What Scares Us Bhoot nee ke!
A woman in a white sari glides across the broken down khandar. The furniture creaks and doors whine. She sings a sweet eerie song with lyrics that chill your spine. The young male protagonist (if you are lucky, he is handsome too) follows her spellbound. He finally reaches her by the end of the song (never in the middle of an awkward stanza). She turns with a jolt, which is accompanied by music resembling a woman’s shriek, revealing bloodshot eyes and a gore-infested body. When you sit in a theatre and experience all this, you realize you have bitten your manicure off or pulled out your moustache. The emotion that twists your guts into violent knots is fear. Yet, you will return to that theatre to feel that fear again. You actually enjoy it! Ever wondered why our brains are built that way?
Horror is one of those genres in cinema, where the psychology of the audience determines the shape of the cinematic genre itself. You get what you want to see. You want mutating monsters, giant animals, supernatural slime, gory row of murders, you’ve got them. Whatever works for the audience.
Most stories in horror films concern unbelieving normal modern folks (the audience identifies with them, this creates relevance) who completely bash the existence of the supernatural or the possibility of fantastically horrible events happening, for example, a homicidal maniacal spree. Then, out of the blue, things start happening, things that are mysterious, uncanny, disgusting, shocking. This creates tension. Now a horror film audience already knows they are to expect something unreal. But ironically, this unrealism is what holds their attention to the end. This way horror has been claiming a special set of audience for itself, with an occasional film that appeals to all and sundry.
Universally, horror movies of several varieties have ruled cinema. Supernatural horror. I am talking the likes of vampires like Dracula (he has been scaring us since the 1931 Tod Browning directed Dracula) and werewolves (The Howling, 1981). Or science fiction, such as Frankenstein (another 1931 icon), Alien (1979). Slasher movies, such as Friday the 13th (1980) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Mostly, Indian cinema conforms with the global horror scene as is seen by the many desi remakes. Gumnaam, which was based on Agatha Christie’s book, And Then There were None, is almost a slasher horror, a genre I am happy to find, is not prevalent in India. Gehrayee (1980) was inspired by The Exorcist. Vikram Bhatt’s Raaz was a successful remake of the Hollywood title What Lies Beneath. Anjaane (2005) was a sad remake of the brilliant horror thriller The Others as was Hawa (2003) of The Entity (1983). Another flop desi remake was the John Abraham horror flick Saaya (2003), which was based on the Hollywood movie Dragonfly. The Marathi horror Zapatlela (1993) was clearly inspired by Child’s Play.
Horror is one of those genres in cinema, where the psychology of the audience determines the shape of the cinematic genre itself.
However, I can’t see a suited-booted Dracula stealing our girls. Mahesh Bhatt did succeed with a variation of the werewolf with Junoon (1992) (in India we turn into Royal Bengal tigers). Still, Indian cinema has always had its own brand of horror. It started with Kamal Amrohi’s Mahal (1949). With hot stars such as Ashok Kumar and Madhubala, this blockbuster still spooks. Strictly speaking though, Mahal was not an out-and-out horror, more of an intense mystery. Still, the movie’s success encouraged several similar box office hits, such as Hemant Kumar’s Bees Saal Baad (1962), Raja Nawathe’s Gumnaam (1965), and Raj Khosla’s Wo Kaun Thi (1964).
How did these films work? Remember that era, often called the gothic-fiction era, was black and white. Showing blood won’t work without the color red. Plus, the special effects were way weaker than what we are used to now. So, the film maker resorted to creepy shadows, eerie music, slow dramatic movement and dialogues, and a narration ensconced in only the best Urdu. And it worked. Almost all of these movies had a haunting song (can you possibly forget ‘Gumnaam hai koi’, ‘Aayega aanewala’, and ‘Kahin deep jale kahin dil’?). In addition, the plots included a mystery that teased the audience’s curiosity no end. You would not have relief till you reached the end.
After the black and white era, the next era in Indian horror begins with the Ramsay brothers. Horror in Indian cinema is incomplete without the Ramsays. They entered this genre of film making with an experiment called Do Gaz Zameen ke Neeche (1972), which was made on a shoestring budget of Rs. 3.5 lakhs in a duration of forty days. The movie earned the Ramsays Rs. 45 lakhs! After that, there was no looking back for the Ramsays. They indulged the audience with more than thirty sleaze and gore filled horror movies throughout the 80s. Veerana (1988), Purana Mandir (1984), Purani Haveli (1989) and Bandh Darwaza (1990), are a few examples.
Apart from the Ramsays, other famous horror movies from the 70s to the 90s were Rajkumar Kohli’s Nagin (1976) and Jaani Dushman, which was a cult classic movie that led to a string of horror flicks such as Darwaza (1978), Jadu Tona (1977), Aur Kaun? (1979), Saboot (1980), Red Rose (1980), Guest House (1980), Dahshat (1981), and Sannata (1980).
If we look at the influences on Indian horror films, Indian folklore is the strongest. Tantriks who can rouse a trouble-making bloodthirsty shaitan with a few incantations and pieces of skulls and bones. Or, as is seen in Purana Mandir, the tantrik himself is the devil worshipping cannibalistic demon. The solution for the brave/lucky protagonist is often an enchanted tabeez or trishul. Another movie with a folklore-based story is the Malayalam horror-comedy, Manichitrathazhu (1993), where the vengeful spirit of a courtesan wreaks havoc in an old mansion. The film’s success led it to be remade in Tamil and Telugu as Chandramukhi, in Kannada as Apthamitra, in Bengali as Rajmohol, and in Hindi as Bhool Bhulaiyaa.
Indian literature and art have also inspired films in the horror genre. The Malayalam fantasy horror Anandabhadram (2005), was not only based on Sunil Parameswaran’s novel of the same name, but was also inspired by the paintings of Raja Ravi Varma, Theyyam and Kathakali dance movements, and Kalaripayattu martial art forms.
The concept of reincarnation is an absolute crowd pleaser in subtle Indian horror. Mahal, Madhumati, Neelkamal revolve around this theme. A more recent film is the Sohail Khan and Ishaa Koppikar starer Krishna Cottage (2004), which is a story of a thwarted lover who haunts her reincarnated rejecter.
In Indian horror films, the power of seduction is more than often the means of trapping ‘’innocent’’ male protagonists (or if they are unlucky, side characters). Filmmakers have always exploited this angle to show some skin on the sly (Veerana). Also, there is always some poor lithe damsel to be rescued just as she decides to go almost skinny-dipping in the village lake by the khandar. This trend has given rise to many soft-porn horror flicks. I won’t name them here or your mothers might come knocking at my door. I will just mention one famous flick, Ragini MMS and its Sunny Leone starring sequel, Ragini MMS 2, which call themselves a horrex (horror + sex duh!) movie.
Feminism has not been ignored by this genre. In keeping with Indian folklore, female rabble-rousers are often dayans and chudails, the Indian equivalent of witches. Another femme fatale of the fantasy-horror genre is the ichhadhari nagin, a female snake who can transform into a seductive hot bod with hazel eyes (always hazel, that’s very important). The story often revolves around her seeking revenge on the humans who killed her ichhadhari nag lover, their motive often being the possession of the powerful nagmani. Rajkumar Kohli’s Nagin (1976) was the first in this genre. With its star-strewn cast, including, Mumtaz, Sunil Dutt, Rekha, Reena Roy, Vinod Mehra, Jeetendra, Feroz Khan, Sanjay Khan, and Yogeeta Bali, the movie was a super success. Nagin was followed by the Sri Devi and Rishi Kapoor starrer Nagina (1986) and the more recent Mallika Sherawat starer Hisss (2010). Somehow each attempt at a male centered snake movie has bombed, Nagina’s sequel Nigahen (1989) and Jaani Dushman: Ek Anokhi Kahani (2002).
Actresses have often made careers out of the horror genre. Sadhana and Madubala’s performances in Wo Kaun Thi and Mahal as the mysterious seductive woman were widely appreciated. Actresses known to have caused many screams through the 80s and 90s are Kunika (Kabrastan, Bandh Darwaza, and Mahakaal), Aruna Irani (Phir Wohi Raat, Jaani Dushman, Bandh Darwaza), and Sriprada (Khooni Murda, Khooni Mahal, Dayan). In more recent times, Bipasha Basu’s performance in Raaz won her the Filmfare for Best Actress and led her to work in several such thrillers such as Rakht (2004), Raaz 3, Aatma, Creature 3D, and Alone (2015). Urmila Matondkar gave some astounding performances in the supernatural horror Bhoot (2003) (we’re talking Filmfare Critics Award for Best Actress) and the thriller Kaun (1999). Konkona Sen and Huma Qureshi too were chilling in Ek Thi Dayan (2013).
A few actors too made it big through the horror genre. Javed Khan was one of the most coveted lead actors in horror, starring in movies such as the Ramsay brothers’ Purana Mandir (1984), Saamri (1985), Veerana (1985) Tahkhana (1986), Dak Bangla (1987), Purani Haveli (1989), Shaitani Ilaaka, and Bandh Darwaza (both 1990). Among other noteworthy actors are Rakesh Roshan, (Haveli), Navin Nischal (Saboot, Dahshat, Hotel, Ajeeb Ittefaq), Dilip Dhawan (Dak Bangla), and Deepak Parashar (Sannata, Purani Haveli, Khooni Murda, Shaitani Ilaka, Hatyarin, Aakhri Cheekh).
A sub-genre that I can’t ignore here is the horror comedy. In case you are confused about this genre, it is a horror movie with some comic relief, witty dialogues, and less intense frightening. (Maybe they want to confuse us about peeing in our pants with laughter or fear). A few Hollywood examples of this genre are Frighteners, Shaun of the Dead, and Beetlejuice. It seems the Indian audience too can enjoy a laugh while their timbers are shivering, as has been proved by Bhoot Bungla (1965), Bhool Bhulaiyaa, and Darling (Tamil).
The 90s proved to be a lull period for ghosts and ghouls in Indian cinema. The only successful movie was RGV’s Raat. The mind games the evil spirit in this film plays are seriously chilling. After the dry and discouraging spell of the 90s, Vikram Bhatt succeeded with Raaz. A remake of What Lies Beneath, Raaz rocked the box office, paving the way for a modern era of horror. Because of advanced special effects, filmmakers could now bring gore and slime filled imagination to life on screen. Another film that made waves was RGV’s Bhoot (2003), surprisingly a movie without any songs. Both Raaz and Bhoot had proven directors, who wooed the audience with their treatment of the supernatural. The anthology horror film Darna Mana Hai and its sequel left our hearts quivering too.
As technology advances, the future of Indian horror only looks better. 2017 is all set to spook us stiff. You can look forward to several bone chillers like the 1920 sequel 1920: London, the Tamil horror comedy Devi, the horror with a romantic twist, 1:13:7 Ek Tera Saat, the Malayalam horror flick and Aadupuliyattam.