With Stree, Pari, Tumbbad and Ghoul, 2018 saw a 'mainstreaming' of the horror genre
Bollywood brought its A-game to the horror genre this year.
If you like your chills and spills, Bollywood brought its A-game to the horror genre this year.
The genre threw up some surprises with the box-office success of Stree and Tumbbad. While Stree had wildly comedic moments, it did what most of its predecessors in the horror-comedy space (Bhool Bhulaiyaa, Go Goa Gone) failed to do: scare the living daylights out of people when it was meant to. The year also saw an A-list actor Anushka Sharma deliver the moody, supernatural Pari, and Netflix betting on Ghoul as their first desi mini-series.
It’s not like Bollywood hasn’t had a history in the genre. Up until the mid-60s, we had a smattering of thrillers that featured the best actors of the time. Manoj Kumar, at the peak of his career, headlined films like Woh Kaun Thi, Gumnaam and Poonam ki Raat. Hemant Kumar’s Bees Saal Baad was nominated for multiple Filmfare Awards in 1962 and is now considered a cult classic. It all started back in 1949 with a film called Mahal that featured Ashok Kumar, but is better remembered for having launched the careers of two industry doyens, Madhubala and Lata Mangeshkar.
The 1970s marked a global shift in the genre from the Alfred Hitchcock variety of suspense thriller to the supernatural, spawning classics like The Exorcist and The Omen along the way.
Back home, however, the genre seemingly took a wrong turn with the Ramsay brothers finding a highly successful financial model that catered to the under-served small town market. The next 2 decades saw small budget horror films that were more about titillation than serious chills. Sex and sleaze were what these B-grade films sold successfully, and that defined the genre in India. These films were made to cater to a Tier-2 male audience, and became the staple for the 9:30AM and 11PM shows across small and medium sized theatres in India. The damage was done. Desi Horror, for most Indians growing up in the 80s, was a synonym for sleaze.
Ram Gopal Varma’s Raat (1992) saw the return of horror to mainstream Bollywood, but was a blip and it would take a few more years before filmmakers began looking at the genre with serious eyes again. RGV with Kaun and Bhoot, and Mahesh Bhatt with Raaz set off what would be a regular stream of “horror” films over the next 15 years. Franchises like Raaz, 1920 and Ragini MMS were financial successes and brought back the genre to screens, but failed when it came to mainstream acceptance. Horror, for most A-list actors and directors, was still a genre that was “not for me.”
That seems to be changing ever so slowly now.
It might still be early days, but the fact that actors like Anushka Sharma, Rajkumar Rao and Shraddha Kapoor have even considered doing films in the genre, signals that there is something changing. A year ago, Anushka even joked that it’s boring to always play living characters and that she thought she had represented the ghost community well.
While we know that our current crop of actors is more open to experimentation, we could perhaps peg some of this to a coming-of-age with the industry’s scriptwriting as well. And there’s no finer example than Tumbbad, which takes an obscure Indian myth and couples it with a great screenplay. The best kind of horror movie always makes you feel uncomfortable because it plays with your mind. There’s an irrational fear of what you’re watching, a reluctant anticipation of “what happens next,” and Tumbbad has this in truckloads.
India has thousands of myths and stories, enough to make zombie and vampire films look lame. Maybe, just maybe, it’s time for us to spook the world.
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