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Cover story: the new brand of Bollywood horror films

Bollywood's new brand of horror is grown up, slick, well scripted and backed by big stars. Get set for goosebumps! Back in the day, the recipe for a horror movie was simple: Take one dark and...

brunch Updated: May 04, 2013 19:41 IST
Amrah Ashraf
Amrah Ashraf
Hindustan Times
Tarah Adarsh,Vikram Bhatt,Ramsay Brothers

Back in the day, the recipe for a horror movie was simple: Take one dark and stormy night. Place it in a sleepy town and add one lone hero-type in a car. Create a puncture just as car passes a sunsaan haveli so hero can check in for the night. Simmer, then add one mysterious beauty (complete with flimsy nightie and feet on backwards) to lead the way to the bedroom till hero is hooked. Then turn up the heat. Beauty turns into beast and will bay for blood. Stir briskly so hero tries to escape from every door – only to have them shut in his face. Keep the heat going until hero eventually becomes mincemeat. Serve in large helpings.

Except that now the dish has turned cold for the audiences of today. What was once cult has now become caricature. “Horror doesn’t mean walking skeletons, daayans in white saris and bloody faces anymore,” says Bollywood trade analyst Taran Adarsh. “Today horror is script-driven, technologically slick, and more ambient.”

Adarsh is referring to the many supernatural thrillers that have hit cinemas in the last few years. While the Bollywood monster flick seemed dead and buried after the last popular Ramsay Brothers’ film Bandh Darwaza in 1990, there’s been a slow resurrection. It started with Vikram Bhatt’s 1920 (2008), then came Shaapit (2010), Haunted 3D (2011) and Raaz 3D (2012). Ram Gopal Varma made his contribution with Phoonk (2008) and Bhoot Returns (2012), giving horror its three hours of fame. This year however, spine chillers are standing tall. The first quarter of 2013 has seen Aatma, 3G, Rise of the Zombie and Ek Thi Daayan. And by May 10, the undead will be out in full force with Go Goa Gone. "These are not Rs 100-crore movies but no one expects them to be," Adarsh explains. "But most have made profits and that is a good sign. Raaz 3 made Rs 70 crore and that is a big number."

Kahaani mein twist
The new crop of films have cleaned up the gore and sleaze. If you were old enough to watch them back in the day, you’ll know that most ’80s horror films were almost exclusively made for the wolf-whistling, scare-seeking male. “People lined outside theatres for my movies because they were entertaining,” says Shyam Ramsay, who comes from the family that made India’s first zombie movie Do Gaz Zameen Ke Neeche (1972), and also worked on other horror hits like Darwaza (1978), Purana Mandir (1984), Veerana (1988) and Purani Haveli (1989). “I sold my movies on sex and bhatakti aatmas [wandering spirits].” So popular were the Ramsays’ smutty scarefests that by the end of the decade, it was impossible for audiences to expect anything else from a horror movie. No other filmmaker wanted to dirty their hands with the genre, until Ram Gopal Varma made Raat (1992) and Vikram Bhatt made Raaz (2002).

In contrast, the new batch of movies actually makes horror sound cool. There are no banglas, no sinister watchmen, no kaali billis, no dense jungles and definitely no skeletons. This time, the locations are real, the scenarios are believable, the details authentic. “The reason Ragini MMS (2011) worked was because it was marketed like a date movie with supernatural elements,” says Suparn Varma, director of Aatma. “People bought the plot because they could believe it. Couples do go to hotels on date nights. They just don’t expect it to become a threesome with a ghost! This movie made them believe that it could happen to them.” that’s probably the biggest difference. The horror fantasy is rooted deeply enough in reality to make it seem plausible. In Sheershak Anand and Shantanu Ray Chhibber’s 3G, the characters are haunted by ghosts in broad daylight on a beach. In Go Goa Gone, three friends on a trip to Goa realise that what they’re actually being attacked by are zombies! "You

forget that it’s a movie and start relating it to your life,” says Raj Nidimoru, one half of director duo Raj-DK and maker of Go Goa Gone. “That is when horror grips you and puts you on the edge. Like they say, truth is stranger and scarier than fiction.”

What’s in a Tagline?
The next time you watch a horror movie, note the tagline. It will feature terms like ‘zom-com’, ‘supernatural-thriller’, ‘psych-thriller’, ‘thriller-drama’ and ‘neo-noir’. No one seems to be marketing simple scares anymore, and it’s all because horror has become more than vengeful monsters and bloody rampages. “Talaash was a ‘neo-noir’ movie. No one knew what it meant till they realised that there was a ghost in the movie,” says Adarsh. “That’s smart selling. If Reema Kagti had called it a horror movie, maybe half the janta wouldn’t have watched it.”

Incidentally when Kannan Iyer, director of Ek Thi Daayan, started working on the script 10 years ago, he never saw it as a horror film. He saw it only as a suspense drama. “I still don’t know if it falls in the horror genre,” Iyer says. “It’s about a child who believes his mother could be a daayan. Ok, now when I say it like that, it does fall in the genre,” he admits, laughing. “But that’s the thing; horror has evolved so much in the last 10 years that it has sub-genres now.” Suparn Varma explains that the taglines are a reflection of how horror movies aren’t just about horror anymore. They’re also about drama, action, suspense and even comedy today. “You make a movie for an audience – the ones that expect a ghost and the ones that expect a story – you cannot afford to alienate any one group,” he says. “You have to balance both sensibilities. And what is real is never one-dimensional. It is always layered and so are these movies.”

Fright choice, Baby
If the ’80s films don’t hold a flickering candle to today’s movies, it’s because there’s a new crop of directors who’ve dared to experiment with the genre. “Raj and DK are a couple of films old, so is Suparn, and Kannan and Reema are first-timers. They’re changing the language of storytelling,” points out Adarsh. agrees. "I wanted my first film to be different. That’s why I worked on this idea for 10 years," he says. "When Emraan [Hashmi] heard the script, he loved it and when filmmaker Ekta Kapoor heard it, she wanted to start immediately." Iyer also explains that that casting and roping in A-list backers have been the most efficient tools in raising the profile of what was once a B-grade genre. "When Aamir does Talaash, everyone notices. An A-list star cast builds confidence in the audience’s minds that the movie must be good," he adds.

Director-producer Mahesh Bhatt begs to differ. He believes that the star cast is inconsequential. “Emraan Hashmi was the lead in Raaz 3 and Ek Thi Daayan. Yet, Ek Thi… could not manage a decent opening,” he says. He believes that the only formula that works today is mass appeal. “Ek Thi Daayan was a good movie but it was made for a critical audience. Raaz 3 clicked with the public because it had everything that a filmgoer wants – strong script, good music, believable horror, desire, obsession and sex.”

Ghost in the machine
So, what makes a scary movie bone chilling? When does it make you believe there is something under your bed? What makes you wary of the sunsaan parking lot when you’re leaving the multiplex? “If you can’t plant the seed of doubt in your audience’s minds, you’ve failed as a horror filmmaker,” says Iyer. There’s no room for grave errors (pun intended) and the best way to avoid them is with technology.

While Ramsay and his generation had to rely on tacky make-up and poor computer graphics (remember Do Gaz Zameen’s cartoonish zombies?), the new filmmakers happily deploy cutting-edge computer graphics (CG), customised prosthetics, a dedicated visual effects team, 3D and Dolby sound to make the supernatural look perfectly natural. Konkana Sen Sharma’s wriggling braid in Ek Thi Daayan didn’t need visible puppet strings. It was rendered digitally."For Aatma, the CG artists started working with me months before we started shooting," Suparn Varma recalls. "Bad graphics mean that your audience will walk out of the movie laughing instead of being petrified." He also used Dolby surround sound to create the necessary atmospherics. So every time you peep over your shoulder because you think you heard something, there is a sound engineer somewhere, sniggering at your cost! Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who played a menacing spirit in the film, has a good laugh too: "If you thought I was scary in Aatma, the credit should go to the technical team. They made a docile man like me look so demonic on screen."

And everything looks scarier when you’ve got 3D glasses on. “Vikram has used 3D very well in movies like Haunted and Raaz 3,” says Bhatt. “With the help of these tricks, horror movies are pushing the scope of storytelling,” he adds. For Go Goa Gone, the filmmakers needed realistic versions of the undead monsters we know from Hollywood flicks. “We knew we couldn’t fool the audience with amateur stuff. The zombies had to look convincing,” says Raj. So they used prosthetics. The duo spent a lot of time storyboarding the film just to understand where they could pull off the look using just prosthetics and where they needed computer graphics.

The future looks scary
That is what it takes to make a supernatural movie these days. Everything from background score, music, lights, colour-grading [the colour tone in which the film is set], to ambient sound is thoroughly studied. “A still shot with no action can scare the audience if the background score kicks in just before or after the audience expects it,” says Suparn Varma. It explains why there are now big names backing the genre. Vishal Bhardwaj and Ekta Kapoor produced Ek Thi Daayan, Talaash was produced by Ritesh Sidhwani, Aamir Khan and Farhan Akhtar, Kumar Mangat Pathak produced Aatma and Mahesh Bhatt is the man behind Vikram Bhatt’s celluloid show. Raj and DK, on the other hand, have Saif Ali Khan as the producer of their film. “When we went to Saif with this idea, he came onboard in a jiffy,” says Raj.

As the names get bigger, the genre will expand. “The genre has definitely evolved and soon we will have a supernatural entry in the big Rs 100-crore club,” says Adarsh. Even Talaash’s domestic collection stopped short at Rs 95 crore. Now that’s something that will scare the daylights out of other filmmakers.

Bump me off already!
Most horror movies have some helpless characters who die the most creative deaths. An ode to these guys

The older sister: She offers to babysit. Folks leave for a quiet dinner and she calls her lover over. Of course their lovemaking is cut short by the ghoul on the prowl.

Watchman: He’s been demoted actually. Earlier the watchman was the evil spirit’s wingman. Now, he mostly gets his head chopped off or twisted by the spirit. Maybe he didn’t do his job well.

Daddy/husband: The dad is always one of the earlier victims of the bhatakti aatma. No clear reason. Maybe the aatma doesn’t like men.

A friend: Somehow one friend always bears the brunt of friendship. Well someone inconsequential has to die, why not the friend?

From HT Brunch, May 5

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First Published: May 03, 2013 12:33 IST