Merchants of fear

Print edition : August 04, 2017

“Purana Mandir” managed to get more than a toehold in cinemas in the face of the Amitabh Bachchan storm, and the Ramsays followed it up with “Veerana”, one of their biggest successes, and “Purani Haveli”.

“Purana Mandir” managed to get more than a toehold in cinemas in the face of the Amitabh Bachchan storm, and the Ramsays followed it up with “Veerana”, one of their biggest successes, and “Purani Haveli”.

“Purana Mandir” managed to get more than a toehold in cinemas in the face of the Amitabh Bachchan storm, and the Ramsays followed it up with “Veerana”, one of their biggest successes, and “Purani Haveli”.

The Ramsays came out with the horror film “Do Gaz Zameen Ke Neeche” in 1972 when most Hindi cinemagoers did not know that such a genre existed.

Much thought went into these seemingly mindless movies of ghosts, overfed girls in skimpy clothes, dark, thunderous nights, and so on.

The journalist Shamya Dasgupta has ably put together the story of the Ramsay brothers, a family united in spirit and in business and that does not take horror lightly.

THE winter of 1984 sent a chill down many a spine. Multiplexes were unheard of then, and top-line cinemas in most cities were overrun by the Amitabh Bachchan phenomenon. Wherever one went, there was a Bachchan movie playing: some people watched Coolie several times, others were attracted by Sharaabi. If one wanted to watch a non-Bachchan Hindi film, one had to go to one of those dusty, almost lamentable halls that had seats whose cushions were torn away in places, walls that bore the telltale marks of people’s smoking and paan-chewing habits, and two-blade fans that generated more noise than air.

Yet it was in these halls that the Ramsays’ Purana Mandir played to houseful audiences. The film—starring Mohnish Bahl; Arti Gupta; Sadashiv Amrapurkar, then fresh from the success of Ar d h Satya; and Satish Shah—was a surprise hit even in big cities. The films of the seven Ramsay brothers—the directorial team comprised two brothers Shyam and Tulsi Ramsay—were not known for their superiority in technique, narration or star power. They had certain recurring elements: tacky sets and disfigured ghosts with bloodshot eyes and long, scary nails or evil spirits in white roaming around a dungeon or a mansion. Occasionally, the ghosts/spirits would be in a graveyard or a temple, as was the case in this movie.

Daytime did not matter in Ramsay movies. The film came to life only after sunset, often around midnight. Then, there would be thunder and lightning, and a ghost would materialise out of nowhere. Pack in a raw sex sequence without an element of love, and the package is complete. No stars were needed, and no big music directors were called for. In film after film, the Ramsays replayed the template. And in film after film, they raked it in. Movie connoisseurs never went to Ramsay movies; in the rare cases when they did, they could not stand them. But, the masses could not have enough of them. Some people watched them for the chill factor, many for the unintended laughs. Not an insignificant number came in for the skin show; with the likes of Arti Gupta, Preeti Sapru and Huma Khan, not to forget Jasmin, in the films, it was never in short supply.

Purana Mandir was a rare movie that managed to get more than a toehold in the face of the Bachchan storm. At a downtown hall in New Delhi, it completed a 50-day run and then attracted more cinemas. It went on to complete a 100-day run before going on to attain greater heights in other cities. For the Ramsays though, it was not their only success. They followed it up with Veerana, one of their biggest successes, and Purani Haveli. Add to this list films such as Tahkhana, 3D Saamri and Bandh Darwaza, and it was easy to understand why the Ramsays were a phenomenon. Their films were sold on their name. Cinemagoers never came to watch a Deepak Parashar or a Hemant Birje or a Mohnish Bahl in their movies. They came to watch a Ramsay film. Such was their aura, all the sneers and snarls of critics notwithstanding.

Now, the noted journalist Shamya Dasgupta has ably put their story together in Don’t Disturb the Dead : The Story of the Ramsay Brothers, and not a moment too soon. It was a story begging to be told: how a film banner defied all the odds to come out with the horror film Do Gaz Zameen Ke Neeche (1972) when most Hindi cinemagoers did not know such a genre existed. Those who watched Bimal Roy’s Madhumati (1958) did so for Dilip Kumar and Vyjayanthimala and those who saw Biren Nag’s Bees Saal Baad (1962) were hypnotised by the music and Waheeda Rehman. Do Gaz Zameen Ke Neeche had no such allurements. It came when Rajesh Khanna’s popularity was at its peak, with girls writing letters to the superstar in blood. Who would have time for blood oozing out of a ghost’s eyes or a ghastly spirit at that time? However, as happened much later with Purana Mandir, the Ramsays surprised everyone and came out with a success, Do Gaz Zameen Ke Neeche.

One must give Dasgupta credit for going where many have feared to tread. And in some delightful parts of the book, he reveals the real Ramsays, a family that is united in spirit. Once when Saasha Ramsay, Shyam’s daughter, was little, she thought that a ghost in a film was real, so she was taken to the sets the next day and shown a man being given the get-up of a ghost. With such anecdotes, Dasgupta is able to piece together the real business model of a group that defied all predictions to carve out a niche for itself. Much thought went into these seemingly mindless movies of ghosts, overfed girls in skimpy clothes, dark, thunderous nights, and so on. Dasgupta gets Tulsi Ramsay to explain it: “Horror, horror, horror, horror! When it’s an action movie, you can’t have fights in every scene; there has to be a bit of romance, there has to be something else, a song or something. When you show horror, it has an impact on the audience. But, after that, you need to give them a break. Have a song, or a comedy track, or something light. If you have a long sequence in the night, show some daylight. People will feel that fine, things are all right. You can’t scare people constantly for two to three hours.”

That may sound like a complete package for a bite-your-nails horror show, but a bit later in the book, Dasgupta comments that at their core the Ramsay films were a smart mix of the modern with the ancient, the hip with folklore.

Quoting the well-known author Jerry Pinto, he writes: “The Ramsay films were a smartly calibrated series that pitted modernity against the idea of an ancient, timeless India.... Modernity was presented in a variety of ways.

Young people, hip clothes, city ways, bathtubs and showers. Naturally, this would have to be punished, and the monster would do the punishing. There would also be a religious element to the whole thing.” In fact, religion, often presented as blind belief and superstition, was a constant in their movies. Invariably, there would be huge deities, which were shown at different camera angles depending on the requirements of the story. A swinging idol meant thunder or a bad omen. A peaceful one portrayed good times. There would be tantriks, too, and the occasional priest and maulana.

Incidentally, the horror masters had their own tales of horror to relate in their film-making time. Andhera, the movie they made after Do Gaz Zameen Ke Neeche, was stuck with the censors for many years. It had a long love scene and brutal actions shots, all of which the censors edited even as they sat over the movie for a full four years. Kafan, a film they intended to release in 1975, the year of Deewar and Sholay, could not get completed. Its heroine disappeared, and Nasir Khan, Dilip Kumar’s moderately successful brother, passed away before the shooting started. Kafan was left without a body.

Much later, the Ramsays experienced greater horror when Maut ka Saya, their take on Jaws, could not be completed. The film was to have an underwater monster, but alas, that could not be managed. The brothers struggled at first to find buyers for Darwaza. However, a smart trick worked asArjun Ramsay happily explains to Dasgupta: “This was about a monster, and we had spent a lot of money to make the monster; we got the right clothes, the mask had come from Mr Tucker.... We spent a lakh on the look of the monster; we were ready. So the distributor came and sat down in a room. Tulsi- ji and Kumar- ji were talking with the distributor, and I was in the adjacent room, making strange and scary noises. I had been dressed up in the monster’s costume, and I had these chains I was using to make a noise. Then, while they were talking, I suddenly burst into the room wearing the costume and the mask, with the chains tied to me, and attacked the distributor. We had decided on the script. Tulsi- ji and Kumar- ji would run away, and I would attack the man. He nearly died.... I jumped on him, and he started shouting.... The distributor came around. Darwaza was released, and it made enough money to keep everyone involved happy.”

Darwaza had a fear factor that many modern-day horror tales with their superb special effects lack. Like most Ramsay films, it too only graced the screens of weather-beaten, downtown cinemas in most cities. And like most Ramsay movies, it made enough money for the next venture. And all their movies added together make the Ramsays the kings of horror in Hindi cinema. There was never a film banner before them that specialised in horror. And despite a Raat (Ram Gopal Varma, 1992) here and a Raaz (Vikram Bhatt, 2002) there, nobody has been able to step into the Ramsays’ shoes. Stories with monsters and voluptuous women on thunderous nights may not get many takers today, but back then the Ramsays blazed a trail. The story of their success comes out in the book. And the mystery surrounding their endless romance with horror is resolved too. However, like most movies of the Ramsays, Dasgupta’s book has places where the narrative meanders or where there are avoidable asides, for instance, when he quotes from recent film books on hit songs and music directors or speaks to people such as Sajid Khan, who is known for his on-screen buffoonery. They just fill up the space without adding value to the book.

But these are like the toll one pays while driving on highways. The drive is otherwise pleasant, uninterrupted and, in many ways, reveals more than the Ramsay heroines do. Don t Disturb the Dead is not a bad option for leisurely Sunday afternoon reading: No horror, no chills, just a beautiful story about the original merchants of fear.