A few years ago, I was in the theatre to watch Get Out (2017), a biting critique of race in America. Three-fourths in, when the exact nature of the antagonists’ macabre operations is revealed, a fellow audience member burst out giggling. “Iska brain uski body me? Bas yehi hi tha? (One man’s brain in another man’s body? That’s all it was?)”
From the Seventies to the Nineties, Bollywood churned out horror films that lifted stories and scenes straight out of international films, and then gave it a masala treatment (mostly because of budget constraints). While this practice managed to land the occasional jump scare, it failed to evoke lingering dread. Ram Gopal Varma did buck the trend with a Raat (1992) here and a Bhoot (2003) there, but these were exceptions. Bollywood’s tendency to copy-paste horror turned off deeper interest in the genre for a long time. Few saw much in commercial horror films beyond B-grade titillation. If international horror cinema triggered a certain catharsis that nevertheless kept us awake at night, that endeavour failed locally.
However in the last few years, things have changed.
In 2018, we saw two vastly different Hindi films in the horror genre, Stree and Tumbbad. Stree chose to cover its horror under the ghoonghat of comedy while Tumbbad was a period piece set in pre-independence Maharashtra, that toured the international film festival circuit. Despite their differences, the two films had something in common — the creation or re-interpretation of Indian horror lore for cinematic context. And in the tradition of good horror storytelling across mediums, these films spoke to the fears that plague Indian society. Stree drew from the “Nale Ba” (come tomorrow) urban legend of Karnataka, modified to “O Stree Kal Aana” (Oh lady, come tomorrow) in the film. Tumbbad told the myth of Hastar, a fictional deity that drew liberally from Hindu mythology. Its resemblance to the moral tales told in Vikram Betal and Panchtantra were noted by lead actor and co-producer Sohum Shah. Both films were deeply rooted in India and the results were the opposite of a nightmare. Stree rocked the box office, while Tumbbad wowed critics and connoisseurs.
Bulbbul followed in 2020. Besides including two b’s in its title like Tumbbad, Bulbbul was also a period film, set in pre-renaissance Bengal. Like Stree, it spoke about a feminine supernatural entity cast in the light of the Goddess Kali. Released on Netflix, the film received a generally positive response from critics and audiences alike.
Horror has seen a resurgence in critical and commercial popularity since Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017), which may not have impressed my fellow audience member, but did become a sensation internationally. At a critical level, it was a reminder of how horror can be used as a metaphor for social evils. Commercially, the film was a reminder that horror films have a loyal viewership and have traditionally been made for much lower budgets, which meant if they succeed at the box office, the profits are relatively higher than for a regular big-budget film. Streaming platforms have since put forth a slew of series that include strong elements of horror, like Ghoul, Betaal, or Daahan. Meanwhile, the box office cash registers rang this year with Bhool Bhulaiyya 2 (2022), which played on the device of the bhatakti hui aatma (wandering spirit), a favourite of traditional Indian ghost stories. The upcoming horror-comedy Bhediya, from the makers of Stree, is generating interest with the release of its trailer. While these films and series are not uniformly appealing or successful, there is a pattern to them. All of these stories draw from Indian folklore, urban legends, and contexts. They also often feel original, rather than transplants. Since we haven’t leveraged regional folklore or horror lore beyond the occasional yakshini or chudail (we talk about this on Episode 2 of Rumors), everything else smells freshly baked. For example, despite shades of being a regular werewolf film, Bhediya feels novel because it promises to draw from the legends and folklore of Arunachal Pradesh.
Welcome as these initiatives are, there still exists a gap, which we explore in our podcast Rumors, on regional dark folklore from India. In it, we cover a cornucopia of legends, from black magic villages to ghost soldiers, and we discovered that Indian horror lore was an akshaya patra for storytellers – an inexhaustible supply of monsters, themes and metaphors to draw from. We’ve only scratched the surface with Rumors, and hope that filmmakers with their bigger budgets and cinematic canvases will take this beyond where we can on audio.
We found folk legends and lore to not only be inexhaustible but also incredibly powerful. They come imbued with the ability to terrify audiences because they originate in the same context as we do. This makes stories created from them authentic and relatable to an Indian audience. They speak to the fears and issues that feel visceral to the people of this land. And what is good horror if not visceral?
In Rumors, we explored the legend of a soldier who continues to guard the Indo-China border as a ghost, a good four decades after his death. In Assam, we found a village that had willingly marketed itself as a school for black magic. In Kerala, we encountered the tragic story of a tribal chieftain slain by the British, whose spirit was chained to a tree to prevent him from triggering accidents on a mountain pass. We even traced back Bollywood's favourite incchadhari naagin to her origins and asked why a powerful, demigod Naaga from Hindu and Buddhist mythology needs to be reduced to a seductive siren.
Drawing horror from Indian lore may offer the film industry an opportunity to even export our culture to a hungry global audience. Wouldn’t they prefer fresh stories instead of engaging with inferior versions of their own popular horror tropes? Let’s hope Hindi cinema tries out more experiments with previously untapped Indian legends and lore.