The Khaufnaak Maut of Horror Films

Pop Culture

The Khaufnaak Maut of Horror Films

Illustration: Akshita Monga

When I was 10 years old, I lived next to an eerie graveyard. The burial ground sat peacefully next to the government colony we resided in and for most of the time, it went largely unnoticed except as a background setting to my busy 10-year-old life. Until the day I sat through two hours and seven minutes of the Ramsay Brothers’ Do Gaz Zameen Ke Neeche.

Back when the movie released in 1972, posters had screamed “India’s First Horror Movie”. Those were three clickbaity words that the 10-year-old me had instantly memorised when I stumbled upon it in the early noughties. The film’s plot begins with a murder – Anjali kills her husband, Rajvansh, with the help of her lover, Anand, and goes into the “horror” zone when they take the iron box, storing the body, to the graveyard. While Anjali huffs and puffs in her pink sari, wearing a scary expression and gawdy make up, in the dead of the night, a grave is being dug, effortlessly synchronised to the melodramatic background score. I remember the first stirrings of fear. It was a surprising new feeling. I hadn’t yet been acquainted with the expression “chill down my spine” but that afternoon I felt it.

When Rajvansh returns from the dead as a zombie to extract revenge on his wife and her lover, I found my heart beating faster, exhilarated from experiencing a budgeted version of an adrenaline rush for the first time. A world of horror, as real and immense as the graveyard opened up to me, and that afternoon I learnt two things: If you murder someone, they down themselves in a bucket of red paint and come back to haunt you, and that watching horror films was my idea of a thrilling rollercoaster ride.

Ever since, I’ve never been able to pass a graveyard without crossing myself and neither have I been able to keep myself away from every horror film produced by the industry. But the churn of low-budget, thrillingly tacky horror in the ’80s soon gave away to a churn of cloying Raj and Simran romances in the ’90s. My dream movie would have had Raj and Simran being haunted by ghosts.

My fascination with the genre found new meaning when I recently stumbled upon Don’t Disturb The Dead, journalist Shamya Dasgupta’s intimate peek into how the first family of horror ended up resuscitating the genre in India. For the Ramsay Brothers, making horror films was the same as running a family business. Tulsi Ramsay, also the director of Do Gaz Zameen Ke Neeche, recalls in the book that they had expected the family audience to absolutely reject the movie. They knew the target audience for their low-budget film would be young boys and girls, who’d come in hordes to watch the film for a dose of “thoda darr, thoda romance”.

The doyens of Bollywood horror were successful in drilling one thing in my head: Ghosts are the real stars and the only stories worth telling are the spooky ones.

Their gamble paid off when the film, made on a paltry budget of ₹3.5 lakh, went on to make around ₹50 lakh in profits, despite releasing in fewer than 30 theatres in Bombay. The Ramsays had managed to turn the curse of a low-budget production into their biggest strength. The enormity of what they had managed to achieve, at a time when the industry was dominated by the superstardom of Amitabh Bachchan and Mithun Chakrobarty, is best articulated by a section of the audience, who compared the the Ramsays Brothers to “Hitchcock’s brother who had come to India to make a film”.

I was certainly a convert after my first vieweing of Do Gaz Zameen Ke Neeche and followed it up with months of preying on their particular kind of B-grade horror. Although age-inappropriate and cringeworthy, the movies offered a strangely cheesy comfort in their grotesque ghosts, ominous shots of creepy havelis, and most importantly, their trademark sinister soundtrack that had women wailing against the thundering of the wind. One scream was enough to start the pounding of the heart followed by breathless minutes conjuring up images of the monster-demon Samri from the runaway hit Purana Mandir. The doyens of Bollywood horror were successful in drilling one thing in my head: Ghosts are the real stars and the only stories worth telling are the spooky ones.

The only trouble was that Bollywood never got that memo.

The era of the Ramsay Brothers soon gave way to the reign of Ram Gopal Varma, who while making Bhoot, took the trope of the haunted house situated in the middle of nowhere and gave it an urban makeover. As I watched the sleek film that captured the evil spirit possessing Swati through the eyes of its director’s shaky cam, I realised horror doesn’t have to involve dripping blood, and ghosts don’t always need to look like a ragged craft job. With Bhoot, RGV gave us a masterclass on how everyday objects like a lift shaft or a TV set acquire ominous overtones.

As I held out for the great promise Bollywood was showing, my friends set their sights West, toward The Exorcist, Omen, and The Exorcism of Emily Rose. I stubbornly decided to bestow the honour of scaring me witless to Bollywood.

I was counting on Ram Gopal Varma to take forward the mandate that the Ramsay Brothers had abandoned, but after the disaster of Phoonk and Phoonk 2 – which took unintentional comedy to a new level – RGV’s horror-movie career came to a screeching halt. When the Bhatts entered the horror genre armed with reboots, Vikram Bhatt brought his trusted weapon, Bipasha Basu. But by then, the death knell of the horror film was already rung.

Horror films became a lot about Emraan Hashmi forcing his tongue inside the mouth of a woman being haunted by a ghost, and Bipasha Basu trying to convince her evil ghost sister to stay away from her man. By the time this genre entered the game of “Which Bhatt Can Make The Most Pointless Sequels Ever?” and “So You Think You Can Recognise These Actors?”, horror films in India had died an early and untimely death.

And so it has come to pass for a country, the folklore of which is replete with tales of wicked chudails, icchadhari naagins, and deadly daayans, we are now forced to live on a bland dose of Hollywood horror featuring grinning dolls, holy crosses, and English nightmares on strangely named streets.

Where else do you go to get your fix of daily dread? I, for one, have succumbed to looking for it in the news.