Tracing the roots of Classic Indian Horror.
It was 1983. The entire crew had packed up after shooting for Purana Mandir and was ready to leave for Mumbai. Shyam Ramsay decided to stay back and relax in Mahabaleshwar. On his return to Mumbai he was driving down the serpentine roads of the highway, alone in the dark of the night. En route he spotted a woman waiting for a lift. He offered to drop her and she got in and sat on the front seat beside him. He tried talking to her but she didn’t respond. He found her beautiful but strange.
“This was not a movie, this happened to me. I began feeling weird so I looked down at her feet and noticed they were turned inward like a witch. I gasped and braked so hard, the car came to a screeching halt. She got down calmly and walked off into the darkness, while I raced back to the city.”
A poster from the famous film ‘Veerana’. Image source: stopimage.com
This became the inspiration for his film Veerana, which was released five years after the incident and bombed the theatres. He ran his palms over his arms, explaining that the memory still gives him goose bumps. I had them too.
We were inside Art House, a treasure trove of antiques and props. It looked like one of Shyam Ramsay’s movie sets, which was natural, since so much from his films was right there. He spoke carefully, punctuating and intonating, a mix of twinkle and fear in his eyes as he cradled the arching of an old gold polished throne.
Shyam and Sasha picking out props
The Ramsay brothers stumbled upon films by a chance decision made by their father Fatehchand Ramsingh, who migrated to India post partition. He had chosen films only because his electronics business went south, but had probably never imagined that his progeny would build a cult around the Anglicized version of his name - Ramsay. They became so famous that the name became synonymous with horror, and they launched the genre Indian classic pulp horror in the country.
A lover of hammer horror films, the brothers would binge watch movies like Dracula, Omen, Evil Dead and others, when it dawned on them that despite a large audience no one in India was making horror films. Their story began with the movie ‘Do Gaz Zameen Ke Neeche’, India’s first zombie film. They were also the first ones to work with all things that appear after the witching hour.
Shyam holding the mask of one of his famous ghosts. Image source: shyamramsay.weebly.com
At a time when filmmakers were spending lavishly on their films, the Ramsay Brothers made films at one-fourth that price. Shyam Ramsay says, “That was the beauty of our films. I made sure we never crossed the budget which in those days was nothing more than 25 lacs. We never cast stars, mostly shot on location, saved on sets and depended wholly on storytelling. My main aim was to create the element of fear and we concentrated entirely on that”. Clever, because it worked!
What also set them apart was their production, coming almost entirely from within the family, with each brother handling a different department - Shyam and Tulsi direction, Kumar writing, etc. And the rest slipped into roles best suited for them. Like the women who handled food and make-up in the initial days. He says ideation was mostly the combination of team work and inspiration from foreign films. It was this reason that their father often called them ‘Tiffin Box Production’, though it was in reality nothing like a picnic. The shoots were hectic as they completed each film in an average of 45-50 days of shoot. Most of these were night shots, which made the process even more tedious because lighting and setting up took much longer. Yet, it was this blueprint that made their films low budget and high entertainment.
THE Purani Haveli. Image source: YouTube.com
Having made over 35 films, Shyam Ramsay sometimes mixes up the names and corrects them just as quickly. He looks forlorn and distant as his hand lingers on each prop for a moment longer and begins talking about the most iconic set which was ‘Haveli’. Located in Murud and originally known as the Murud Zanjira Palace, this beautiful mansion was turned into a terrifying dungeon, and scared people after it featured in ‘Purana Mandir’ and later ‘Purani Haveli’. Many of their films were shot in Mahabaleshwar as its deep dense jungles provided an apt and natural setting for many sequences. Added to that was its old graveyard which was the shrine spot for their first film. Even today Shyam always stays at Hotel Anarkali, which was interestingly turned into the set for a film called ‘Guest House’.
Perhaps the greatest contribution to their stardom was the classic formula they devised for their films - sex, gore, sleaze and horror. Sultry shower bathing scenes, lascivious dream sequences, low neck blouses and tight retro clothes had become a symbol for their films. And despite the criticisms, they connected with millions. It was also daring and novel for an era where actresses were still wearing skin colored leotards under their bathing suits, while the Ramsay Brothers’ films had women with their vitals covered in nothing more than a paltry amount of hay. “It gave people a break from the horror,” he said.
Sex + Horror = perfect Ramsay formula
Shyam Ramsay shares jokes as passionately as he shares stories about the dead. There were parallel thoughts going on in his mind and that was clear - answering my questions and reminiscing about the past. He broke into a laugh and patted the upholstery of the sofa sending a gush of dust my way and said, “Bahut hua horror, main aapko ek maazedaar kahani sunata hoon,” (enough of horror, let me tell you a fun story).
Samri had become the most landmark characters of all their films. People have been known to drop dead in theatres while watching Purana Mandir. Played by Anirudh Agarwal, Samri had become India’s own Dracula. But his off screen point of humiliation goes like this - For one scene Samri was supposed to pop out of a coffin and scare the living daylights out of the crowd. Samri lay inside the coffin and the lock was shut from outside. Call it misfortune or a sheer technical problem, but the lock went bump. Shyam repeated the word ‘action’ several times with no Samri appearing, which is when they realized he had been locked in. He lay there for an hour as the crew struggled to unlock the coffin, all the while hurling abuses and profanity from inside. When he finally came out an hour later, the deathly Samri was wailing like a child refusing to do the scene. Shyam Ramsay continued giggling and said, “Can you imagine? Everyone was scared of him and he was crying like a baby. I still tease him about that day.”
An excerpt from what’s coming back
The budgets, the formula and the novelty were not all they accomplished. They also achieved something that was considered impossible at that time. In `Darwaza’ a scene shows a man transforming into a beast. The scene was shot in continuity with the camera on roll and the make-up being done bit by bit.
While cinematic arguments make their rounds, it’s important to understand that there is a certain kind of quality that nostalgia adds to films, which no amount of modernistic polish can outdo. That is what Ramsay horror means to many viewers.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101India.com.
By Suman Quazi
Cover photo credit: YouTube.com