The missing surprise

Print edition : September 16, 2016

A still from "Bees Saal Baad". Photo: The Hindu Archives

A still from The Exorcist. Photo: AP

Despite the author’s well-elucidated arguments and some interesting theories, the book disappoints as it fails to pack a punch.

When Warner Brothers’ The Exorcist played at a top-notch cinema hall in South Delhi, there was no show that was not houseful. Not even the competition presented in the mid 1970s by a succession of Dragon series films or even The Blue Lagoon affected the business of the supernatural offering of the director William Friedkin. Laudable as the feat was, it was not the most remarkable thing about the film’s run. That came from unlikely quarters. When the film played inside the cinema hall, an ambulance waited outside to meet the eventuality of any filmgoer needing help. During the film’s 17-week-long run, the ambulance was pressed into service no less than two dozen times. Some in the audience fainted and many were too scared to watch the entire film. Yet, filmgoers continued to watch The Exorcist… such was the thrill, such was the chill. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience; people watched the film so that they could relate the tale to their grandchildren.

A little over two decades before The Exorcist put the fear of the unseen in the minds of many, the director Kamal Amrohi’s Mahal did it at the Majestic cinema hall in Old Delhi. The music director Khemchand Prakash’s haunting number “ Aayega Aanewala” wooed people to the hall. They first came in droves, then in hundreds; such was the song’s popularity and so well known was Majestic’s ability to whip up magic with its audio system. The song sung with rare elan by Lata Mangeshkar was, ironically, largely filmed on Ashok Kumar, disturbed yet too dignified to appear frightened. Indeed, such was Amrohi’s mastery that the movement of the pendulum conveyed an eerie feeling, a black cat merely being the more obvious ploy. Mahal set a benchmark for horror in Hindi cinema that is yet to be bettered.

Of course, in the 1960s Bees Saal Baad played to similarly scared audiences at cinemas in Ranchi, the city that gave us the precursor to the modern-day mini-theatre concept. Yet, there was nothing small about the footfall for the film, in which Hemant Kumar whipped up magic; in a movie notable for its eerie moments, many came back from the film singing “ Zara nazron se keh do ji, nishana chook na jaye”.

The success of these films in a land where cinema has often not been much more than distilled male fantasies provoked debate. There was class in narration, taut pace and a music score that stood out. Horror sold too. Yet, nothing, absolutely nothing, comes close to the success of the Ramsay brothers when it comes to horror; so much so that they kind of made the genre their own. Ghosts, wayward spirits, lonely mansions, eerie cemeteries, skulls with gnashing teeth and bloodied eyes… their films packed it all. Of course, they thrived on stereotypes: the ghost was usually a woman clad in a white sari. The tantrics were omnipresent as were buxom women with an eye firmly set on those who like to mix horror with sleazy sex. If ever a house deserved a book for its contribution to horror, however tacky, it was the Ramsays. Their films carved out their own niche at a time when getting cinema halls was no easy task thanks to the heady success of Amitabh Bachchan.

Ramsay offerings

Yet, Ramsay offerings like Darwaza, Dahshat, Veerana, Tahkhana, Purana Mandir, Purani Haveli and the rest not only made it to the cinemas but found eager takers. The films, usually bereft of star power or even a catchy music score, relied solely on the depiction of horror, the director’s ability to evoke fear among his audiences. There was little pre-release publicity and hardly any premiere; yet, through word of mouth films like Veerana and Purana Mandir broke a few box office records in their genre. Then, with cinema getting more stylised and viewers more rational, it came to an end. Not quite like “The End” sign one sees at the conclusion of a film but a clear indication that the days of tacky technology-driven cinema were going to be history.

Against such a backdrop, I picked up Meraj Ahmed Mubarki's Filming Horror with great expectations. And realised soon enough that great expectations do not always lead to great literature. Mubarki had everything going for him: his father was a film distributor and a horror film buff. Hence, he is equipped with the knowledge of how horror films make money at the box office and how films in general, at any given time, are a depiction of the sociocultural economic realities of the time. For instance, Hindi films in the 1950s and the early 1960s often centred around the Nehruvian concept of socialism.

Mubarki has chosen a genre about which there is only limited writing, in contrast to books on superstars such as Rajesh Khanna, Amitabh Bachchan, Salman Khan and Shah Rukh Khan or even directors such as Bimal Roy, Mehboob and Guru Dutt. Yet he goes on to prove that uncharted territory does not necessarily make for good literature. More’s the pity. He begins promisingly though; the premise evokes hope. Mubarki aims to show that Hindi horror films lie “at the intersection of myths, ideology and dominant socio-religious thoughts” with three major strands “corresponding to the way the nation has been imagined at different times in postcolonial India”. This is similar to what Meghnad Desai attempted, and succeeded with far better flourish, when he set out to analyse Dilip Kumar’s films against Nehruvian politics.

Eye for the unusual

Although he is often guilty of stating the obvious, there are moments when his eye for detail, his ability to look for the unusual stands out. For instance, when he talks of Dahshat, not quite a film that is easily remembered today. Mubarki is able to talk of the film being subversive of the paternalistic science of Nehru’s times, with a medical doctor who believes that man’s body is imperfect. The film questions the belief that humans are the most perfect of creations.

As Mubarki recalls through Naveen Nischol’s character: “Human body is incomplete. It does not possess the capabilities that animals do.” This little segment on transmutation holds out hope, which is met only by sections where he talks in fine detail about the geometrical precision of Mahal or the abounding myth in Veerana. In fact, most horror films of the 1970s and the 1980s not only relied on myths but perpetuated them too. They were a heady concoction of horror, myth, superstition and sleaze and capitalised on gullible audiences. That many among them realised that had been sold a yarn meant these films had fewer repeat audiences. That, in turn, explains why films like Darwaza, Veerana and Purana Mandir while being hits at the box office never vied for the jubilee hit status. Jubilee hits then meant a film that ran at a particular cinema hall for an uninterrupted period of at least 25 weeks.

However, when he talks of Mahal, Mubarki covers himself with much grace. Here he is able to draw seemingly unfamiliar conclusions. He writes: “Disdain for the spiritual distinguishes the narration of Mahal, arguably India’s first post-Independence horror film. Mahal’s narrative and aesthetic conventions and its pioneering visual and aural symbolism derived from the Expressionist movement distinguish it as the inaugural moment of the post-Independence horror genre. The aesthetic tropes of distorted camera angles, exaggerated perspectives, Gothic mise en scene and dark silhouettes creating an ambience of fear and dread became the template of the genre to be used by later Hindi horror films.”

What he does not say is that this template was seldom used the way it deserved to be in subsequent years, with the genre fast declining to be a front-benchers’ delight in commercial cinema. The discerning kept away, the gullible lapped up the fare. The interplay of light and shadow that made Mahal, and later Bees Saal Baad, such a fetching proposition faded away as horror cinema started catering to the lowest common denominator. Just as the profile of horror films changed, from being A-grade offerings from 1949 to the early 1970s to being sleazy C-grade circuit temptations, the profile of their audiences too underwent a change. Mahal, Bees Saal Baad, Chehre pe Chehra and Gehrayee were patronised by an educated audience ready to try out different fare. Veerana, Khooni Murda and others of the ilk relied only on the blue-collar audiences that asked no uneasy questions and were ready to overlook the flaws in technique and narration. Unfortunately, Mubarki fails to look at horror films through their eyes. His academic approach lends itself to some well-elucidated arguments and some interesting theories. His research is impeccable. His ability to sift through the detail is admirable too.

But Mubarki never ever packs a punch with his narration. His language flows only as easily as a river in the plains. The pace too is almost the same. Which is, to say, tepid. And in horror, a meandering pace is akin to suicide. He fails to pick up the momentum even when talking of the ascent of the Hindutva ideologic cinema post-1990. This was the age when films moved well away from both Nehruvian socialism and the pathos-ridden cinema churned out under the production of the National Film Development Corporation. Even Amitabh Bachchan was in decline. And horror film-makers had their main actors flaunting their trishul, happy to don saffron. They based their films around the Hindu value system.

Yet, films like Bandh Darwaza with their melodrama and tacky narration failed to fill the vacuum. And horror went into a steep decline, with the fine line between fear and furtive sex being erased. Titles of films like Pyaasi Chudail, Ek Raat Shaitain ke Saath and Kunwari Chudail left nothing to the imagination.

But Mubarki fails to find parallel streams running in our society, economy and polity.

Filming Horror is tame, lacking in spirit and, horror of horrors, the surprise element.

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