During partition, when riots broke in what is now Bangladesh, and Hindu families had to leave abruptly, they thought they would come back once things calmed down. While leaving, they entrusted the locals with a task. They asked them to spread stories that their house was haunted, so that someone else didn't take over. Dead fishes would float in the pond. A bad odour would fill the compound. These were signs of the djinn.
The families, of course, never went back, and the houses changed hands. But the stories remained, passed on from one generation to another.
Prosit Roy heard the stories, and the story about the stories, from his grandmother. It provided the background for his first feature film Pari, in which a young introverted man falls in love with a strange girl (Anushka Sharma). Her name is Rukhsana and she lives in a hut in the wilderness somewhere in the porous borders of West Bengal and Bangladesh. She looks and behaves a bit like a feral child who has grown up. The smell of incense sticks repels her, and she drowns out the sound of the azaan by putting her head in a bucket of water. She's the daughter of the devil himself, Ifrit, the most malevolent of the djinns, who continues his bloodline by impregnating women, enabled by the satanic cult Auladhchakra. Quasim Ali, a professor from Dhaka University, is after her. He leads a secret vigilante outfit that finds the children born from Ifrit and kills them.
By making the 'witch-hunter' the film's main villain, and the 'witch' the protagonist, Roy turns genre expectations. Rukhsana becomes a symbol of the war-children, born out of the women who were raped by the Pakistani army during Bangladesh Liberation War in '71. The love story with an 'outsider', intended or not, makes one think of the hate campaign against Bangladeshi refugees in West Bengal and Assam right now.
Not unlike The Shape of Water, whose lead-up to the Oscars coincided with the Pari's release date, Roy and the film's co-writer Abhishek Banerjee wanted to create a love story between a human and a demon. But they didn't want to go into the "tantrik and Christian ghost" territory which has become a cliche in mainstream horror films. Revisiting stories he had heard as a child opened up the relatively untapped area of Islamic mythology, rich with its own imagery, stories and cultural context. "It's a very personal film," says Roy.
The serious horror fan in India has always been, as director-producer Vikramaditya Motwane put it recently, "under-served." Ram Gopal Varma, in his prime, did his bit, showing us that a Mumbai apartment could be more sinister than a haunted Haveli, in Bhoot (2003) and to an extent, a decade earlier, in Raat (1992). The first half of Kannan Iyer's Ek Thi Daayan, co-written by Vishal Bhardwaj, showed promise in the way it wove an engaging subplot about a terrifying childhood episode with elements from the 'Daayan' myth: the reversed feet, the long choti, how the domestic lizard in your house might not be as harmless as you think. And Pawan Kripalani made a slick psychological horror film with Phobia (2016). Otherwise, it has largely been the formulaic fare: The Ramsay Brothers brand of sex and camp, the Vikram Bhatt variety of hill stations and trendy songs, a bit of exorcism thrown in, and a permutation and combination of these, the Raaz series, the Ragini MMS films.
The Bollywood horror films this year look and sound different from each other, delving into histories and folklores, being politically daring, going for mood instead of jump scares. Has the global mainstream success of The Conjuring movies or a TV series like Stranger Things made it a lucrative prospect for studios? Has the recognition for a film like Get Out — which became the first horror film to win the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay — shaken things up for the genre, which has always had a bit of a bad rap? Blumhouse Productions, which is behind films like Get Out and Paranormal Activity, in a tie-up with Phantom Films (whose co-founders include Motwane and Anurag Kashyap) has entered the Indian market with Ghoul, now streaming on Netflix.
…the real horror in Ghoul is the story's dystopian setting. A disembodied voice over a loudspeaker orders residents to surrender 'dangerous articles.' It's a broad term – geography textbooks and nursery rhymes, paintings and sculptures all are doused in fuel and set on fire. Universities and schools are shut, homes are raided at midnight. People are nudged to view their friends and neighbours with suspicion. Anybody could be a terrorist.
The monster that wreaks havoc in the three-episode series is the the eponymous ghoul, one of the members of the djinn family. The ghoul is known to play tricks with the human mind, tapping into his guilt and feeding on his flesh. But the real horror in Ghoul is the story's dystopian world. A disembodied voice over a loudspeaker orders residents to surrender 'dangerous articles.' It's a broad term – geography textbooks and nursery rhymes, paintings and sculptures all are doused in fuel and set on fire. Universities and schools are shut, homes are raided at midnight. People are nudged to view their friends and neighbours with suspicion. Anybody could be a terrorist. The story kicks off when military interrogator Nida Rahim (Radhika Apte) turns in her father for possessing 'seditious literature.' You almost root for the ghoul.
British director Patrick Graham, who has lived in India for eight years, came up with the idea after reading CIA documents about torture techniques used after 9/11 and at Camp X-Ray, and later, reports of military centres in Kashmir. He had a dream about being in an Abu Ghraib-like torture centre in Iraq. And then he thought, "'What if an inmate came in and he was scarier than the place, scarier than the guards, scarier that the other prisoners and there's something weird about him?"
What's scarier though is this: Ghoul, which is about how the government clamps down on intellectual, free-thinking, was originally made as a feature film to be released in theatres. But it ran into trouble with the Censor board, which according to Graham "might have had some discomfort about the portrayal of the army." It was picked up by Netflix, where the censorship rules don't apply.
There is Stree, which hits theatres next week, that turns an urban legend into some sort of a cheeky joke. The legend, in the small towns of India, goes that there is a wandering female ghost coming to get you. To ward it off, some would hang chillies, and some would write on the walls of the streets and their houses. One of the popular phrases is O Stree, Kal Aana (O evil spirit, come tomorrow); Raj Nidimoru, who wrote and produced the film along with Krishna DK, remembers seeing it as a teenager in Tirupathi, where they would "get a free pass to hang out and stay up all night during Shivratri, amid warnings about the stree." He found it amusing, and ridiculous. As in Go Goa Gone, where hard drug consumption turned tourists in Goa into zombies, he and DK introduced a little twist in the idea to accommodate a social message. Here, a slighted entity becomes a way to subvert society's expectations of women. This stree preys only on men. "If you go to a small town, families tell their daughters, 'Come home before 8 pm, there are guys waiting at every corner to abduct you.' So we've taken that and completely flipped it – here, the men are scared for four days every year. They don't venture out late for fear that the stree will abduct them," says director Amar Kaushik.
The more independent regional films of recent times have been adventurous with horror. Marathi director Vishal Furia's debut, Lapachhapi (2017) uses a cornfield in rural Maharashtra to disorienting effect and talks about female infanticide; his new film Bogie No. 4, is seemingly about a nightmarish train ride, but a closer look reveals themes of depression and suicide. Earlier this year, Tamil director Karthik Subbaraj (Jigarthanda) made the the atmospheric, wordless Mercury, a holiday-horror with a social angle, in which four friends go to the hills of Kodaikanal for a reunion. Growing up close to a factory owned by an MNC, they were victims of mercury poisoning and had lost their hearing. Bengali filmmaker Mainak Bhowmik is making a film set in small town Bengal; he has described it as "Aranyer Din Ratri meets The Blair Witch Project."
"There is a total reinvention; it's not just horror but all genre filmmaking. Gangster films, sci-fi, period dramas, even westerns. Art house cinema started dying because financing and distribution became scarce, so interested directors began to explore genre," Ashim Ahluwalia said when he had spoken to Film Companion ahead of the screening of horror anthology film A Field Guide to Evil earlier this year. Ahluwalia's segment is a Lovecraftian tale set in Colonial era Bengal. "If you'd asked me 10 years ago about horror, I would've been like, 'What are you talking about?' I look at genre now, and everything I've done is strangely genre-related."
The idea that a horror film has to be a certain way is changing. "In India, for horror to be horror, there has to be a ghost, there has to be the supernatural, whereas the actual genre to me is a much broader category – you can have a horror film with a serial killer," says Graham.
Rahi Anil Barve's dark fantasy Tumbbad delves into the lost culture of the Konkani Brahmins, about whom Barve says little is documented. Their culture — that of Peshwaris — is different from most of the other Maratha cultures. The Konkani Brahmins were looked at as outsiders, half of them were white-skinned, and according to a theory, were originally Jews. The story follows Vinayak, a treasure hunter and it spans three generations in British India up till its independence. In the brief teaser, we learn about an ancient Devi and her beloved elder son Hastar. He has been evoked, he shouldn't have.
The Venice Film Festival, where it's going to be screened end of August, describes Tumbbad as "a visionary fantasy film, rich in visual inventions, special effects and blood." It started as a horror script, based on a story Barve was told by a friend when they were in the Nagzira forest in 1993 "which made him crap in his pants."
The Venice Film Festival, where it's going to be screened end of August, describes Tumbbad as "a visionary fantasy film, rich in visual inventions, special effects and blood." It started as a horror script, based on a story Barve was told by a friend when they were in the Nagzira forest in 1993 "which made him crap in his pants." It was a story by Marathi horror writer Narayan Dharap. Barve and his friends grew up fascinated by horror, suspense, caves and supernatural milieus. Years later, when he revisited Dhadap's story, he found it "utterly bland, mundane and forgettable," Barve wrote on Twitter. "It was my friend's narration by a bonfire in the middle of the jungle, that left an an indelible print- no, scar on my psyche. That kept the story alive."(sic). Set amidst wadas and mansions, landlords and the caste system, Tumbbad promises to be a spectacle—it has been six years in the making, changing producers, writers, actors; Aanand L Rai (Raanjhana, Tanu Weds Manu Returns) has co-produced it.
"In India, people just try to steal from Korean horror, Hollywood and world cinema, whereas our own horror cultures have so much originality and beauty," says Barve. "Tumbbad is set in a village in Maharashtra during the monsoon where it never stops raining, where you can't tell day from night."
It's an exciting genre to exercise the craft, play with light, colour, sound and production design. The dank, claustrophobic detention centre where Ghoul unfolds, was shot in the basement of an abandoned five-star hotel in suburban Mumbai. Its exterior look draws from the "brutalist architecture of the Bombay Veterinary College with its concrete, jagged and rectangular blocks." Stree is set Chanderi, Madhya Pradesh, where an experience on a visit at night 15 years ago had left Kaushik spooked. They shot on location in a real ruin, which had bats and different species of snakes. The locals were skeptical, and the superstitions got under the skin of the crew. At one point, the light man felt some force pushing him and he couldn't find out what it was. "Half our job was done – there was already that atmosphere of fear built up," says Kaushik.
In Pari, we don't see Ifrit, only hear his blood-curdling, grunt-like breathing. This was achieved with the magic of sound design (Anish John.) Showing the monster is one of the fatal flaws of the horror film–unless it's by Guillermo del Toro–for it colonises the mind; what you see is always less powerful than what you imagine. By not showing the djinn in Pari, Roy not only asks the viewer to imagine his own, he also preserves his memory of listening to his grandmother's tales that had stirred his imagination as a child.