Blood and Guts, Song and Dance: the Bollywood Horror of Ramsay Studios
Almost every nation has its own movie genre that it cultivates with pride. The United States has the independent and underground movements. The French had their New Wave. The Germans had Expressionism during the silent era. Japan has its unique brand of animation. And India has its Bollywood.
India, being the most densely populated nation in the world, has a huge market for movies. Whether it’s the upper castes looking to be entertained, or the lower classes looking for escapism, all groups in India want their movies to transport them for a little while away from the real world. Bollywood movies know this and do their best to deliver, with no pretenses about art. Granted, oftentimes with the signature garish colors and elaborate dance numbers, style and art come through. Even if you never heard a word of dialogue, you can spot a Bollywood movie within a few frames. They are that unique.
What is not unique is their horror boom. In the 80s, Bollywood executives saw just how much money (and for how little spent) their American counterparts were pulling from the flood of low-budget slashers. Studio owners the Ramsay Brothers, studied their counterparts halfway across the world, took inspiration from them and created an empire.
One of their movies, TAHKHANA aka THE DUNGEOUN (1986) appears to have absorbed a lot of its personality from the classic Universal Monsters by way of Hammer House with a little Sam Raimi thrown in for good measure. On his deathbed, a man leaves his fortune to one brother, while disowning the second for his interest in black magic. The second brother uses said black magic to curse the fortune of the first. Meanwhile, two young girls, each with a necklace containing half a map to the fortune, are separated during a botched kidnapping. Fast forward twenty five years and one girl is in love with the fortune’s heir. They search out her sister, who just happens to be raped and murdered while they seek her out. Her killer realizes that the necklace she’d always worn was really a treasure map, quickly replaces it with a fake (rather impressive that he can create a four inch square gold map necklace in a matter of moments) and searches for the treasure. Not knowing they have a fake, the surviving sister, her boyfriend, and two random people they pick up along the way, head toward the castle containing the treasure. Unfortunately for them the castle is haunted by the evil brother who used his black magic to become a demon.
Seem a little convoluted? It is. Add to that the random kung fu fights and musical numbers standard for Bollywood fare and the movie becomes a jumbled mess. Subplots head nowhere and are eventually forgotten; comedic moments (while genuinely funny) are misplaced and mistimed. While none of the actors are deserving of awards, they do fine for a mindless horror flick. All in all, though, it’s hard for me to call TAHKHANA a failure. It was the very movie it set out to be. And while it had some fun moments, I can’t say I completely enjoyed watching it. And especially clocking in at 125 minutes, much of that being filler, it was way too long.
The length is also what killed another Ramsay movie, MAHAKAAL aka THE MONSTER (1993). While originally filmed in 1989, this movie sat on the shelf for years since another film company had produced one strikingly similar. Both movies took inspiration from America’s NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. MAHAKAAL actually ripped off many scenes almost shot for shot. In that Indian version, a group of college kids is tormented in their dreams by a burned man with a glove of bladed fingers. It turns out the father of Anita, our heroine, killed this practitioner of black magic after he threw Anita’s little sister into the fiery pits of Hell, and the Monster vowed revenge from the beyond.
The remake rips off the original about half the time, including some of the dramatic, bloody dream deaths and creepy boiler room scene that were trademarks of Wes Craven’s iconic flick. The last third does stray into the realm of originality as Anita searches for ways to defeat the Monster. The rest, however, is padded with the dance numbers and random kung fu fights that I’ve learned are near requirements of the Bollywood genre. At first these breaks in the action, combined with moments of silliness, made this a fun viewing experience. Sure, it was unbelievable that a way to console a woman after an attempted rape was to go on a picnic with singing and dancing, but I was able to get into the escapist factor. But the movie fit about an hour’s worth of story into near two and a half hours. By the time the final forty five minute stretch came up, I’d had enough. The bits that were funny before had become annoying. Huge stretches of time went by where nothing advanced the story and I was getting angry. It felt like the movie was wasting my time and all I wanted to do was make it to the end.
Bollywood movies can be a blast, with their strange balance between the dramatic and the fluff. However, both of these movies didn’t have that balance. They took non-plot elements too far and not only were they distractions from the overall story but were downright infuriating. I thought perhaps I was just too unfamiliar with the genre to fully appreciate them. Upon further research I found, no, not even the staunchest Bollywood fans were pleased by these offerings. Then it occurred to me that they fell into the same trap as much of the American horror from the 80s: it appeared too easy so they didn’t try very hard. Horror movies can be made cheap and fast so a lot of people just looking to make a buck churned them out faster than the theatres could show them. When a filmmaker, whether horror or any other genre, doesn’t care about the movie they’re making, it shows. It seems the Ramsays weren’t looking to do anything but fill their pockets. Eventually that line of thinking led to the horror crash after the 80s in America, and the same happened in India during the 90s.
Whether made on US soil or in India or any other nation, the rule remains the same—respect the movie you’re making. It doesn’t have to be Important. It doesn’t have to be Art. It does have to be a movie you yourself would like to see. Because, chances are, if you wouldn’t want to see it, the audience wouldn’t either.
WHERE TO FIND THESE MOVIES—both TAHKHANNA and MAHAKAAL are available, along with many other Bollywood flicks, directly from Mondo Macabro Video for about twenty dollars a double feature. http://www.mondomacabrodvd.com