King of Creeps
Ramsay knows the trick of surviving outside the mainstream. For years he has had to contend with Bollywood. And then Hollywood. He built the Ramsay identity with the help of taboos that major Indian studios had built around themselves — if only to confirm them, writes Paramita Ghosh.entertainment Updated: Sep 11, 2010 22:50 IST
In the '70s, Ramsay Brothers, a production house dedicated to making horror films in India, was in top form. Under-dressed women worked up a lather in sunken bathtubs in front of their camera. Paintings of mustachioed men with moving eyeballs were used as close-ups. Witches with bad hairdos hung upside down from trees or thrashed about on the bed... Or, went singing past closed windows.
In 1977, the Ramsays gave the Indian film industry Shakti Kapoor. The film was Darwaza. Shakti played a character called Goga, whose characterisation required that he scratch himself all over. The director was Shyam Ramsay, the creative head of the group and the only one of the seven brothers who continues to make, with the best of intentions, films in bad taste. With Bachao, the 31st film from the Ramsay vault, things may change. The king of cinematic low life has, perhaps, learnt to be subversive.
Mid-afternoon at producer Gul Acchra's workplace in Mumbai, the 55-year-old director is in an expansive mood. The Bachao posters are up on the walls. The steno tick-tocks on the computer, the office thrums.
"Horror in Indian cinema started with us but it's a manufactured genre," says Ramsay. "I was inspired by Hammerhouse's Frankenstein and Mummy films. This generation laughs at horror. Bachao is a spoof on stock Ramsay elements and horror stereotypes in general."
Ramsay knows the trick of surviving outside the mainstream. For years he has had to contend with Bollywood. And then Hollywood. He built the Ramsay identity with the help of taboos that major Indian studios had built around themselves — if only to confirm them. If Bollywood posted its hits with straitlaced Seetas, Ramsay had his hormonal Jasmines. Ramsay let them have their fun, but made them pay.
"Jasmine (the heroine of the cult Ramsay film, Veerana, in the '80s) would lure young boys to bed. That's bad, no?", he asks. "She was possessed by evil spirits... But I exposed her decently."
The yardstick for judging Ramsay and his films has to be different. Shyam Ramsay is our Ed Wood, the American director who despite all odds went on making his outlandish films. Ramsays's films, like Wood's, are examples of independent filmmaking. They can be a pain but they also have their illicit pleasures.
In 2010, Ramsay allows his heroine a more dignified destiny. Saasha Ramsay, his daughter who has assisted him in Bachao, points to the Preity Zinta-ness of Anisshka, the leading lady. "I am not the horror element in the film," says Anisshka with relief. Ramsay has even allowed Taramati, the female ghost played by a Malaysian girl, Laila, more control over her appearance. Except for the blue lenses and green body paint, her nails and lips are real. As for her hair, Ramsay purists be damned, it does not look as if she had it done while sitting on an electric chair.
Directing Zee horror serials from 1993-1998 gave Ramsay the first taste of popular success. "We realised that other than the front-benchers (a section of the audience that was anyway disappearing with the rise of the multiplexes) even the middle-class family could be Ramsay-friendly," says Ramsay. So, he threw luridness out of the window. He invested in technology. Watch its play in the shape-shifting of the characters and the spectacle of a tandoori chicken disappearing under the attack of a hungry ghost in Bachao. Does he believe in ghosts himself? "If there is white, there is black. If there is life, there is life after death," says Ramsay sounding like a long-lost cousin of Baba Ramdev.
The conversation returns to Bachao. With this film, Ramsay says he has targeted a different audience. It still supplies the horror but with laughs. The earlier films also made us laugh one ventures to say when Ramsay lists the difference: "The ghosts are upgraded, the setting is a hotel not a haveli, and there is peppy music from Bappi Lahiri..."
For a biography on Shyam Ramsay, here's a suggestion for an opening line: He tried.