You’ve Been Ghosted: Is There More to Bollywood Horror than Ramsay Brothers?


You’ve Been Ghosted: Is There More to Bollywood Horror than Ramsay Brothers?

Illustration: Akshita Monga

If one were to write a history of Hindi horror cinema what would be the starting point? Would we begin with the Ramsay Brothers. It stands to reason – after all, they introduced us to monster flicks, and created a niche that allowed low-budget horror films to thrive in the ’80s and ’90s. The genre has evolved a lot in the last decade, and increasingly, horror films are consciously created for a larger mainstream audience. And Hindi cinema has explored fear of the supernatural in various ways, such as…

Don’t let ghosts scare you: Horror comedies

You don’t have to look far for ghost stories that actually give you the heebie jeebies. Ek Paheli (1971) is perhaps the most unsettling ghost story to come out of Bollywood, where a young woman’s restless spirit follows her beloved piano – tragic, deeply haunting, and reminiscent of Kamal Amrohi’s masterpiece, Mahal (1949). Then there are films like Neel Kamal (1968), Madhumati (1958), Talaash (2012), and Ek Thi Daayan (2013).

However, some of the oldest Hindi ghost stories are comedies. Around the late 1930s, Ranjit Movietones’ film, Haunted House, did extremely well at the box office. Unfortunately, the film has not survived. Most of the studio’s films were lost when the studio caught fire in the 1960s, and it now exists as scraps of information in magazines, memorabilia, and personal memory, where it was described as a “hilarious ghost comedy,” and “a haunted house that will enormously entertain you.” Ghungroo (1952), starring Om Prakash in a double role, was also successful. The film revolves around twins, named Balam and Vinod. Balam is murdered and his ghost possesses the body of his twin, Vinod, who is a simpleton but soon starts behaving like his smarter brother. Ghungroo set the tone for later films like Ghazab (1982) and Hello Brother (1999) that explored similar themes.
Also watch: Go Goa Gone (2013), Duvidha (1973), Paheli (2005), Isi Ka Naam Zindagi (1992), Abhay (1995), Bhootnath (2008), Golmaal Again (2017).

The Wilkie Collins Syndrome: Ladies in White

The most common trope in Hindi horror is a female apparition in a white sari walking away, scaring the bejesuses out of everyone. I call this the “Wilkie Collins Syndrome” because the most popular film to use this concept was Woh Kaun Thi (1964), based on Collins’s iconic novel, The Woman in White. By the logic of this popular and theme, spooky, inexplicable events that eventually lead to multiple murders, are resolved by a perfectly rational and human solution, and the ghost is often merely a method of distraction. So successful is the “woman in white” trope that it’s become an emblem of sorts and has even appeared in films that have nothing to do with ghosts. Interestingly, Daphne Du Maurier’s classic, Rebecca, was made into Hindi movies twice: Kohraa (1964) and Anamika (2008). Both films heavily rely on the “woman in white” image to evoke mystery.
Also watch: Bees Saal Baad (1962), Ab Kya Hoga (1977), Ghungroo ki Awaz (1981), Bhoot Bungla (1965), Jal Mahal (1980), Parde ke Peeche (1971), Bhool Bhulaiyaa  (2007).

Bollywood has very few creature horror films.

iPossess: Films about demonic pwnage

When I was a child, there was at least one “possession” a month in my grandmother’s village. Yet in Bollywood, the theme didn’t gain prominence until the success of The Exorcist in the 1970s. Jadoo Tona greatly emulated The Exorcist but, naturally, with Hinduism for the religious framework. However, one of my favourite films in this category (besides Ram Gopal Verma’s phenomenal, Bhoot) is Gehrayee (1980). It’s a purely Indian-styled possession film, which integrates a family curse, superstition, and actual possession beautifully.
Also watch: 1920 (2008), Raat (1992), Raaz (2002), and Woh Phir Aayegi (1988).

Vampires and Creature Horror: Beyond the Ramsay Monsters

Bollywood has very few creature horror films. Vikram Bhatt’s Creature had an excellent premise, in which a Brahmarakshasha manifested as a dinosaur-like creature in the modern world. Junoon (1992) uses a twist on the werewolf theme, and has a shapeshifting tiger. The vampire is a very common topic in low-budget horror films; there is a plethora of Dracula films: Shaitani Dracula, Khooni Dracula, and so on. But Bhayanak (1979), starring Mithun Chakraborty, is the best adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel. The movie depicts a feudal landlord’s family as vampires and Van Helsing is a cop investigating missing villagers.
Also watch: Jaani Dushman (1979), Agyaat (2009), The Forest (2009), and Shikari (1963).

Bhoot banglas: The haunted space

This is a very difficult category to define. Haunted houses and forests are common in all horror films, so how do we distinguish a special category devoted exclusively to space? Let me give an example. 13B (2009) is a film that presents terror within a very limited space. The entire action takes place in an apartment and the ghost manifests through a TV show. The film Vastu Shastra (2004) uses the ancient science of vastu and  ensures the “safety” of the house, only it turns out to be a hotbed of evil spirits.
Also watch: Hawa (2003), Pizza (2014), and Raaz 3 (2012).

What next for Bollywood though? We’re extremely poor when it comes to horror anthologies. Besides Darna Mana Hai (2003) and Darna Zaroori Hai (2006) there are no major mainstream anthologies. After all, fear is a complex emotion. Maybe it is time to embrace the many ways of understanding it.