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Bollywood’s horror

August 14, 2012

One of the reasons why horror never really works beyond a point in Hindi cinema is that minimalism and Bollywood rarely go hand in hand. While action, romance, drama and almost every other genre has undergone some kind of overhauling, horror is still fighting bhoot-pret, ghosts and a hundred other age-old trappings.

Unlike most genres the elements that made horror unique ended up being its biggest millstones. Featuring the leading star of the day, Ashok Kumar, the success of Mahal (1949), India’s first true horror film, should have inspired many films in the same league but barring the gift of the reincarnation theme Mahal didn’t couldn’t much. Mahal marked the directorial debut of Kamal Amrohi and bought Madhubala into limelight but the film’s biggest success was Lata Mangeshkar who came into prominence. Even after half a century Lata’s Aayega Aane Wala continues to haunt music lovers the same way it lured Ashok Kumar into the mystery of Mahal. The film crated a template of gothic horror along with the reincarnation theme that Hindi cinema could never escape. It also pretty much summed up the manner in which filmmakers would approach horror as a subject with beautiful ghosts, fog, old mansions, supernatural curses et al that could only be undone by higher, purer gods.

The 1960s saw some exceptional films like Bees Saal Baad and Gumnaam trying to recreate the success of genre as seen by Mahal. With a plot that was loosely reminiscent of Sir Arthur Conon Doyle’s The Hound of Baskervilles, Bees Saal Baad (1962) is about a young Thakur (Biswajeet) who returns from abroad to an ill-fated legacy where the vengeful spirit of a local girl who was raped and killed by his grandfather kills every scion of his family. Although it had the same old-mansion-older-curse theme that binds many horror films, Bees Saal Baad featured by some great songs like Bekarar Karke Hume and Kahin Deep Jale Kahin Dil created by Hemant Kumar, who also produced the film. Gumnaam’s (1965) premise of seven strangers stranded on a secluded island had the perfect makings of horror film. The film underplayed its horror element and concentrated more on the fear of the unknown theme that ended up heightening the tension. Inspired by Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, Gumnaam, too, had some lilting tunes that remain etched in the viewer’s memory. Raj Khosla’s Woh Kaun Thi (1964) is one the smartest films that uses everything a horror film would and yet isn’t a typical horror film. Even Mehmood’s Bhoot Bungla (1965) used the classic horror components but overcame the pitfalls with its whodunit execution. The engrossing storyline, the intriguing background score along with the presence of mainstream actors and most importantly great songs ensured that horror films of 1960s weren’t relegated to the genre status that they would suffer with the advent of the Ramsay Brothers in the 1970s.

The success of Do Gaz Zameen Ke Neeche (1972) changed the status of horror forever in India. The decade was perhaps the best for horror films as it enjoyed the attention of not only the mainstream in the form of Nagin (1976) and Jaani Dushman (1979) but also Ramsay Brothers who became like a parallel industry that would sustain horror for a long time. The Ramsay Brothers took to horror like fish to water and some of their early films like Do Gaz Zameen Ke Neeche, Darwaaza (1978) and Aur Kaun? (1979) are now considered cult classics. Like the low budget Roger Corman productions and exploitation films of Hollywood, horror provided the same freedom and accessibility to new filmmakers in India. But it was only a matter of time before the low cost experimentation, which usually meant a high profit, made horror look tacky and once that happened horror was completely discarded by A-grade productions. Most horror films from the 1980s worked very well in small dosages and some like Veerana (1985) had really scary set pieces. But on the whole they were nothing more than incoherent sequences messily put together with ghosts and evil spirits prancing around in bad make-up and substandard special effects. Add to this a ridiculous comedy sub-plot along with a little sleaze and you knew that these films would be confined to morning shows. Every now and then a mainstream film like Phir Wohi Raat (1980), directed by Danny Denzongpa with Rajesh Khanna and Kim or Gehrayee (1980), inspired by The Exorcist or Woh Phir Aayegi (1988) tried its hand at horror but it’d not be till Ram Gopal Varma’s Raat (1992) that Bollywood would see a real mainstream horror film.

For all its illogic, Hindi cinema ironically demands some semblance of a reality based explanation attached to its horror films. Horror for Bollywood still means evil spirits or black magic unlike global phenomenon like Paranormal Activity or The Blair Witch Project where nothing scary happens to frighten you. Even 54 years after Mahal when Vikram Bhatt’s Raaz (2002) rekindled mainstream Bollywood’s interest in the genre nothing much had changed. Although short films made up anthologies like Darna Mana Hai (2003) and Darna Zaroori Hai (2006), they offered great opportunities for experimentation but once again many of them stuck to supernatural elements.

The tragedy of horror films in India is that no matter how great the suspension of disbelief a filmmaker manages, the majority of the films take the recourse of the rudimentary plot points of angry spirits stuck between two worlds. Even Ram Gopal Varma who rejiged his box-office failure Raat into the commercially successful Bhoot (2003) couldn’t escape the whole nimbu-mirch and jhaad-poonkh nonsense. Horror continues to inspire hundreds of B and C grade films each year and while it remains the staple of filmmakers like Vikram Bhatt 1920 (2008), Shaapit (2009), Haunted (2011), Dangerous Ishq (2012) and the upcoming Raaz 3D (2012) it has perhaps scared the first circle of Bollywood enough to look the other way.

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Born a cinephile and a close observer of society, the author is an award-winning documentary filmmaker/writer. He is a regular contributor to leading Indian publications and is currently working on his first book. Find out more about him here.


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