Monday, July 17, 2017

Scary movies and what lies beneath them (or: Do Gaz Genre ke Neeche)

[This is the intro I wrote for my friend Shamya Dasgupta’s book Don't Disturb the Dead, about the Ramsay Brothers. Excerpts from the book are here and here]
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Cinema has been a running theme in my relationship with Shamya Dasgupta, ever since we found ourselves doing a post-grad communication course together in 1998. The first time I really paid attention to him was when he mentioned that my poker-face reminded him of Buster Keaton; I had long given up on ever meeting anyone who knew such esoteric names, or shared my interest in old, non-Indian films.

In a class of thirty-five students, Shamya and I were the only ones already on first-name terms with Citizen Kane and Aguirre and A Short Film about Killing, and we sneered superiorly when the others – most of whom were priming for a career in marketing or advertising – looked foxed by the “classics” shown in our (much-too-infrequent) Cinema Studies classes. Back then, if a time traveler had told me that nearly two decades later I would be writing an introduction for a cinema book authored by Shamya, I would have been elated.


I’m not sure, though, how either of us would have felt if told the book would be about the Ramsay Brothers.

While I loved horror films even back then, at age 21 I still mainly thought of them as a guilty pleasure, not as something that was part of the Good Cinema canon. (Caveat: Hitchcock’s Psycho was, then as now, one of the key films in my life, but I didn’t classify it as “horror film”; I thought of it as equal parts a brilliant black comedy and a Greek tragedy-level story about loneliness and private traps.) As a child, my horror-love had begun with B-movies, including the slasher franchises of the 1980s (House, Demons, The Evil Dead, Friday the 13th). Later, the jaal spread to many subgenres, from Dario Argento’s stylized gore-fests (Suspiria) to David Cronenberg’s gruesome excursions into the human body (Shivers, The Brood) to psychological horror like Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf, and films that somehow combined the above modes, like Georges Franju’s magnificent Eyes Without a Face.

However, for one reason or another, this net never extended to the Ramsay brand. So I won’t pretend to be any sort of expert on their films (feel free to disregard anything I say about their work that sounds informed or educative – you have the rest of this book for that). But I’d like to touch on a point about the genre they worked so passionately in: horror, even B- and C-grade horror, has always had subtexts that, if handled with even basic competence, can tell us very interesting things about a society, its people, the prejudices and paranoias acting upon them.

David Skal’s book The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror is an excellent start if you want food for thought on how horror movies (as well as TV shows, short stories, and comic books in the genre) have reflected, or distorted, a zeitgeist. Writing mainly in an American context, Skal examines how burning real-world topics insinuated their way into the genre: how, for instance, the birth deformities that resulted from the prescription of the drug Thalidomide to pregnant women in the 1960s also birthed a spate of literature and films about monstrous babies and children; or the
effect that the savaging of human bodies during the two world wars had on films about misshapen “freaks” – as Skal observes, horror’s major subtext during this period was unintentionally revealed in a scene in Abel Gance’s anti-war film J’Accuse, where the ghoulish war dead (played by actual soldiers who had been disfigured) return to haunt the living.

It’s been a while since I read Skal’s book and I don’t remember if he explicitly touched on this (probably not), but one theme that I have personally always been stimulated by in horror and fantasy is that of the past and the present – or tradition and progress – in uneasy conflict, circling each other warily. How an archaic or fading world casts its shadow over a modernizing one; and how the modernizing world hits back, compromises, or capitulates.

This is a theme that stretches well beyond these genres, of course – it has driven many “respectable” classics of world cinema, from John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance to Satyajit Ray’s Jalsaghar to Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard. And there are tantalizing intersections: Abrar Alvi and Guru Dutt’s’s 1964 Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam is among the most esteemed Hindi films of its time, an elegant, mournful story about zamindari decadence and doomed love, but its last scene – where the skeletal arm of the film’s beloved but long-forgotten Chhoti Bahu is unearthed years after her death, in an unmarked grave – could have been in a B-horror film.

Within official horror, though, the theme has special resonance, and this long predates cinema. Look at the great 19th-century novels – Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Bram Stoker’s Dracula – that would so influence filmic horror in the century to follow. All of them, to some degree, deal with this apparent paradox: modern, scientific methods, for all the good they do, may also open a portal to our most primitive impulses; can we deal with the results, find a way to balance the good with the bad? And these thoughts are hardly surprising when you look at what history tells us about the links between advancement and barbarism: how the development of medicine, for instance, has involved using unprivileged and voiceless people (not to mention animals) as guinea pigs for centuries.


Variants on the tradition-vs-progress theme occur frequently in horror films, and it isn’t always clear which side the film is on. That family of cannibalistic monsters in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre … they are the scary predators and we shudder for their teenage quarries; yet the monsters are also a close-knit family who dine and squabble together and have clearly defined roles within the household, while their victims are scattered trophies of an alienated new world, ripe for being picked off one by one because they rarely work together as a group.

Or take the broad plot summaries of two of cinema’s most iconic ventures into horror/fantasy. In one film, a species not long evolved from simians uses its complex brain to develop technology that can make images move; they call it “cinema”. Travelling to a remote island for a shoot, a movie crew disturbs the peace of a giant ape, captures him and brings him as a showpiece to the most modern of their cities, where he will end his life climbing atop the world’s tallest building and fending off fighter planes (and he will do it all in the service of that most primitive and lethal of emotions, love). There’s King Kong. In the other film, the same species uses its amazing brain to build an atom bomb – a weapon that can do something as “sophisticated” as kill millions of people at a go – but in the process awakens (or creates) a prehistoric monster that then stomps its scaly feet all over a sleek city, so that formal-suited office-goers accustomed to heading about their lives with brisk, mechanical efficiency are turned into screeching victims, uncertain of the very ground they stand on. There’s Godzilla.

Perhaps this theme gets a special urgency in ancient societies that are undergoing change, and need to express their discomfort with the results. In the Pakistani gore film Zibahkhana, a Dracula-like tea-stall owner hollers “Jahannum mein jaa rahe ho, mere bachchon!” (“You’re on the path to hell, children!”) at fun-seeking youngsters; not long after this, a psychopath in a burqa comes after these jeans-clad deviants, whirling a ball-and-chain. See any undercurrents there? And Japanese literature and cinema is chockfull of stories that draw on the nation’s tumultuous relationship with its militant past. In Haruki Murakami’s novel Dance Dance Dance, the narrator discovers that history is alive in a hidden corner of a gleaming, 26-storey, glass-and-steel hotel. A weary creature called the Sheep Man – a gatekeeper to a lost age? – tells him, "Everything's getting more complicated. Everything's speeding up.”

(Does that sound anything like the Ramsay Brothers’ 1981 film Hotel? You decide.)


In the Indian context, one of my all-time favourite Hindi films is Raj Kumar Kohli’s 1979 multi-starrer Jaani Dushman, a film the Ramsays may well have made if they had had large budgets and big-name actors queuing up at their door. On one level, this story about a monster that abducts and kills a village’s brides while they are in the doli en route to their husband’s house can be seen as a parable about a conservative society’s fear that its young women may become bold enough to choose their own grooms. (All of the major women characters – played by Reena Roy, Neetu Singh and Rekha –transgress thus.) But it also works as commentary in a more generalised sense, when you consider that the monster turns out to be the benevolent Thakur played by Sanjeev Kumar (who should have done much more of this sort of hirsute, snarling role, but that’s another subject). In one telling exchange, when Lakhan (Sunil Dutt) asks why the Thakur’s daughter was spared while other brides were not, the old man placidly replies “Hum toh isse kismet ka khel samajhtay hain. Bhaagya ka devta hum pe meherbaan thay, doosron par nahin” – it’s a glib way of sidestepping centuries of exploitation and injustice, and it makes us think again about the fiendish bedrocks of the feudal system. (Do gaz zamindari ke neeche?) In another scene, the Thakur berates his wayward son Shera (Shatrughan Sinha) for “dishonouring” the “izzat” of their family; but ultimately, the city-educated Shera teams up with the other heroes to vanquish this ancient evil.

Today’s Hindi cinema – and Hindi horror cinema – is much sleeker and more self-consciously sophisticated, but since we remain a backward-looking society in so many ways, proud of the best and worst of our cultural heritage (and in many cases the good and the bad are joined at the hip), certain motifs can’t be escaped. See how many major horror films of recent years centre on the idea that a strong, independent woman with a mind of her own can unleash destructive forces in a world that isn’t ready for her. The main plot of Pavan Kripalani’s excellent Phobia begins when Mehak (Radhika Apte) says a gentle “no” to a man, Shaan, who has just
propositioned her (they have slept together before, he is hoping it might happen again) – this act of exercising choice sets in motion a series of events that make her agoraphobic and dependent on Shaan, who moves her to a new flat (he is not a chauvinist in an overt sense, but the upshot is that she is now safely in a cage, the way many people prefer a woman to be). Then there is Navdeep Singh’s taut NH-10, in which city-bred yuppies Meera (Anushka Sharma) and her husband are adrift in the Haryana hinterland, witnesses to an “honour killing” and stalked by a gang of rough-spoken, homicidal men. NH-10 wasn’t quite labelled “horror film” when it came out, but is structurally very much tied to the genre, and it implicitly deals with the contradictions in a society heaving between old and new ways of life: a society where a woman may have a high-paying job in a posh, gated office complex, but may still be encouraged to carry a weapon for her safety, and to anticipate and be “responsible” for other people’s criminal impulses.

Or take Suparn Verma’s Aatma, which is a lesser film – inert, indifferently performed – than the two mentioned above, but gets a certain frisson from the contrast between the personalities of the urbane Maya and her rough-hewn ex-husband Abhay (as well as the non-diegetic contrast between the actors playing these roles, the tall and glamorous Bipasha Basu and the short-statured, rustic Nawazuddin Siddiqui) – it is possible to read the story as a conflict between a confident upper-class woman and an intimidated man who exercises a new (supernatural) form of masculine power because he can’t control her in the usual ways.

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The Ramsay idiom is, of course, a universe removed from that of these technically polished, sharply shot and tightly edited films, but does anything in their oeuvre fit the old world-new world thesis? Like I said, I’m no expert, but even the four or five films of theirs that I recently watched (or rewatched) have familiar echoes in them.

Early in their first film Do Gaz Zameen ke Neeche, for example, the upright hero rescues a young woman from goons and lets her stay in his house for a night. Dressed in a western outfit at this point, she changes into a saree (but whose?) after they get home and she has to join him for dinner. Meal done, she promptly slinks into a short nightie (but whose?) for bed, and for the seduction scene that follows. The five-minute sequence plays like a condensed version of Manoj Kumar’s Purab aur Paschim or dozens of other films where the woman in a patriarchal society must shift roles, from whore to devi and back in a jiffy, depending on context and time of day. But soon the lines get blurred, and this is where the film’s biggest horrors reveal themselves. In most Hindi films of the time, a woman becomes “good” when she yields to sari and sindoor; in this one, the woman looks nicely domesticated on the surface but continues to be the predatory vamp, taking away her husband’s money, making out with her boyfriend (who is, of all things, pretending to be a family doctor – a desecration of another of the most sacred cows of the time) and plotting murder.

Or watch Pradeep Kumar as a rich man cruising a city’s roads in a fancy, chauffeur-driven car in Purana Mandir, but still haunted by an ancient family curse. See Navin Nischal in Dahshat, a doctor just returned from Russia, very much a confident, professional man of the world, finding that graves are being robbed in the creaky old cemetery in his home town Chandan Nagar. Atavistic impulses, and cries from the distant past, move alongside the monuments we have built to assert our standing as a civilized species. But what does “civilization” mean anyway? A bunch of kids heading off in a red convertible – this in a scene in Purana Mandir in 1984, when even the basic Maruti-800 had just about hit our roads – to live like modern nawabs in a bungalow, while condescending on the “junglee” tribals living nearby? At such times you almost sympathise a little with the demonic Samri as he rolls his eyes and shakes his head ruefully at this strange new world.


Speaking as an amateur viewer, with less than comprehensive knowledge, what else can one say about the Ramsay films? They are derivative, of course, and you’d think the main inspirations would be C-movies, or schlock-gore movies, from other cinematic cultures; or at best, the Hammer Films. But one of the fascinating things about watching them is to see how cinematically well-educated the filmmakers are, and how some very disparate sources seem to be in conversation. This is true of the goofy “filler” moments (e.g. Puneet Issar and Jagdeep playing a version of Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach in a throwaway subplot in Purana Mandir) as well as the paisa-vasool scary scenes. Watching Dahshat, I got a sense of what the impressionist silent-film classic The Cabinet of Dr Caligari might look like if transposed to 1980s rural India and filmed in gaudy colour. Om Shivpuri’s mad scientist Dr Vishal, incongruously dressed in Western evening-wear, bears a physical resemblance – in terms of his portly, slightly hunched physique – to the mountebank Caligari, while Vishal’s mute, grave-digging servant (known only as “goonga”) is strikingly similar to Caligari’s sallow-faced sleepwalker-assistant. Yet this film also has a bit of Island of Dr Moreau in it, as well as Rajendranath’s broad comic style, which could only possibly belong to the Hindi cinema of the period. Talk about versatility.

That the films are creaky, often laughably tacky, is almost a given. But it is also true that horror movies in this register – made on very low budgets, with crude effects, poor lighting and no option of multiple takes – can have a special, visceral impact that is very different from that of more polished, more cerebrally crafted films. The very desperation of the crew, the quick-time solutions found to deal with time and location constraints, become a part of the film’s DNA, making it urgent and otherworldly in ways that may not have been consciously intended. And there are the occasional pleasing moments where execution does match intent. I would venture, for instance, that the opening-credits scene of Dahshat – with the nighttime close-ups of a serpent and an owl, a view of a skeletal arm stretched out on a cart, the slightly canted camera angle – is unsettling even when you watch it on a laptop screen, on YouTube (this should be late at night, though, with the lights in the room turned off: in an age where movie-watching has become such a distracted, casual affair, we must make some concessions!).

In short, these are uneven films, but in their better moments they show a dedication, a purity of purpose, that one sees in “disreputable” cinemas all over the world, the ones where passion and motivation exceed resources or even skill. And in those moments, they certainly can get under your skin. In this book Shamya gives the clan a taste of their own bubbling red medicine, by attempting to get under theirs.

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[Related posts: Phobia, NH-10, Aatma. Here is another long essay about my horror-film love, for the anthology The Popcorn Essayists. And a few other posts about horror films and literature are here]

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