Over the last two decades two gentlemen have been trying their best to scare the pants away from every viewer alive in India. No brownie points for guessing who the two individuals are. For such a long duration one should and one must expect a cracker of a movie to come through, some good ones came but it can be fairly said that an iconic landmark in horror cinema has not been achieved yet. There is no defining moment for horror cinema in the obscenely large landscape of Indian films, except for the ones established in the black and white era. An example would be a lady clad in a white saree holds a candle and strolls around a house during ungodly hours in the night. She could even sing a song and scare the bejesus out of you. Or a grandfather clock rings and the echoes foretell some imminent threat. The bygone era had its traits, its defining moments. The same however cannot be said for the current period in horror film making.
The 80s-90s had voluptuous women being possessed in ancestral castles (Ramsay Brothers, of course), and usually the spirits in these movies belonged to royalty or practitioners of witchcraft executed by royalty. Nowadays it’s common to get inspired, pay homage or blatantly rip-off from Korean cinema (Click, Help, etc) with melodrama poured in buckets resulting in movies with an I.Q of a single digit. We also had Hawa (Hall of Shame) in which Tabu was seduced by a ghost. Some of these horror movies are so bad that Raj Kumar Kohli’s Jaani Dushman (which although inspired, was scary enough for that era, ask your parents) would shame them to oblivion.
Let us ponder over Ram Gopal Verma first. One of the more polished horror films that he has ever come up with would be Raat, and it was a genuine spook. Revathy pitched in a superlative performance ably supported by a talented ensemble cast led by an equally ghost-like Om Puri as a taantrik. Early shades of RGV style of filmmaking were present but subdued to a lot of extent. The protocol defying camera angles, infinite meaningless shots of trees, inanimate objects of household, hallucinations, shady neighbours peeking at the camera regularly, stray cats and dogs jumping around while you expected someone or something else, everything was there but the trick was in their subtlety. RGV was not possessed when he made Raat. In an unforgettable scene, (Spoiler Alert) the first instance where Revathy was shown to be possessed was beside a lake where she was humming and splashing water with her feet. That sequence did send some chills down the spine.
Years later Bhoot happened, with shades of The Exorcist surfacing from time to time. The trick of Bhoot was an urban haunting; RGV took an everyday environment and made it threatening. The g-spot of a viewer is in his brain and RGV stimulated it by not overtly showing the supernatural. One of the scariest moments of Bhoot (Spoiler Alert) was when Manjeet Khosla’s ghost is hidden behind an open door of a refrigerator. As a viewer one cannot see it coming, because the camera followed Urmila Matondkar from her room till the stairs. Generally in a horror movie, when you get a P.O.V. shot trailing a character, you expect the ghost to jump at the prey or sneek in somehow. In Bhoot it never did. RGV let the camera stop trailing at a point of time, settled at a vantage point watching Urmila drink water. When she shuts the refrigerator, we see the ghost lurking just behind her, completely motionless while letting her go happily. She was there all the time, but RGV cleverly manipulated us and revealed the shock. The understated approach in Bhoot was completely new to Indian viewers. You didn’t see the ghost all the time; your head conjured enough scary images for itself.
Then Came Vaastu Shastra and all hell broke loose. Trees, cats, crows, dolls, tennis balls, swings and a more frightening J.D.Chakraborthy were unleashed in a flurry of ill-tempered assault on human senses. The trick was overplayed, ghostly routine became predictable, sound effects grew painful, false alarms increased and scaring gave way to startling as the prime motive of his movie.
An interesting outing during this period would be Darna Mana Hai (RGV’s production). The premise was bright, but the flesh was all rotten. The only saving grace of DMH was the plot in which Boman Irani played a madcap motel owner who goes to ridiculous lengths of unpredictability while enforcing his diktat of ‘No Smoking’. The fall sides of DMH were the other stories which barring Nana Patekar and Vivek Oberoi’s ‘MTV Bakra’ story were not even engaging to say the least, forget scary. Years later RGV would have similar luck in Darna Zaroori hai where the only plot worth watching once was the one he himself directed. Amitabh Bacchan played a professor who is always tormented by a ghost who keeps imitating the professor’s mannerisms more and more each night. This leads the professor to think the entity is trying to become and eventually replace him. This story was enjoyable. The other five are not worth writing about.
Phoonk, Phoonk 2 was Vaastu Shastra all over again. The background score grew louder, kids became more irritating, false alarms outweighed haunting, and all was lost.
Let’s take a paradigm shift to observe and discuss another man, Vikram Bhatt. Now, Vikram Bhatt is a genuinely interesting man. He has a strange obsession (fetish) for ghosts who are innately horny. His ghosts like to have sex more than scaring people. Since time immemorial, his world of supernatural is run by the carnal desires of the dead.
Along with the criticism Vikram Bhatt also deserves some credit for pushing horror as a mainstream genre in Indian cinema. The 2002 sleeper hit Raaz proved that Indian viewers are ready to accept horror. Raaz combined some fantastic locations in Ooty, melodious songs by Nadeem-Shravan duo and a fantastic cameo by Ashutosh Rana. Before Raaz, horror genre was considered as a land mine. It just didn’t make enough money. And the scenario changed after 2002, after Raaz.
After Raaz, many movies of Vikram Bhatt came and went, some succeeded whereas some vanished without a trace but his major comeback would be in 2008 with the movie 1920. This movie took a horror story and put it in the veil of a period drama, artistic visuals were portrayed and the songs were fabulous. Adnan Sami who gave the music, collaborated with a number of major heavy weight singing talent for this movie. Vikram Bhatt stuck to fresh faces which is always a smart move in a horror movie for reasons of credibility. The sporadic outbursts of horror was effective, Adah Sharma terrific in her act and 1920 became a well crafted horror film if not a frightening film. The Hanuman Chalisa climax did however evoke a few laughs.
Days went by and along came Shaapit. It was right here, where just like RGV, Vikram Bhatt after a point of time lost it too. Technically RGV and Vikram Bhatt are very different and very distinct from each other. Vikram Bhatt had a more rounded approach to his horror outings than RGV. Vikram Bhatt had a knack of love stories in the garb of horror, some great songs, visual splendor and at least one good performance to cover up as many flaws as it can. The technical finesse he exhibited in 1920 was nowhere in Shaapit, where the animation was at par with Shaktimaan. Neither the love story, nor the horror was appealing enough while miserable acting by every single member of the cast added to the woes.
Enter Haunted 3D, the other pick of his movie credentials and certainly one of the worst movies in the history of cinema ever, to recover its money. Mimoh/ Mahakshay whatever Chakraborthy displayed a lesser range of acting skills than a puppet in Sesame Street and the female lead Twinkle Bajpai, not to be left behind gave Mimoh/Mahakshay a run for his money. The greatest horror (unintended) of the movie was watching Achint Kaur lick the face of Twinkle Bajpai. There was also some fakir baba smoking ganja and uttering hideous dialogues like “Tujhse hoga, tu hi hai who, tujhse hi hoga”. The effect of all that ganja was on the poor director.
Vikram bhatt got stuck in a zone and he never really came back after that. In Raaz 3D the rot was more visible than ever. Raaz 3D was a mummified horror movie unwrapped behind Bipasha Basu’s bosom in 3D. It was archaic, repetitive, clichéd, predictable, and lacking in any fresh perspective on a supernatural story. Vikram Bhatt succumbed to the tactic of startling the audiences instead of scaring them. This hit one more nail while the sorrowful tale of laughable climaxes continued.
So many movies turning to 3D is a very good direction as this can lead to unexploited avenues. 3D can involve a viewer with a movie like no other. Both RGV and Vikram Bhatt have shown immense potential in horror genre. Make no mistake; these two guys are the only ones right now in Indian Film Industry who are capable of presenting a real nightmarish horror film out of nowhere. If only they discard formula, and bank upon their imagination they would be back with a bang. Our film makers have to realize that a startle lasts for a second but a genuine scare will last for years.