Ghosts busted: Take a look at what it’s like to play the bhoot in Bollywood
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Ghosts busted: Take a look at what it’s like to play the bhoot in Bollywood

Some of Hindi film’s scariest spooks remain anonymous. After gruelling hours of literally hanging about or crawling around, under masks and prosthetics, few even know it was them.

more lifestyle Updated: Feb 15, 2019 18:00 IST
Madhusree Ghosh
Madhusree Ghosh
Hindustan Times
Bollywood,Bollywood ghosts,Stree
Flora Saini played the ghost in the Rajkummar Rao-starrer Stree. “I had no lines to memorise, so I could enjoy the experience of being a horror film buff on a horror film set,” she says. “But throughout my shooting time, I was suspended in mid-air. We would shoot all night, so I was hanging there all night, wearing a harness over my sari that really started to hurt my ribcage.”

Would you want to hang from a harness all night? Be drenched in water and tied to a tree? Have cracked clay plastered on your face so you have to sip your food through a straw?

If these sound like nightmares, you’re not far off. This is what it’s like for the actors playing ghosts and supernatural beings on screen. Perhaps the trickiest part is, they don’t even walk away with the fame. Sometimes, within the industry too, few people know it was them.

Did you know, for instance, that the sinister grandmother in Tumbbad was played by a 13-year-old boy? Mohammad Samad is notable for is age as well as his gender. “The Indian film industry is such a chauvinistic world that the ghost is almost always a woman, and that hasn’t changed for decades,” says film historian and critic Bhawana Somaaya. “What has changed is the films, the characters and the actors who play them. Where Madhubala appeared and disappeared in the 1949 black-and-white film Mahal, we now have comedy-horror Stree starring Shraddha Kapoor and Rajkummar Rao.”

“The trick to a good horror film is to balance identity and experience. It should, through its story and actors, appeal to your basest fears as well as to your highest emotions,” says documentarian and film writer Paromita Vohra.

Done right, such a role can be a great test of skill and craft, Somaaya adds. “The actor’s, the production designer’s, make-up crew, and writer’s. A ghost story is only as good as its writer and director. And for the actor, it’s a chance to find out — can you really inhabit any role given to you?”

The trick, adds film writer Paromita Vohra, is to balance identity and experience. “The film should, through the story and the actors playing the supernatural characters, appeal to your basest fears as well as your highest emotions.”

Computer graphics, prosthetics and VFX have made it easier to bring such a vision to life, but that doesn’t lessen the drama for the actors playing the parts.

A 13-year-old grandmother

Actor Mohammad Samad, now 18, was barely in his teens when he signed up to be transformed into the haunting, warts-encrusted grandmother / ghost in last year’s sleeper hit, Tumbbad. To make things more complicated, he also plays Pandurang, one of the key characters in the film.

Mohammad Samad was 13 when he played the haunting, warts-encrusted grandmother / ghost in last year’s sleeper hit, Tumbbad.

“After one year of shooting, 90% of the film was reshot. We realised that our idea for the sinister, supernatural character of Dadi was not working,” says co-producer Sohum Shah. The makers had wanted an obese Dadi. “We realised the weight was costing the character its essence. We started looking for a thinner Dadi who could be wicked and mischievous as well, and realised we had everything we needed in Samad.”

Well, almost everything. For a month, the teen spent six hours a day just having the prosthetics applied — rubbery masks and fake skins covered in scars, warts and even protruding metal bars to suggest violence.

“Moving around with all the extra weight was difficult, so I had to train to be stronger. But the main problem was breathing,” he says. “There were times when I just had to take the mask off. But that was such a big operation that I sometimes just used an oxygen mask instead. There was even a doctor present on set to make sure I was okay.”

Samad as Dadi. ‘Moving around with all the extra weight was difficult, so I had to train to be stronger. But the main problem was breathing,’ he says. ‘There were times when I just had to take the mask off. But that was such a big operation that I sometimes just used an oxygen mask instead. There was even a doctor present on set to make sure I was okay.’

Samad also couldn’t eat solids with his makeup on, so through the day he lived on juices and soups. “My love of horror movies helped me prepare for the role, and endure the demands it made on me,” he says. “When my friends and family saw Tumbbad, they didn’t know I was the young boy as well as the grandmother,” he says, laughing. “Their reactions when I told them made me very happy.”

He’ll likely never be known as that scary grandmother from Tumbbad. He’s still known best for his role in the critically acclaimed Haraamkhor; you might also know him from the Netflix original, Selection Day.

Dangling from a harness all night

You could say that it was Flora Saini’s feet that starred in Stree. For most of the film, that’s all you see of her. But Saini, 34, has no regrets.

The film was so successful, that it’s made her a household name, even though her face was only revealed during the climax.

“My character was kept under wraps right till the film’s release, so I was absent from all the promotions too,” Saini says, laughing. “But ever since the release, people call out, ‘O Stree’ when they see me on the road.”

You could say that it was Flora Saini’s feet that starred in Stree. For most of the film, that’s all you see of her.

The shoot itself was full of fun, shot on location in Chanderi, Madhya Pradesh, where the original spirit named Stree is believed to haunt and abduct single men.

“The first day there, the production team left a list of ‘Dos & Don’ts’ for me, like ‘Don’t roam around with untied hair’,” says Saini.

She had no lines to memorise, so she could enjoy the experience of being a horror film buff on a horror film set, just watching the story unfold.

“The twist in the tale is, throughout my shooting time, I was suspended in mid-air,” she says. “We would shoot all night, so I was hanging there all night, wearing a harness over my sari that really started to hurt my ribcage. It was painful and a challenge.”

Being Sunny Leone

“In my entire career, never had I thought that I would be required to mirror the movements that Sunny Leone was making on screen,” says Geetanjali Kulkarni. The National School of Drama graduate with 20 years in theatre, known for intense roles in films like Mukti Bhawan and Court, shocked family, friends and fans as she accepted the role of the ghost / witch in Ragini MMS 2.

Geetanjali Kulkarni, a National School of Drama graduate with 20 years in theatre, played a witch in Ragini MMS 2. ‘I had to lip sync to a song, do action sequences. It was like nothing I have done before, but it was surprisingly enjoyable,’ she says.

“When the offer came to me, and I heard the story, and I was told that I would work alongside Leone, I had to say yes. I had never played such a role in my life,” she says. “I had to lip sync to a song, do action sequences. It was like nothing I have done before, but it was surprisingly enjoyable.”

The scene where she had to mirror Sunny Leone still makes her laugh. “I was in a nine-yard sari. She was in a bikini, and the other actor, Parvin Dabas, was handcuffed to a bed. Leone was on top of him. She is supposed to be possessed by me in this scene,” Kulkarni says. “The middle-class woman in me came out in full force. I was so awkward. I started making random small talk with Dabas. The faces of my father, grandfather and uncles began flashing before my eyes. I imagined them watching me do this.”

“At one point, I was tied to a tree, all wet, supposed to have been doused with kerosene. I felt cold and miserable. I was near tears. That’s when my NSD training came to the fore — the patience, perseverance, commitment theatre has taught me.”

It was Leone who finally helped her relax. “She showed me some thigh movements that I could repeat. It was really quite physically exhausting.”

Playing the witch also made her appreciate her husband Atul Kulkarni’s action sequences more (he was most recently seen as Tatya Tope in Manikarnika).

“I was tied to a tree. I was all wet, supposed to have been doused with kerosene. I felt cold and miserable. I was near tears. That’s when my NSD training came to the fore — all the patience, perseverance and commitment that theatre has taught me.”

The movie came out and everyone around her was shocked. But I have no regrets, Kulkarni says.

A 30-year-old chudail

When the feisty stage actor Mansi Multani agreed to play the grotesque, 75-year-old ghost, Kalapori, in the Anushka Sharma-starrer Pari, she never thought she’d enjoy it as much as she did.

“Nothing prepared me for Pari,” she says, laughing. For the first time in her career, all Multani’s lines were gibberish. Her character Kalapori is the devil’s consort, a young woman trapped in an ugly, withered body, whose job is to ensure the devil Ifrit’s line continues.

Mansi Multani played Kalapori in the Anushka Sharma-starrer Pari. Her character is the devil’s consort, a young woman trapped in an ugly, withered body, whose job is to ensure the devil Ifrit’s line continues. The ghost wasn’t tacky or titillating but vulnerable and human. That’s what attracted her to the role, she says.

“It was very physical so I could use the ‘theatricality’ of my experiences with theatre.” It was the prosthetics that turned out to be the hardest part. It took 3.5 hours every day for her to get camera-ready.

“The prosthetics made me claustrophobic, prevented me from eating, yawning, or stretching my facial muscles in any way, because if I did that, it all started to peel. Balancing the makeup with being creepy and convincing was a big challenge.”

But this ghost wasn’t tacky or titillating. “She is vulnerable and human,” Multani says, “and that’s what attracted me to the role. It was also fun seeing myself on posters in Mumbai. Malls in Bengaluru and Chennai did some digital 3D mapping of our bodies and created mannequins. My friends sent me video of another very real me at the mall.”

The actor says she saw it as a unique opportunity. “Not many actors in India have got this chance.”

You’ll see her next wearing her own face, and starring in the as-yet-unreleased Kadakh.

Mud on your face

The best thing about actor Meenal Kapoor’s ghost in 1920 London was that no special effects were used for her look. It was all done with makeup. That was also the worst thing about it, for her.

“It took almost four hours to turn me into that ghost,” she moans. “The director, Tinu Desai, wanted a cracked look. No prosthetics could achieve that. So they decided to use Multani mitti [a type of clay used in face masks]. Once it was on, I could barely move my face.”

It was also physically harrowing because Multani mitti leaches moisture from the skin and is typically worn for about 20 minutes. “My face was caked with it for eight hours!”

‘I had to crawl, military-style, on my arms, in full makeup, wig, corset and heavy gown, with Multani mitti caked on my face, leaching all the moisture from my skin,’ says Meenal Kapoor, the ghost in 1920 London. ‘It was a test of endurance.’

Before the film, the NSD graduate had been conducting design-direction and acting workshops, in addition to her acting work.

“These workshops make you resilient, physically and mentally. So when I had to crawl, military-style, on my arms, in full makeup, wig, corset and heavy gown, that resilience came in handy.”

But she wouldn’t do it again, she says. “I’ve done it. Why repeat it? I wouldn’t mind playing a negative character, though.”

First Published: Feb 02, 2019 20:36 IST