‘That’s What True Fear Is About’: An Oral History Of Ram Gopal Varma’s Bhoot

On the film's 20th anniversary, its crew talks about how it all came together
‘That’s What True Fear Is About’: An Oral History Of Ram Gopal Varma’s Bhoot

Married couple Vishal (Ajay Devgn) and Swati (Urmila Matondkar) move into a posh Mumbai apartment – the imagined rent alone is nightmare fuel – but gradually discover they aren’t its only inhabitants. Swati first begins seeing, and is then possessed by, the ghost of previous tenant Manjeet Khosla (Barkha Madan), who was killed by a vicious neighbour (Fardeen Khan).

With Bhoot (2003), director Ram Gopal Varma moved away from the haunted havelis of the Ramsay brothers and brought the scares closer home to a bustling city. The film also established that frights didn’t have to be rooted in the supernatural to be effective – Bhoot mines just as much terror from rational homeowner worries like the fear of a violent neighbour, a boundary-trespassing watchman and an unnerving house help. It’s also creatively shot – almost every frame in the film is askew and at one point, the camera swoops down from the 12th floor smack into the concrete below. The film’s soundtrack is intermittently punctuated by screams. Characters levitate and a car appears to drive itself.

Bhoot’s opening intertitle – “I caution pregnant women and people with weak hearts to view it at their own risk.” – signalled a director confident in the film’s ability to terrify. At a late-night screening, a man in his 50s was inexplicably found dead, slumped in his seat. The apartment where the film was shot remains unsold.

On its 20th anniversary, Bhoot’s crew talks about how it all came together:

The starting point

Sameer Sharma, co-writer: The first day RGV told me about it, he said, ‘I want to make a film called Bhoot and I want to scare the shit out of people.’ I was excited, but I remember wishing he’d said Rangeela (1995) or Satya (1998) or something. I was not a horror buff at all. But I didn’t want to straight-up tell him that. The first draft was just figuring out the idea. It was a proper trial-and-error. A lot of the time, he’d say, ‘This is what I want, get it done.’ Then I’d ask, ‘Do I have a week, 10 days?’ And he’d say, ‘No, till the day after tomorrow.’ So you would automatically start delivering at a rapid pace. The film got made as we wrote it.

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Vishal Sinha, cinematographer: Ram had the idea of somebody who was possessed by the past tenant of the property they had just moved into. That past of that property now invades their lives – that was the essential point.

Ram Gopal Varma, director: I wanted to look for a location somewhere in a hill station, Dalhousie or somewhere up north.

Vishal Sinha: Sameer and I actually travelled all over Himachal, Shimla, Nainital for a month, and came back with fabulous homes and houses. As soon as we came back, I saw the pictures and asked, ‘Sir, doesn’t this look like a Ramsay film? That typical bhoot bangla vibe?’ He asked what I had in mind. When I was in the 10th grade, I used to study at a friend’s house. His lift went up and down at night, and we were petrified of it as kids. He had a watchman that slept with his eyes open. There was also a girl who had fallen from the 7th floor, and there was a story that she used to use the lift at night. So I told him all this, and that month-and-a-half of reconnaissance went out of the window that morning.

Ram Gopal Varma: I thought if that is the case, why not make the film in Lokhandwala? An apartment bubbling with people is the last place you’d expect a ghost. We have a tendency to think of a horror film happening in a graveyard or a haunted house on a hill station, but if it happens in a place where no one will really expect a ghost, then that’s scary.

Bhoot worked, first and foremost, because of its location. It’s a bustling city where there are so many people around and that is the last place you’d expect anything like a horror film to happen. It’s relatable, because many people don’t go to far-off places. There’s this idea of, ‘It could happen to me, it could happen in a neighbour’s house, it could happen in the building across the street, it can happen in my own building.’ That’s the biggest reason it worked.

Vishal Sinha: The morning after I told Ram the story, we were looking for a flat to do this in. It was going to be an urban legend sort of film.

Sameer Sharma: By then, we already had a version of the script that was set in the hills and so the whole thing had to change. There’s a pacing and chaos to the city which changes things. The fears could become a lot more real – this is not some bungalow in the hills that’s being haunted, this could be your apartment. The doorbell became an important character in the film.

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The writing

Ram Gopal Varma: I called it Bhoot so that people would already be prepared when they came to watch it. At the beginning of my career, I made a film called Raat (1992) with Revathi. Bhoot was pretty much a remake of Raat in a sense. In Raat, there was a father-daughter relationship between Akash Khurana and Revathi, which we turned into a husband-wife relationship with Ajay Devgn and Urmila for Bhoot. The plot more-or-less follows the same pattern.

The Exorcist (1973) was the most influential horror film I’ve seen till date. It was a huge influence on Bhoot. What I picked up from the film was the idea of a scientific explanation, a rational explanation that contrasts with the supernatural moments. This is what happens when the doctor (Victor Banerjee) tries to explain Swati being possessed as her having Multiple Personality Disorder. Horror films work best when that happens – because there’ll always be believers and non-believers, and there’ll always be conflict between the two systems. The right balance between the two is what makes a good horror film.

Bhoot (2003) and The Exorcist (1973).
Bhoot (2003) and The Exorcist (1973).

Sameer Sharma: We did a lot of research. There was an acclaimed psychiatrist in Delhi who we used to have conversations with. A lot of that made it into the film through Victor’s character, who’s a psychiatrist. His characterisation came from that specific bit of research.

I watched The Exorcist, Stir of Echoes (1999), The Shining (1980) in preparation for this film. Ram wanted mazaa (fun), he wanted an impact. The house help character played by Seema Biswas, for example, is a red herring. She’s got nothing to do with the horror. But you keep thinking that something is not right with her because she acts so creepy and the film accentuates that at times. A lot of it was what Ram would tell the actor.

The film is also a really nice marital tale. It’s a love story. What Ajay’s character feels for his wife is extreme love and care. The second half is extremely emotional. The first half is all frights and jump scares, the second half goes deeper. Even the scene in which the psychiatrist loses his child – there’s a moment when the doctor comes to see her and she says, ‘Papa’ – that’s very moving.

Ram Gopal Varma: I strongly believe that horror films should never really have a story, because people watch horror films so they can escape. In fact, when we start explaining the happenings in a horror film, it changes genre. It becomes more of a mystery. The purpose of a horror film is to keep scaring people.

There was one scene in which Ajay Devgn and Urmila were having an emotional conversation about what was wrong with her, and someone told me that the guy sitting next to him in the theatre was constantly saying, ‘Abhi kuch hone wala hai, dekh! (Something will happen now, see!)’ He was not interested in what they were talking about. He was waiting for the next scare and half-expecting something to jump out from behind. That’s the point of a horror movie. Most of the time, I think the story is an excuse to keep pulling the audience’s attention away, and manipulating them into expecting something that will make them jump. So the script just had a lot of incidents and scenes put together, and a small backstory which comes towards the end.

In hindsight, I wish the backstory was not that clichéd, but it’s the moments that work in a horror film, never the story.

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The casting

Sameer Sharma: Initially, Abhishek Bachchan was going to do Bhoot. For some reason, that didn’t happen. So Ram and I went to meet Ajay Devgn. I was like, ‘How can we meet the hero when there’s no script?’ He just said, ‘Chal na! (Let’s go).’ And in three minutes flat he had pitched the film. Ajay had done Company (2002) by then. He was besotted by Ram, as all actors were. After Ram pitched everything in just three minutes, we spent the rest of the time having a drink.

Ram Gopal Varma: When I approached Ajay, I was a little unsure of what he would say because he was an action hero, he’s the guy who scares the villains. I told him, ‘Maybe an actor with an image like yours would deal with fear in a different form, maybe he wouldn’t look so scared.’ He said, ‘On the contrary, I should look more scared than anyone else. Because that is when the film will work.’ Ajay and Nana Patekar (who played the cop) normally play heroes and tough guys, so I thought that the moment they get scared, the audience will get even more scared. Nana’s face itself is so tough and strong, you can’t ever imagine fear in his eyes. But the whole point of the film is that everyone is scared of ghosts. You can be courageous in the face of a bad guy, but I find it very difficult to believe that anyone wouldn’t be scared when a ghost is involved.

Nana Patekar and Ajay Devgn in Bhoot.
Nana Patekar and Ajay Devgn in Bhoot.

Urmila has very strong expressions. Her face is very mobile, her eyes speak so much. I wanted to create her character as an everyday housewife, someone innocent, and to then see the transition to the bhoot slowly taking over her. I always knew that Urmila was the only actress at the time who could carry that off.

Sameer Sharma: Ram had another actress in his mind for the role of Manjeet’s mother. I said, ‘What about Tanuja?’ because the film had this one amazing scene in which the mother talks to her dead daughter who’s now possessing another woman. And I could only picture Tanuja. He wanted to go with his first choice. But after a month or so, he said, ‘You were talking about Tanuja. Let’s call her.’ Till today, he says that the most amazing contribution to Bhoot was Tanuja.

Urmila Matondkar holds Tanuja's face in Bhoot.
Urmila Matondkar holds Tanuja's face in Bhoot.

Ram Gopal Varma: I wanted Tanuja because to see an actor of that stature looking scared would be very effective.

Sameer Sharma: One day, Vishal and I had plans to meet one day at the Sun-n-Sand hotel in Juhu.  I walked in and saw Victor Banerjee eating a sandwich, out of the blue.

Vishal Sinha: I remember saying, ‘Sameer, look at him. He’s our doctor!’

Sameer Sharma I just walked up to the parapet and called RGV like, ‘What about Victor Banerjee?’ He was like, ‘Where the fuck have you seen Victor Banerjee?’ I said, ‘He’s sitting right here.’ Victor had been in Kalyug (1981), which was a Shyam Benegal film that Ram was a huge fan of. Kalyug was a big inspiration for (RGV’s) Company. So he was a full fanboy.

Vishal Sinha: We introduced ourselves to Victor, put him in our car and took him to Ram’s office. That’s how he got cast.

Ram Gopal Varma: I had a very good relationship with Fardeen. We did Jungle (2000) and Pyaar Tune Kya Kiya (2003) so I asked him to play Manjeet’s murderer, who comes in in the last 20 minutes. But he only got sold on the idea when I told him the last shot was – when he’s in jail and Manjeet’s ghost is in his cell. I believe that horror films should never have a proper ending. It should look like the ghost lingers on and might come back again.

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Location scouting

Jijy Philip, assistant director: Ramu was very keen to get a duplex. We went around scouting in locations in Bombay and Pune for a month. Ramu was not keen to get the actors out of Bombay, because he wanted big names and big faces.

Priya Suhas, production designer: We checked out quite a few locations, at least 10 apartments between Bandra and Andheri. It was a huge task. Most of the societies in Bombay had lots of terms and conditions. They wanted to see the script first and once they knew it was a horror film with a haunted apartment, they refused to give us permission to shoot there. The flat that we settled on was a sample flat, it was tenth one we saw.

Victor Banerjee and Ajay Devgn in Bhoot.
Victor Banerjee and Ajay Devgn in Bhoot.

Ram Gopal Varma: The building was called Kia Park. I wanted the building we shot in to have a specific identity and I liked the slightly circular shape on the top. I thought it would become identifiable as it stood out among the other buildings in Lokhandwala. The film took about 40 days to shoot.

Priya Suhas: The flat had to look like a young couple’s house. RGV’s brief was that he wanted the interiors to look like a Scandinavian house – very minimalistic. At the time, you had ad films that looked like that, not feature films. Those had trendy houses.

The camerawork

Vishal Sinha: I’d never shot a film before in my life. I’d not even assisted anybody before. I had no benchmark of what I wanted this film to look like, or what I wanted to be inspired from. Everything that happened came about naturally and organically on the spot. We were all like sous chefs with a chef who knew what he wanted to do.

Ram gave me a couple of films to watch, not to copy. It was the usual suspects – The Shining (1980), Evil Dead (1981), Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). He gave me a whole bunch of DVDs so I could understand the mechanisms of horror films. I used to live alone at that time, and I was petrified. So I didn’t watch any of those films. Instead, I read the back of each DVD case so I knew what the plot was, and then give the film back to Ramu. In case there was a discussion the next day and I needed to talk about the plot, I could sound like I knew what I was talking about.

Ram Gopal Varma: The camerawork in the film is from the point of view of an entity watching the proceedings. In Bhoot, I always wanted the composition and movement of the camera to look like an unseen force is constantly watching all the characters.

There are two kinds of horror films. In one, there’s gore, which revolts you and makes you not want to see what’s happening on the screen. The other is when you use the audience’s own mind to create fear – they are imagining more than you are showing them. So when you see these shots of the lift going up and down, it’s scary. When you’re in an elevator and the elevator is shut, you don’t know what’s happening in the shaft. And that’s what true fear is about.

The camera peering into the lift shaft in Bhoot.
The camera peering into the lift shaft in Bhoot.

Vishal Sinha: We shot the film in an almost-linear way. On day 1, we did page 1, on day 2, we did page 2. A lot of writing, re-writing happened, scenes were altered to fit the space. Sameer and (co-writer) Lalit Marathe wrote them on the fly, on the day. We knew the beginning and the end, but suddenly we had a lot of date hassles. We had to shoot the climax early on because the actors were only available on that day.

Sameer Sharma: The very beginning of the film gives you a sense of where it’s going to go now. Ajay Devgn is with an estate agent who’s showing him the building. There’s a body that’s being cremated. The spirit is now travelling back to this building.

Bhoot's opening shot: a cremation.
Bhoot's opening shot: a cremation.

Ram Gopal Varma: We shot the opening sequence on Andheri Link Road – ordinary, everyday people going to school and to work. Even then, the camera movements and the accompanying background score gives you a feeling that the ghost is also moving at the same time along with all these people. The opening scene was meant to be relatable, unlike a film in which you see the camera travelling through a dark corridor or a graveyard or a haunted hotel. This is shot in broad daylight, with ordinary people moving about. It gives you a thrill. You want to look back and see if there is something that is not supposed to be there.

Vishal Sinha: For the scene in which the camera dives off the building, I was suspended along with it. We were on the 18th floor. The first time we tried sending a camera off that floor on its own, it reached the bottom and began pivoting in a circular motion. Ram was like, ‘This is not working, I need it to go down straight.’ So I was hooked up to a harness and I went down 18 floors. I shat bricks that day. After that, I’ve never sat on a rollercoaster in my life.

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Jijy Philip: Setting up the lighting and wiring of the film was a tough challenge because Ramu wanted to see the windows of the flat clearly. It had large windows and so he wanted us to shoot day scenes during the day and night scenes at night. He didn’t want to cover the windows and substitute day for night or vice versa.

We had another apartment in the same building, on the floor below, where we stored all the equipment and set up all the make-up rooms so that the actors didn’t have to go all the way down for touch-ups. Ajay Devgn had a phobia of getting into the lift. Since he was going to walk up 19 floors every day, he wanted his make-up room to either be on the same floor or the floor below. He’d come up once a day at the beginning of the shoot and he’d say, ‘Now I will go down only when the shoot is over.’

Ram Gopal Varma: My favourite scene is when Urmila wakes up in the night and there’s no water, so she comes down to the ground floor, then goes into the kitchen and opens the fridge. The psychological design of that scene is some of the best film writing I’ve done in my career. When she comes down, it’s a very wide shot which shows you the full apartment. The audience is constantly checking for what is lurking out there. If the camera had followed her, the audience would’ve expected something to jump into the frame. But here I took them into confidence and showed them there was nothing or no one in the apartment. After she drinks the water, she comes out of the kitchen. The camera cuts to the top angle as she’s coming up the stairs so the audience can see that there’s nothing behind her. She can see what’s in front of her, so obviously from her expression, there’s nothing there. And just when she goes out of the frame, the camera tilts down to show you the ghost standing there. The whole theatre jumped a foot up.

Swati (Urumila Matondkar) and the ghost (Barkha Madan) haunting her house.
Swati (Urumila Matondkar) and the ghost (Barkha Madan) haunting her house.

Vishal Sinha: I’ll never forget the scene in which Urmila is flipping channels. I was the only human being in that room with her. There wasn’t anything actually playing on the television. It was just me shouting, ‘NatGeo’ and then she’d pretend to watch NatGeo and so on. And one foot from me, Barkha, who plays Manjeet, just stepped into the reflection of the mirror. And the camera shook because my hands shook – I was so frightened. I was standing at an angle where nobody could see me, I was trying to avoid being seen in the reflection of the mirror. And Barkha was slowly moving towards me. I knew the timing of the shot, but when I saw her in the mirror and Urmila got frightened, I got frightened. Whenever I watch it, I’m like, 'Aila! The camera shook.’ It was so immersive.

Priya Suhas: We went back-and-forth in terms of finding the perfect mirror for the scene in which the bhoot appears in the reflection. It also had to blend in with the stuff in the house. We got sent a mirror that had storage space, but we didn’t want the storage, we wanted the mirror to be wall-mounted. So we eventually had to buy a mirror and then alter it.

The ghost (Barkha Madan) standing behind Swati (Urmila Matondkar) in the mirror image.
The ghost (Barkha Madan) standing behind Swati (Urmila Matondkar) in the mirror image.

Vishal Sinha: We shot two scenes at Aksa Beach. For one of them, we’d set up at the beach and it looked official. But for another scene, which had to be shot among the crowds, we shot it almost guerrilla-style, while hiding inside a shop. Most of those people at the beach weren’t aware that they were part of this movie. They didn’t realise what was happening. At that point in time, to take Ajay and Urmila into a public space was a huge risk. If they’d been spotted, it could’ve turned dangerous. So we had to hide and shoot. It took a day to can.

Urmila Matondkar and Barkha Madan at the beach in Bhoot.
Urmila Matondkar and Barkha Madan at the beach in Bhoot.

Jijy Philip: The climax sequence was quite challenging because the car was being driven by the bhoot. The idea is that Fardeen is in the driver’s seat, but then the steering wheel starts moving on its own. It was complicated – they had to get another steering wheel on the passenger’s side of the car. That’s where Fardeen was really sitting. A stunt guy was sitting in the driver’s seat and driving while Fardeen looked panicked. It had to look like nobody else was in the car. Setting up the car like that was complicated. We had to get it custom-made.

Vishal Sinha: We shot this sequence at some friend’s garage because by that time, we had run out of budgets. We crashed the car a couple of times. But it was good fun.

Fardeen Khan in Bhoot.
Fardeen Khan in Bhoot.

The sound design

Vikram Biswas, sound designer: Creating that kind of atmosphere was difficult because Ramu would say something and after about 5 hours, he would say something different. Just matching his wavelength was difficult. What I learnt from him was to create a silence before any impact. We did that a lot.

For the background score, which had a lot of screams, we recorded the actors screaming and we also used screams from our sound libraries. We added some creature sounds, some dinosaur screams to the mix. For the ghostly voice, we recorded Urmila’s normal voice and then used a software called Pitch Up to process it and make it deeper.

Vishal Sinha: Dolby 5.1 and surround sound had just come into our lives. Audiences were so used to everyone mixing sound from the front, which changed because now sound could come from the side. Ramu was like, ‘Why should the sound of the doorbell come from the front?’ So it rang from behind the audience, on their right-hand side, and they felt like something was just behind their shoulder and coming to get them.

Vikram Biswas: The doorbell was a challenging sound to figure out. The couple was staying in a duplex flat. And if you go to a very posh apartment, you’ll hear a normal doorbell or a door chime – it's a 'ding-dong' or 'ting-tong' sound. But we wanted to create something that cut through the rest of the noise. We wanted a buzzer-type ‘krrrrrr' noise. That was RGV’s suggestion. We wondered whether it would work or whether people would say, 'They are living in such a posh apartment, why do they have this old buzzer noise?' But people liked that sound.

Sameer Sharma: I was at a dinner where I met Salim Merchant. I told him I was working on this scary film called Bhoot. After a couple of weeks, he called and asked if I was still working on it. He asked if I could come over and listen to something he had made. We went to his small studio in Santacruz, and he had composed this piece which went on to become the main theme of Bhoot, completely out of the blue.

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The editing

Sameer Sharma: I met Shimit Amin during Asoka (2001). He had sent me the DVD of this film called The Others (2001) and so I knew that he had a passion for horror. So when we needed an editor, I told RGV that I had this friend in LA. He said to call him over. Shimit had just seen Company and was really impressed so he came to Mumbai. By the time he finished the first edit of Bhoot, Ram had finished making Road. He said, ‘Shimit, you are coming from Company in the edit. I’m coming from Road. There’s a difference.’ Shimit asked for two or three days, and the next time around, he understood what he meant. He showed Ram the sequence of Ajay and Urmila making out to the sounds of the BBC broadcast. That set the tone of the film. His editing pattern was earlier classical, but now it was fresh.

The marketing

Ram Gopal Varma: I didn’t have any songs in the film because the purpose of coming to a horror film is to get scared – songs would just dilute the effect of that tension. If you want to see a musical or a love story or something else, fine. But when the audience comes to see a film called Bhoot, you shouldn’t subject them to songs. I realised that even in the Sixties, films like Kanoon (1960) never had songs. I had a really tough time convincing the producers, because at that time it was incomprehensible for a film to not have songs. But it helped me – because of Bhoot’s success, I could do away with songs in Sarkar (2005).

But I had to compromise by making a music video. Sunidhi Chauhan did a song called ‘Bhoot Hoon Main. I still felt like Bhoot as a title was so in-your-face, I didn’t need to say anything except, ‘This is the cast and this is the genre of the film.’ Nobody came to the theatre because they saw a Sunidhi Chauhan video saying, ‘Bhoot hoon main.’ The music video might have worked independently, but the film had nothing to do with it.

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The reception

Ram Gopal Varma: People were scared at the time. My mom saw it in Hyderabad and then told me she came home and closed all the windows and doors. Then she got scared wondering if the bhoot was already in the house and so she went and opened them again. She kept telling herself, ‘You know this is just a film. It’s something my son made. There’s nothing real about it.’ She kept talking to herself. Amitabh Bachchan saw the film at a preview and told me, ‘I almost felt like beating you up. I was hating myself thinking: Why the hell did I come to see this?’ That’s what a horror film does – it should be able to evoke an emotion, whether fear or anything else. You know that this is a farce, this is a performance, there is music, all of it is unnatural. But use those things correctly and you can start making people believe it’s really happening to them.

Jijy Philip: I saw the previews and I remember everyone reacting to the first visual of the ghost. When Barkha appeared, everybody screamed.

Sameer Sharma: We had a screening in Film City, and Pooja Shetty and Arti Shetty were dropping me back home. We got into the car, and Barkha Madan, who plays Manjeet the ghost, was sitting at the back. Pooja didn’t know she was in the car. She turned around, saw her and screamed, ‘Isko gadi se nikalo! (Make her get out of the car!’) I had to put her in another car.

Vishal Sinha: Pooja called me four months after Bhoot and said, ‘I hate you, I hate you!’ I was like, ‘What? Why?’ She said she hadn’t slept in her room for four months. She had to get her doorbell changed because it sounded too similar to the one in the movie. She also had a similar-shaped mirror, which she threw out. You know that the flat we shot in couldn’t get sold? Nobody wanted it. Whoever tried to buy it saw Rekha (who played a medium) and the ghost over there, so ultimately nobody wanted to buy it. The builder was damn upset with us. I met him once at a party and he said, ‘You guys have fucked my life.’

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