The Bollywood horror story

© Hindustan Times

An insecure Bollywood actress uses black magic to thwart the career of a newer, younger one. The ghost of a dead man possesses his daughter to estrange her from her mother and his ex-wife. Zombies take over Goa. Urban Indian witches regroup.

These are, roughly, the plots of some recent Hindi horror films. And they star a variety of actors (apart from the staple Bipasha Basu), including Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Saif Ali Khan and Konkona Sen Sharma.

Halloween is almost upon us, and horror really is getting better in India. You may scoff if you’re into subtitled Korean scarefests. But consider where we’ve come from. “Hindi horror films have been associated with tacky makeup, fake blood and ridiculously bad production values,” says Huma Qureshi who starred in Ek Thi Daayan (2013). “The mindset is: horror is not mainstream. But supernatural shows in India have been on TV for years… Even families have an appetite for horror.”

Ghost in the shell

Hindi horror films first became popular in the Seventies and continued well into the early Nineties. There were many films – the Ramsay brothers alone made more than 30 – all revolving around puraani havelis and bhatakti aatmas. But top filmmakers were wary of getting their hands dirty with a “tacky” genre – until Ram Gopal Varma’s Raat in 1992.

Then, nothing good for a decade, until Vikram Bhatt’s Raaz in 2002. “Raat was a fine film,” says Suparn Verma, who directed Aatma (2013). “It didn’t make a lot of money but changed things.” It set a pattern for horror films to follow: a couple in trouble, the wife trying to save the husband or vice versa, psychological terrors, mental (along with actual) demons, sex and songs to sew it all together. But even today, for a genre that deals with things that go bump in the night, there are a few bumps in the road.

The challenges

Finding actors:

Some mainstream actors give horror a shot, but most steer clear of it. Take Talaash (2012), which had an element of the supernatural. “It is Aamir Khan’s least collecting box-office film in many years. It affects the star’s position in the market,” says Kannan Iyer, director of Ek Thi Daayan. The upside: Horror films cost less because, Verma says, “A-listers are averse to doing them.”

Scaring people isn’t easy:

Especially since “the world that we live in today is horrific: terrorism, rapes… news desensitises people more every day,” says Verma. And so, the story becomes important. When Iyer adapted Mukul Sharma’s short story into Ek Thi Daayan, he never saw it as a horror film. “It just happened to have some horror in it,” says Iyer.

The audience is smart:

Bipasha Basu points out that viewers today are pretty defensive. “Nobody wants to accept that they get scared,” she says. “In theatres, you’ll hear a lot of giggles, it’s a defence mechanism.” And audiences always want to second guess. “Oh yeh bhoot hai, oh yeh to marne waali hai, arey peeche se koi aayega. Filmmakers have to go beyond that,” says Verma.

They kind of have. And so for a week till Halloween, we’re going to binge-watch some Hindi horror.

The Queen of Fear

Bipasha Basu has emerged as the Scream Queen of Hindi movies. Is she fine with this tag?

In fact, it makes Bipasha Basu rather happy, “because nobody has ever got a tag like this before. I’m taking it forward because I am a very strong supporter of the genre of horror,” she says. She’s going to be on TV next week on Darr Sabko Lagta Hai, a television series of short films by various directors on &TV.

“It was a taboo for an A-lister actress to do erotica when I did Jism [in 2003] but I’ve never followed the norm. I feel blessed that I got tagged throughout my career, because you only get a tag when you’re doing something right. So I take it with a pinch of salt. I must have done something right to last so long.”

Perhaps the tag is fitting, because Basu admits to getting very scared – even when watching her own films. “I felt that I was the scariest part of Raaz 3, not the ghost!” she says. “I am scared of darkness or sleeping alone. All these years of travelling, I’ve shared my room with my hairstylist, Madhu. I never stay alone in a room. Little things startle me.” When Vikram Bhatt first read out Raaz to her, she was sitting on a revolving chair “and I fell backwards because I was so scared just listening to a scene”.

While shooting Alone, “I had a sequence where I had to come face-to-face with my dead twin. So there was a duplicate with a little bit of make-up. She had to lie down almost face-to-face with me. I shrieked and screamed because I got so scared. Even after the director said cut, I was bawling because I was so traumatised.”

As an actor, the trick, she says, is to suspend disbelief yourself. “You need to put a lot of trust in the special effects of a horror movie. That’s the only difference. But I’d rather do these films than do two good songs and a love scene with a hero in a film.”

Published by HT Syndication with permission from HT Brunch.

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