Yeh lighting off hai, mera face dark lagega. Kahi aur shoot kartein hain [This lighting is off, my face will look dark. Let’s shoot somewhere else],” says film-maker Shyam Ramsay. Yes, the one who made horror films, with skulls, blood, and mask-wearing ghosts, back in the ’70s and ’80s.
We’re meeting him at the 101 India office (a web content production house). It’s an unconventional space. There’s no designated building or a hall. It’s scattered across a cluster of one room kitchen houses near Mehboob Studios, Bandra. And so, we are in the front yard of the sales office. Yet, even within limited means, Shyam is particular (read, fussy) about lighting and camera angles.
Of course, you understand where it comes from. He’s a veteran filmmaker with four decades in the industry. He can probably imagine the photograph before it is clicked. He is also very self-aware. In his sixties now (he refuses to specify his age), he says his neck looks unflattering in a low-angle shot. He requests the lighting to be dimmed so that his wrinkles are not highlighted.
And he’s unabashed. “I am the pioneer of horror in India. People might find my films comic or tacky, but, as a filmmaker, one must believe in the supernatural beyond all doubt. Only then can you recreate it for film, and scare people,” he says.
While horror films existed in mainstream entertainment before the Ramsay era — thrillers such as Mahal (1949) and Bees Saal Baad (1962) — Shyam introduced the pulp horror genre (inspired by a 1980 British horror series, Hammer of House) to Bollywood. His films, Do Gaz Zameen ke Neeche (1972) and Veerana (1988), and his TV debut, Zee Horror Show (1993-1997) are iconic pop culture references in India. Simply put, Shyam is to horror films what Yash Raj is to romantic dramas.
Two decades since his TV show, Shyam is back to creating horror content, and this time, for the web. The series Phir se Ramsay features the signature elements of Ramsay films — gory murders, zombies with severed body parts, spider webs on walls, and dug up graveyards.
He says this venture is special, though. Shyam is not in the director’s seat. The web series will mark the directorial debut of his daughter, Saasha, who has written and directed the five-episode series. And as the debate around nepotism in Bollywood rages, the Ramsay father-daughter duo seem unfazed by it. “I am glad I get to take that legacy forward,” she says.
All in the family
The Ramsay family — Shyam and his six brothers — were all involved in the making of the 40 horror films produced under the Ramsay Brothers banner in the 1980s. And with the whole family involved in the pursuit of supernatural stories, Saasha, too grew up on a steady diet of all things ghost-related. She says her bedtime tales invariably revolved around zombies and witches. Not surprisingly, she didn’t quite enjoy fairy tales.
Saasha says she had a natural ability to scare people even as a child. A self-confessed prankster, she once left a prosthetic severed hand outside a neighbour’s front door one morning. Saasha recalls standing around the corner as the lady proceeded to pick up the milk packets left on the doormat, only to see a bloodied hand next to it.
It was this incident that convinced Shyam of his daughter’s sensibility regarding horror. “Uske khoon mein horror ka understanding hai [The understanding of horror runs in her blood],” he says. It sounds like a punchline from a show he’d write.
The understanding of horror in the family, interestingly, comes from what they claim are real brushes with the paranormal. For instance, Shyam recalls the story of his friend who apparently encountered a woman at Haji Ali. She asked him for a lift, and he obliged. “Once she was inside the car, my friend realised her feet were inverted, and his car met with an accident soon after. He narrowly escaped. She disappeared. We used the sequence in Veerana,” he says.
The element of reality had, in a way, made Shyam’s films resonate with Indian audiences: folk tales of abandoned ancestral houses in remote villages, or eerie sounds from a graveyard. The kind of stories you share with your friends at a camp fire. The web series, too, is set in a similar premise — Halloween misadventures, full moon nights, howling dogs and walks in the graveyard.
What sets Phir Se Ramsay apart, however, is the use of CGI, in contrast to Shyam’s original work with prosthetics, a feature that gave Ramsay films its own cinematic signature. Following suit, Saasha, in addition to using green screens, has incorporated the old-school charm of props. Surely, the use of prosthetics in 2017, must have produced amusing results. Saasha’s recalls the shock on her actors’ faces when they saw themselves in character, or when they were asked to spit fake blood for a scene.
But, with international content easily available online, and millenials spoilt with high-end CGI monsters, is the web a viable space for the Ramsays’, well, cheesy horror? Saasha is convinced. “You can’t contest the nostalgia value of these stories. You get to travel back to 1980s in 2017. People will watch the series for that,” she says.