King of horror

Tulsi Ramsay (1944-2018) blazed a trail as one of the earliest specialists in making horror films in Bollywood.

Published : Jan 02, 2019 12:30 IST

TEENAGERS growing up in the 1970s and 1980s often broke into a cold sweat in the middle of the night. It was not unusual to hear youngsters letting out a scream in their sleep. They were not suffering from trauma; they were merely faithful consumers of the cinematic offerings of the house of Ramsays. Much before the director Yash Chopra earned the epithet “king of romance” for redefining the romantic genre in Bollywood, the Ramsay brothers made the horror genre in Hindi cinema their own. Indeed, what Manmohan Desai was to mainstream cinema, Tulsi Ramsay (along with his brother Shyam) was to horror films. If Desai’s name conjures up images of the classic scene of Amar Akbar Anthony  in which Nirupa Roy is given direct and simultaneous blood transfusions from Amar, Akbar and Anthony, the mention of the Ramsays would transport cinema buffs to dark nights when ghosts with overgrown nails and gnashing teeth strode the frame and bats flew around, with skimpily clad girls thrown in.

That was the template the Ramsays introduced in Do Gaz Zameen Ke Neeche  (1972). It was a template that stood them in good stead over the next two decades. The Ramsays, with Tulsi and Shyam often donning the director’s mantle, were a complete film-making unit by themselves. The seven brothers undertook all aspects of film-making, elevating the otherwise laborious task to a family enterprise. They adopted a simple formula. They did not work with mega stars. With actors such as Puneet Issar, Anil Dhawan, Arti Gupta, Mohnish Bahl and Hemant Birje drafted into key roles, the films catered to low-brow audiences. In fact, the actors were mere props meant to carry the story forward. Incidentally, in an industry that worships its film heroes, Surendra Kumar, the hero of Do Gaz Zameen Ke Neeche , probably never appeared in the lead role in any other film. 

The Ramsay films were just Ramsay films. They were sold and accepted accordingly. Their music was passable, the technology was tacky, the dialogue mediocre, but the audiences seldom complained. They came to watch blood flowing out of a ghost’s eyes and mouth; they came to derive cheap thrills from seeing a scared, scantily clad heroine running or screaming for her life when confronted by a monster. They loved it when a ghost rose from its grave or a monster charged out from behind a door. They soaked in a melody or two as a bonus. They expected no sunshine, just horror and an eerie night. The Ramsays gave them all this and, maybe, a bit more. The brothers had zero competition. In Hindi cinema, horror meant the Ramsays. The films—be it Do Gaz Zameen Ke Neeche  or hits such as Veerana  (1988) and Purana Mandir   (1984) or sleeper hits such as Bandh Darwaza  (1990), Tahkhana  (1986) and Purani Haveli  (1989)—had the same template. Be it a gliding ghost or a scary monster or even a flying skull, the Ramsays excelled in in their chosen genre. Tulsi, who passed away on December 14, 2018, was among the first specialist horror directors in the industry. Later, the trail he blazed was followed with greater finesse by the likes of Ramgopal Varma and Vikram Bhatt, but Tulsi and Shyam were the first to specialise in scaring the wits out of their audiences. 

When Tulsi gave a box-office hit like Do Gaz Zameen Ke Neeche , viewers were surprised. For it came at a time when the Rajesh Khanna craze was at its peak and going to the cinema meant watching a Kaka film. Yet, the Ramsay brothers carved out a niche for themselves. Rajesh Khanna, with his unabashed romantic ways, appealed to urban audiences. Amitabh Bachchan was to later become the cult hero of urban immigrants. The Ramsays catered to B-town cinemas where a mainstream Hindi film often took months to release after its first screening in Mumbai or Delhi. The Ramsays had no problem in showing their films in smaller towns within a couple of weeks of the film’s release in big cities. The big cities though nursed a sense of condescension towards the Ramsays. Cinemas in the heart of the city seldom played a Ramsay film; English dailies almost never opened their film reviews with a Ramsay film. On Chitrahaar , Doordarshan’s hugely popular song-and-dance show, songs from Ramsay films were rarely played. For high-brow audiences, the Ramsays were the poor cousins they pretended they had never heard of. 

Yet the Ramsays cocked a snook at such prejudices, Not only did they give hit film after hit film without the support of popular actors, the media or even preferred cinema houses, they also made their genre of film-making remarkably popular.

Shoe-string budget

With Darwaza  (1978) and Andhera  (1975) ,  the Ramsays were well and truly on their way to establishing themselves as film-makers who could make films on a shoe-string budget. Much before Mithun Chakraborty with the likes of T.L.V. Prasad and Rajiv Babbar started making films spending around Rs.40 lakh for C-grade centres in the 1990s, the Ramsays made films in the 1970s for around Rs.5 lakh, including all expenses. In fact, they spent Rs.3.5 lakh on their first film. The actors were asked to bring their own costumes and the camera was hired.

It took time, maybe, even 15 years, for films such as Purana Mandir  and Veerana  to hit the big screen, but the Ramsays came to be respected for their craft, which says a lot about Tulsi’s directorial skills. He had a sharp eye for detail and talent. The minute he set his eyes on the Haryanvi actor Surendra Kumar, he decided instantly that Do Gaz Zameen  needed a good-looking guy like him. When his eyes fell on Arti Gupta, he knew he had found the leading lady of Purana Mandir . The same goes for the choice of Jasmin in Veerana . Tulsi knew what he wanted from his actors and who fit in what role. Mohnish Bahl probably gave his sole solo hero hit of his career in Purana Mandir,  yet he never worked with Tulsi again. Jasmin could never reproduce the success of Veerana  nor could Surendra Kumar repeat Do Gaz Zameen

Tulsi had a clear vision that factored in an audience’s response to a scene. Of course, he did work with popular actors, too. For instance, he cast Navin Nishchal in Saboot  (1980) and Hotel  (1981) and Shatrughan Sinha and Parveen Babi in Sannata  (1981). But he always believed films to be a director’s medium and actors merely the manifest face of the director’s vision. In the annals of film-making, Tulsi will always have to share the credit for his success with his brother Shyam and the larger Ramsay family, but suffice it to say that Tulsi, who was born in Karachi and migrated with his family to India at the time of Partition, was the film industry’s gain. In Karachi, his family was into electronics; in the Hindi film industry, he provided the stuff to keep cinemas, and later television, running. 

Incidentally, when audiences started moving away from cinemas in the late 1980s and early 1990s to satellite television, the Ramsays came up with  The Zee Horror Show . The show, helmed by Tulsi again, went on for five years, proving that audiences do come back after their first scary experience. The show widened the appeal of the Ramsays. From being the much ignored country cousins of the big guns of cinema, they became household names. People loved the horror show. Technology had improved, so the tackiness of the Ramsays’ early movies was no longer there. If their films usually got an “Adults Only” certificate, their television shows, too, were late night stuff.  The Zee Horror Show  evoked cries of fear and muffled screams.

With the passing away of Tulsi Ramsay, old, dilapidated mansions, forsaken temples and forgotten cemeteries can lie in peace. There will never be another film-maker to use the dead to scare the alive and the kicking.

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