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The Horror! Bollywood’s twisted journey into spook
NIDHI GUPTA  19th Feb 2012

Ajay Aggarwal, who regularly played the ‘ghost’, seen here in 'Purana Mandir'

n isolated mansion, a couple newly/deeply in love, a few goofy friends, a haunted ghost or the monster who must have the village belle, a little blood, a lot of screaming and the final catharsis with a trishul or mangalsutra – are you spooked enough? Bollywood has always had a platter of terrifying tidbits to offer, be it Kamal Amrohi's Mahal in 1949, Tulsi Ramsay's Purana Mandir, Ram Gopal Verma's Raat or Vikram Bhatt's 1920. And yet, the genre is shy of entering the big league, nor has it ever found the kind of dedicated fan following that any Karan Johar family drama or Yash Chopra love story might garner. Is India just not cut out to take in a little gore?

"Fear is the most primordial of human instincts – black magic, superstition and madness are all elements that excite the human mind," says Mohit Suri, director of Raaz – the Mystery Continues. Yet, despite the popularity it enjoyed, while the Ramsay brothers set the cash registers ringing during the '80s-'90s, desi dread has been relegated (perhaps ironically) to the cadre of B-grade cinema.

With its focus on titillation and sex, and in a time when family values did not allow fear to be a part of recreational consumption, even Tulsi Ramsay of Ramsay Productions is not surprised, nor offended, that his cinema flourished in ramshackle theatres of smaller towns, patronised by those belonging to a lower economic strata of society. In Veerana, for instance, he shows the victory of good over evil when the rich, smart landlord conquers the witch (who transforms into a sexy little vixen) wreaking havoc in the nearby forest, by holding an Om over her.

"A horror flick only captures about 25% of an audience, made up of couples who want to be frightened and cuddle in dark theatres, rickshaw-pullers, the middle class who don't mind a few shocks and beautiful girls running around in bikinis or getting soaked in the rain; but never the family," Ramsay explains with gusto. Raising morality-based questions would be useless, as theirs is a story of action for survival. With low-budget, completely in-house productions like Do Gaz Zameen Ke Neeche and Purana Mandir, the refugees from Karachi built themselves a business while horror continued to thrill all of little India.

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The focus now was on bourgeois domesticity, where the family became the space of terror (as in 13B and in Bhoot) and private grudges or revenge became less important.

In the 21st Century, RGV and the Bhatt stable have brought more respectability to the genre, with more investment, a better star cast and more sophisticated sleaze than the Ramsays could pull off with their limited budgets. In Bhoot, Verma shows how Urmila Matondkar, trapped in a sordid apartment with a scary history, becomes possessed by secrets swept under the carpet. Bhatt's Raaz, on the other hand, shows a couple (Dino Morea and Bipasha Basu) with marriage troubles land up in a soup on a vacation to Ooty.

According to Sangita Gopal, professor of film studies at the University of Oregon, USA, this commercial shift was in tandem with the economic scene in the country – as a multiplex culture emerged, the emphasis on material possessions grew and the depiction of space became important. "Far from the latex and minimalist, repetitive sub-plots of the Ramsays, this new breed infused a degree of psychological deviance into regular gore. Also, the focus now was on bourgeois domesticity, where the family became the space of terror (as in 13B and in Bhoot) and private grudges or revenge became less important," she explains.

This rings a bell with an audience that lives in similar high-rise buildings, negotiates with jungles of concrete and boredom all around them. This has made horror more accessible and acceptable, thus raising the market threshold. There is greater investment in the genre today, but it still can't compete with the A-listers. "The fact is, this is an adult genre and will continue to be firmly in this realm. Accreditation is tough then, as is reaching a wider audience," says Suri.

Ramsay finds the going tough right now, but he too is optimistic about the genre. "There is some fantastic horror being made these days. Bhatt's Haunted and 1920 were brilliant. But these are the cycles of life. Our kind of horror will definitely make a comeback," he laughs, a tad devilishly.

"Horror will continue to appeal, and it will remain niche. But a good frightener depends on the director solely – scaring an entire theatre full of people is a tough job. It just needs to be pitched properly," Suri explains. Clearly, we're not ready to let go of the paranormal just yet.

 
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