When I telephoned a Bandra multiplex on Sunday morning for the show timings for Darr @The Mall, the man said, “There are four shows, but all are full!” It was as if a ghostly voice had spoken from another world, as it was unbelievable – a non-star-cast, small film packed to capacity in advance!
Clearly, horror has its own market, even if this was a three-day, low-key affair for a small film that was barely promoted. This movie was directed by Pavan Kripalani, who had helmed the Paranormal Activity-inspired Ragini MMS (2011), termed the scariest horror film made in recent Hindi cinema. Ragini MMS 2 (releasing March 21 alongside another ‘ghost’ flick, Gang Of Ghosts) is its much-awaited and much-hyped sequel.
Ghosts, in whatever way they ‘haunt’ the Hindi screen, obviously have their own markets. In recent times, Hindi cinema has been having a major fling with them: The Ramsay family, who were the pioneers of spook-fests from the ’70s till 1990 on the big screen, and for some years more on television, are gearing up for their comeback with Neighbours, a Hindi film on vampires.
Ghosts Troubled By Humans!
And besides ghosts who scare, we now also have ghosts who care: in Bhoothnath Returns and Gang Of Ghosts, the ghosts are themselves troubled – by both people and issues!
Amitabh Bachchan, who essayed the role of Kailash Nath, the owner of the mansion rented by the child protagonist’s family, is helped by the boy after they become friends to finally attain salvation in Bhoothnath (2008). In the sequel, he is ‘sent’ back to earth, to be now faced with a graver and wider social issue. Now Bhoothnath’s problem is also that he is unable to scare people as he should, and in fact, he also cares for what is happening around him! And when he decides to contest elections, he asks whether being alive is an essential pre-requisite!
Gang Of Ghosts, an adaptation of the acclaimed Bengali hit Bhooter Bhabishyat (which means ‘Future of the Past’), tells the saga of a heterogeneous assembly of ghosts (Anupam Kher, Jackie Shroff, Saurabh Shukla, Mahie Gill and others) from different eras who have found a home in an old abandoned building. And now, a builder wants to demolish it and build a swanky mall! Where will these troubled ghosts go and dwell now? So they decide they will not let the builder take their home away to make pecuniary gains.
Both the films, due to release in early April and late March, address larger social issues through the ‘comic’ entertainment, a surefire recipe for a connect with audiences. So did Darr @The Mall, where a builder burns down an orphanage (with everyone inside) to build a shopping complex. Bhoothnath too had a social agenda: the depiction of parental neglect by a son dominated by his wife.
Yet another friendly ghost, unable to attain salvation, was seen in Rajiv Mehra’s Chamatkar, and essayed by Naseeruddin Shah. Parts of the film had a sizeable similarity to Walt Disney’s Blackbeard’s Ghost that was immortalized by Peter Ustinov. Here again, the villain who has killed the ‘ghost’ is also planning to grab a major slice of land.
In C.P. Dixit’s Ghazab (1982), the ghost of an affectionate, mentally backwards and buck-toothed man locates his separated ‘normal’ twin brother to avenge his murder and the wrongs done to their family. Dharmendra essayed both the roles and the chemistry between the ghost and his twin brother was a delightful mix of warmth and humour.
Yet, perhaps the most loving ‘spirit’ was seen in Anurag Basu’s Saaya (2003), in which a dead woman (Tara Sharma), who had given birth to her baby, sends messages from the other world to her living husband (John Abraham), who has presumed her dead earlier. Finally, dad is guided there to take their child home.
Social Issues and Vendetta
Vendetta, usually personal, was the staple agenda for ghosts in Hindi films. But, as we said, social issues also featured and scored high: in 404 – Error Not Found, indiscriminate ragging pushed to extremes was the pivotal issue, as unravelled in the climax.
Go Goa Gone, co-produced by Saif Ali Khan and directed by Raj Nidimoru and Krishna D.K., was a comic thriller on zombies released in 2013. It revolved about ‘zombies’ (the ‘living’ dead) and highlighted the ill-effects of twin social evils, drug addiction and rave parties.
Mohit Suri‘s Raaz – The Mystery Continues (2009), depicted, within its traditional vengeful ghost template, how multinational firms embezzled less-developed nations like India: a foreign country wants to start a chemical plant that would pollute a river that is the lifeline of villagers. Perhaps the best plotted of the Raaz franchise, this story was followed by Vikram Bhatt’s Raaz 3, which tackled the human problem of a top film star unable to take failure and taking recourse to black magic to spoil her successor’s career and life and extend her own career. Obviously, the move boomerangs and destroys her – in all senses.
Perhaps the most traditional of the three films in the series was the first, Vikram Bhatt’s Raaz (2002), of a wife protecting her husband against the malefic spirit of the woman with whom he had an affair. The ultimate pativrataa wife forgave her hubby for straying, though he had not murdered the girl. Obviously, the film was the biggest hit of the series!
In Ram Gopal Varma’s Bhoot (2003), a woman wronged and killed by a playboy enters the body of a housewife who comes to live in her apartment, and embarks on her deadly mission to bring the murderer to justice.
Varma & Vikram – The ‘Spirit’ual Champs
In contemporary cinema, Ram Gopal Varma (Phoonk, Phoonk 2, Darna Mana Hai, Darna Zaroori Hai, Vastushastra, Bhoot Returns) and Vikram Bhatt (1920, Shaapit, 1920 -Evil Returns and Haunted besides the Raaz movies) have been the main stalwarts of the horror genre, though Bhatt has been a little more successful. Sequels have formed a regular part of their oeuvre, but with mixed results. Of their output, two films need to be spotlighted – the experimental Darna Mana Hai, which had six unique ghost stories packaged in a chillingly linked format, and 1920, which had patriotic overtones and a story that made one despair of the evil in human nature.
The Original Pioneers
Though the first significant ‘ghost’ film in Hindi is Kamal Amrohi’s Mahal (1948), this movie was essentially about reincarnation. Madhumati, which followed in 1958, was directed by Bimal Roy, one of the editors of Mahal, and its climax was also replicated in Farah Khan’s Om Shanti Om (2007), where the spirit of the victim took revenge on the villain, leaving the reborn soul free of the taint of being a murderer!
However in India, the ‘first family’ of horror is the Ramsay clan headed by Fatehlal U. Ramsinghani, who was called the abbreviated ‘F.U. Ramsay’ by the British employers he first worked for. The name stuck and was adapted as a family surname! His seven sons and their families made horror films on shoestring budgets, complete with hideous masks and costumes, blood and gore and under-clad starlets, spinning out dozens of films like a factory. Among their major hits were, Do Gaz Zameen Ke Neeche (1972) – India’s first-ever film on zombies, Purana Mandir (1984) and Veerana (1988) – just three of their many major hits.
Investing almost a quarter of their budgets on fancy make-up and costumes, they had foreign prosthetic aces working on Darwaza as early as in 1978, even if the bulk of their films had tacky production values. Their movies generally made up to 10 times their budgets at the box-office. Their plots included those of haunted places, wronged human beings, evil spirits, vampires, man-eating demons and monsters and what-have-you packaged with every trick in the book to lure audiences, including the big names of showbiz, who would watched their films surreptitiously!
The Ghosts Who Weren’t!
Mehmood’s Bhoot Bungla, Biren Nag’s cult hit Bees Saal Baad (1962) and Raj Khosla’s Woh Kaun Thi? Were among the thrillers that seemed to be ghost dramas but had a rational denouement to the suspense. In Bhool Bhulaiya (2007), an interesting (and for Hindi cinema a new) take was given by mixing psychiatry and the supernatural with a light undercurrent of humour. The film became a blockbuster, even though the lead pair, Akshay Kumar and Vidya Balan, were cast as doctor and patient and not even romantically paired!
The ‘spirit’ of her late husband guides a woman in many of her life’s dilemmas, and it acts through his portrait in Abbas Tyrewala’s Jaane Tu…Ya Jaane Na (2008). This was a superb comic cameo by Naseeruddin Shah, though this frothy romantic comedy had nothing primarily to do with ghosts.
And in a hilarious sequence that was an extension of the main drama in Ab Kya Hoga (1977), which had elements of the supernatural, a ghost played by Moushumi Chaterjee (in a cameo), takes off her own head, places it on a table, and starts combing its tresses with her hands!