The Horror Of Bollywoodby Brother Cleve
Subcontinental Gore and How To Get It
It appears that there’s been a resurgence of interest in the horror film, with even the city’s newspaper of record profiling the surge. A number of upstart filmmakers are using the genre as an entry to the marketplace, in the same way that compelling directors utilized exploitation genres in the past. The boom of horror/slasher films in the ‘70s and ‘80s yielded a blue-chip crop of craftsmen (John Carpenter, George Romero, et al) until the style collapsed from the weight of endless uninteresting sequels marketed to increasingly apathetic audiences. If one searched for something different and refreshing, it was not at the multiplex or in the unending supply of direct-to-video fodder that fills the shelves of the Blockbusters of the world.
No, one had to look beyond our own borders for something wild and different, digging beyond the usual suspects like the Hammer films, Jess Franco, Coffin Joe, Mario Bava, etc. Help came along in the form of Pete Tombs’ Mondo Macabro [St. Martin’s Griffin, 1997], an in-depth account of weird and twisted films from around the globe. Excavating offbeat film genres from Malaysia to Turkey to Mexico and beyond, Tombs’ research helped stock the shelves at the more enterprising video shops around. In recent years, Mondo Macabro has branched out into DVD production [http://www.mondomacabrodvd.com], with Tombs and partner Andy Starke bringing many hard-to-find curiosities to disc.
Tombs knows his horror. In the book, he devotes two chapters to the worlds largest film industry, Bollywood and its regional counterparts—Pakistan’s Lollywood, southern India’s Tollywood, Kollywood and Mollywood, etc.—South Asia had a horror boom in the early 1980s which ran for about a decade, and then busted under the weight of audience apathy in the face of endless recycling of plot lines and monsters (sound familiar?).
Despite the fact that its film business dates back to 1896, India had no tradition of horror films. Much of this is due to the fact that most classic horror is based on the symbols and rituals of Christianity…I mean, flash a crucifix at a Hindu or Muslim vampire and he’s really not going to give a fuck. Bollywood’s paramount tradition has been value for your dollar/rupee. When you walk out of that cinema, you will have been completely entertained—you’ve had two and a half hours full of drama, comedy, song, dance, romance, family values, violence, thrills, maybe even some patriotism, possibly a little skin. When they decided to add scary monsters to the mix, all of those other elements remained. Which is what makes South Asian horror films such a unique, if discombobulating, experience.
Finding Bollywood horror films, however, turned out to be more of an imbroglio than imagined. Visits to the myriad video shops of Jackson Heights proved futile; indeed, these films are deemed so low that DVD releases are virtually nonexistent. The movies instead are released throughout South Asia in the dirt cheap VCD format. In my travels around India, I learned that no “decent” store sells these films. All you’ll get is a smile, a chuckle, and a head shaking “no” when you ask at local shops like Planet M or Virgin. To find the real deal, you have to encounter the street dealers, who also dabble in the shady world of South Asian erotica, films where women, often in monsoon-soaked saris, dance provocatively. The underground labyrinth of Palika Bazaar in New Delhi was one place where a raised eyebrow and the question “Have any Ramsay Brothers?” would bring about a knowing nod and a bevy of VCD’s.
If one is to dive into the vast world of Hindi horror films, the Ramsay Brothers are the starting gate. Directors Tulsi and Shyam Ramsay were progeny in a family steeped in the low-budget demimonde of Bombay filmmaking. For years the Ramsays had filled Indian grindhouses and traveling rural road shows with “brownspolitation” fare, chockfull of mobsters, diamond smugglers, dope pushers, cabaret dancing femme fatales and decadent rock n’ rolling Westerners, all set to hard funk soundtracks. The Ramsays created an original and peerless stylistic vision, combining elements of atmospheric gothic horror (often set in ancient temples) with Indian social and religious customs—hey, if Christ on the cross won’t make the vampire run and hide, maybe the OM symbol or Lord Shiva’s trident will! Yes, there are song and dance sequences and much of the music is pretty great, especially soundtracks by India’s “disco king” Bappi Lahiri. Yes, there are usually “comedic” interludes, often featuring the eye-popping antics of Jagdeep, whom many westerners just won’t get. As with Hong Kong and other Asian films, comedy can be extremely, shall we say, localized, and these segments make good “time outs” to get up and stretch one’s legs. Even with these incongruous elements, the films are far from shoddy, especially in terms of direction, photography, editing, etc, and move along at an engrossing pace.
One doesn’t have to book a flight on Air India in order to find this stuff anymore. The magnificent folks at Mondo Macabro recently offered up Volume 1 of The Bollywood Horror Collection, available from local purveyors as well as at numerous online dealerships. The DVD presents two of the Ramsay Brothers’ top titles, Bandh Darwaza [Closed Door] and Purana Mandir [The Old Temple], along with numerous extras. Both films feature the very tall and equally creepy Ajay Agarwal in the monster role, whose towering presence sets the tone for each film. Agarwal seems like a sort of bastard combination of The Addams Family’s Lurch, Bond villain Jaws, and The 3 Stooges’ Shemp, but he’s frightfully eerie with a powerful sexual charisma, not to mention a particularly malevolent howl. While each film draws inspiration from Hollywood fare such as Evil Dead and Friday The 13th, (including some unfortunate 80s wardrobes), they are uniquely all their own, with five thousand years of Indian culture and Hindu mythology to draw upon.
My favorite online source is the Ebay store Weird and Beautiful [http://stores.ebay.com/Weird-and-Beautiful], where Kolkata-based owner “In the Year 2525” provides a large selection of horror titles, along with Indian erotica and artful fare from Bengali director Satyajit Ray. Weird and Beautiful provides reasonable prices on hard-to-find VCD’s, along with quick and inexpensive registered shipping. (I’ve never had a bad experience with this dealer and recommend him highly). There is also Webmall India [http://www.webmallindia.com], which lists films by category, making shopping easy. Not every title is always in stock, but they have good communication and the product is great.
Sure, watching these films in the VCD format takes some effort and imagination (or perhaps some Hindi-speaking friends!), as there are no subtitles available in the MPEG-1 format. Just because you may not get the nuances of the plot doesn’t mean you can’t relish the visual (and musical) highlights of these singular films. The discs will work on any DVD player, and there’s readily available shareware for watching discs on a computer. Recommended titles include Kabrastan, Kafan (where Lord Shiva’s demon-destroying blasts are scratched right onto the film itself!), Saamri, Verrana, Khooni Mahal, Khooni Murdaa, Dak Bangla, Darwaza and the astounding monster-in-the-disco classic Wohi Bhayaanak Raat.
A great source for info on offbeat Bollywood/Lollywood cinema is film scholar/fanatic Omar Khan’s “The Hot Spot Online” [http://www.thehotspotonline.com], which features reproductions of hand painted South Asian movie posters, reviews, opinions, and so much more. Khan appears in two of the Mondo Macabro featurettes, and he’s now made his first foray intodirecting. On July 3rd, the New York Asian Film Festival will be presenting Khan’s Zibakhana, aka Hell’s Ground, which was produced by Pete Tombs and Andy Starke. You can check out the, uh, gory details at http://www.subwaycinema.com/frames/nyaff07_hellsground.htm.
DJ Brother Cleve is known as one of the pioneers of the international lounge scene.