The Mystery Continues [releasing January 2009] look phenomenal and Sangeeth Sivan’s Click — another edgy thriller, should be out in a couple of months.”

Less is more...frightening

What is more frightening — the blood-spattered image of the dead or that subtle white ghost in the attic? According to Vikram Bhatt, the director of Raaz and 1920, neither. “Horror must be aesthetic. It’s meant to frighten and not be shoddy or be laughed at. People don’t find hairy one-eyed monsters or men with bleeding fangs holding knives scary any more. Today, it’s important to play with the basic emotion of fear — something that can touch a raw nerve with the audience, something that will make them sit on the edge of their seats and wonder what happens next.”

Bhatt also feels that horror should not repulse. “Blood and gore is horrifying, not terrifying,” he says. “And world cinema is very obviously moving away from it. It’s all about anticipation and anxiety these days.”

In India, of course, cinematic horror has traversed the whole gamut from the strongly-scripted, gripping films of the 50s and 60s like Mahal, Bees Saal Baad and Gumnaam, to the C-grade Veerana, Kabrastan, Khooni Dracula of the 80s and 90s and of late, slick flicks like Bhoot, Raaz and Bhool Bhulaiya which combine the supernatural with a close understanding of the psychosis of fear. Mohit Suri, the director of Raaz: The Mystery Continues, says he’s been inspired by movies like The Grudge and The Ring. “I’d never seen such a response to any other kind of film. There were people hiding their faces, screaming, shouting out to save the actors — basically taking in the film in its totality and enjoying the ride. That’s why I know that horror is definitely a genre to reckon with.”

For his film, Suri has done away with over-the-top acting, bad make-up and ghastly special effects. Instead, it’s the primal instinct of fear that he’s trying to evoke. “It’s a good story that matters and, of course, the rest is in the hands of the director,” he says. Advances in special effects technology has made life a lot easier for directors. No more the garish and crude eye-ball popping monsters of the Ramsays, but classy Matrix- and 300-inspired CGI.

For Sangeeth Sivan, on the other hand, style is the key to horror. Inspired greatly by Japanese horror films, Sivan wants no ghosts and no blood in Click. “If you want to make a film without a big star cast on a small budget, then horror is the perfect alternative. And Japanese horror gives you the option of making a film with an eerie atmosphere and no fancy editing. Something that is different from Hollywood horror, where slick editing is a must,” he says.

Clearly then, these directors don’t want the audience to feel repulsed by what they see on screen, but to take home a tale that is so creepy and so chilling that it remains with them for days after. “The images from the film should be able to haunt them and not just affect them for the time being,” says Sivan.

OST: Original Scary Track

Loud noises do not evoke fear. Nor do shrieks and screams. Instead it’s the sound of silence that sends people running for cover.

For music directors in Bollywood who have composed tracks for horror films, haunting melodies have always been the USP. “Earlier the music was raag-based, as in movies like Gumnaam (1965) and Mera Saaya (1966), and then with the Ramsays it moved on to just using scary synthetic sounds and orchestra,” says Pritam who composed the music of Bhool Bhulaiya. “Today we’ve realised that using silence is most important.”

Raju Rao, background musician for 1920, believes that the advances in technology allow directors to create enhanced atmospheric sounds that are eerie and frightening. “Dolby, Surround Sound, Stereovision and DTS (Digital Theatre System) have widened the spectrum of sound and created new resonances. Watch a horror film on mute, and you’ll laugh through it. Add music to it and you’ll feel scared, really scared.” A composer, Raju adds, must build up the music in a horror film. “You can’t have loud dialogue backed by louder music in the background. That doesn’t scare, it’s just noisy. Instead going from an atmospheric background to melody and then to situational silence is important.”

And yes, a horror film with good music works. Take Woh Kaun Thi? (1964) or 1920. “It’s essential to have a haunting melody, that can be hummed over and over again,” says producer Mukesh Bhatt. “It’s used to increase anticipation and also adds to the theme.”

In the last couple of years, Indian audiences have been receptive to such tactics. They’ve realised that you don’t have to see an ugly face to be scared. Or blood to be horrified. Perhaps they know that the beautiful person sitting next them is a ghost.