The suspense is killing. Why can’t Bollywood produce an Alfred Hitchcock? Or, why can’t we make movies that, simply, send shivers down the spine?
Person of Indian Origin Manoj Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water surfaced in town this Friday. And although it’s been panned as being “like Splash reworked by a grandiose Sunday-school teacher”, it’s going to draw up parallels yet again: if PIO Shayamalan could do it in Hollywood, why can’t we do it at home, in Bollywood? “There are no specialised writers of suspense films in India,” says Vikram ‘Raaz’ Bhatt. “The audience wants to watch feel-good films, not suspense. But I'm hopeful that things will change. One hit suspense film and everyone will start making the same. Wait for my next film Red, which is not a remake of any Hollywood film.”
Cut back to 1949, to Mahal. The genesis of the Indian horror/suspense films oeuvre. Mahal probably set the tone for the category: where, invariably, the women wore white and were sepulchral; they also sang mellifluously. Consider the ‘horror classic’ Woh Kaun Thi (1964), the opening shots of which are still supposed to be the stuff bad dreams are made up of: a car that breaks down in the middle of a lonely road, a song that pipes up from somewhere within the fog-induced atmospherics, the Woman in White (in this case, Sadhana) hovering in the horizon, and the hero (Manoj Kumar) trying very hard to look scared (later, it was established that he could look only one way: deadpan). Then, there was Kohraa, an adaptation of Rebecca, where Waheeda Rehman cavorts around with a few sheepish-looking lambs while singing songs, and Bengali bombshell Biswajit tried, in vain, to do justice to a role immortalised by Laurence Olivier.
The Ramsay Brothers took over the reins of horror in the 70s and the 80s: C-grade actors, even more C-grade production values and, of course, lots of ketchup and well-rounded flesh. In between, there were ‘hits’ like Gumnaam, based on Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Niggers, that was quite watchable, but there was so much of bump-and-grind by Mehmood and Helen next to the swimming pool, that the mystery was lost in the maze. There was also the 3-hour-long Raaz; the raaz was that the plot unfolded in the last 15 minutes.
The wild card in this time period was BR Chopra’s Ittefaq (1969), where the maker of family melodramas suddenly took a chance on an ‘offbeat quickie’. The edge-of-the-seat Ittefaq is one reason to believe that the genre can actually come of age in India: if it could in 1969, why can’t it now?
The late-80s/early-90s started seeing the genre changing tracks — for two reasons. One was the superb no-songs-and-dances Khamosh by Vidhu Vinod Chopra. Reason no. 2 was producer Boney Kapoor’s Exorcist adaptation, Raat (1991), directed by Ram Gopal Varma — and although Revathi was no Linda Blair, she exuded a kind of unnerving talent (replicated later by Urmila Matondkar in RGV’s Bhoot in 2002). The spanner in the works was Junoon, Mahesh Bhatt’s much-hyped remake of The Cat People, that had people scampering out of the halls the moment Rahul Roy (in a most uninspired take on Malcolm McDowell’s class act) pulled on the tiger’s mask and pretended to be one.
But the turn of the millennium saw the suspense/horror genre being taken seriously. And yet again, there were two reasons for this: one, RGV’s fear factory (Bhoot, Darna Mana Hai, Pyaar Tu Ne Kya Kiya, My Wife’s Murder, Darna Zaroori Hai etc), and, two, the now-retired Mahesh Bhatt in the role of presenter of a series of suspense/horror offerings, a few of them eminently forgettable, but a few that have been quite brave (Dastak, Kasoor, Raaz —not to be confused with the old Rajesh Khanna-starrer Raaz).
The inconsistencies persist. Bhoot, for instance, that starts off masterfully, suddenly loses itself in Rekha’s white-lined eyes and a brand of histrionics that had the audiences in splits — weren’t they supposed to be scared? My Wife’s Murder was as taut as a washboard, but the last half-an-hour disintegrates into murderous mayhem. Raaz, never mind the Hindi filmi excesses, was working out well, but botched up by the time the secret was out.
“And the problem in Hindi film industry is that we follow the herd mentality,” says director Anurag Basu. “After Darna Zaroori Hai flopped, my idea of making a suspense thriller was rejected by producers and I’m been asked to wait. But the time will come — hopefully soon.”
How long will it take for the suspense to build up?