Pavan Kirpalani has emerged as a horror specialist in the last decade. Kirpalani made his debut with Ragini MMS in 2011, followed by Darr @ The Mall (2014) and the acclaimed Phobia (2016). His new film Bhoot Police follows the brothers Vibhooti (Saif Ali Khan) and Chiraunji (Arjun Kapoor), who are hired to tackle a demon haunting a village in the hills.

Set for a Disney+ Hotstar release on September 10, Bhoot Police also stars Yami Gautam Dhar, Javed Jaaferi and Jacqueline Fernandez. Bhoot Police is Kirpalani’s first attempt at horror-comedy, which has seen an uptick in Bollywood in recent years. Excerpts from an interview.

‘Bhoot Police’, which was once called ‘Tantrics’, took a long time to get made.
It was the first thing I ever wrote on entering the film industry. Once Ragini MMS did decently well, a production house greenlit the script. I hired Devashish Makhija as the writer. After working for a year, the project did not go anywhere. The film went through several drafts and jumped production houses. Anuvab Pal came on board as writer, followed by Sumit Batheja. I finally rewrote the entire script with Batheja and Pooja Ladha Surti, my constant collaborator since Ragini MMS.

The film was always a horror comedy. The variations down the line happened in the proportions of horror and comedy. Some versions were more scary, less funny, or the other way round. The final film is an adventure film with elements of horror and comedy.

Bhoot Police (2021).

Why do you make horror films?
On a deeper level, you can comment on society through horror by drawing parallels between different issues with themes in the genre, but I also look at it as an escapist genre. I have grown up enjoying horror, from Hitchock’s films to Jaws to reading Stephen King. I love Roman Polanski and Stanley Kubrick.

Later, I moved to British horror. I gorged on The Twilight Zone. In the late 1990s, I discovered Asian horror, but I am not its biggest fan as I find it too gory and intense. I am more into psychological horror. I love M Night Shyamalan and Guillermo Del Toro.

Over time, it has become a natural way of communicating stories for me as well as for exorcising my inner demons.

Inner demons play a big role in ‘Phobia’, your most accomplished work.
Ragini MMS was like my graduation film. I made it with little experience, as a 26, 27-year-old kid. I had ambitions, which weren’t fulfilled. The version that was out did well, however. I was finding my voice in my first two films.

Phobia came out of many things: a sense of desperation, doubts, fears, worry about whether I am a filmmaker and will I be given a chance to make a movie. I didn’t think people believed in me much, and horror is already a niche genre.

I wanted to make a personal movie, with close collaborators, left to my devices. It had a small budget and I made it as a passion project, sort of a love letter to Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, The Tenant, Repulsion, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window.

Phobia (2016).

What was life after ‘Phobia’ like?
Doors opened up after Phobia. I worked through 2017 and 2018 on two films close to my heart. One was a horror film, and another a Contagion-like pandemic-themed film, which went down the drain once a real pandemic came. Bhoot Police was lying around for a long time, so I went back to that.

Since horror is a niche genre in India, how do producers react to your ideas?
Darr @ The Mall flopped, but when I pitched Phobia to the producers right after that, they responded positively to a 10-minute narration. I have been rather lucky in this department. Someone or the other shows interest, but films don’t get made for many reasons. My stories are not esoteric. They are largely accessible and are not devoid of emotions.

Horror comedy has been very successful in India, unlike out-and-out horror.
What horror comedy does is cast a wider net and make the story more accessible. Unfortunately in India, not everyone wants to pay to get scared, although there is a good history of horror films here, starting with Ram Gopal Varma, going back to Mahal or Madhumati or Naagin.

Horror is best enjoyed in a dark room, while comedy is best enjoyed as a communal experience. You bring these two ideas together, and that’s a win-win.

In films such as ‘Mahal’, ‘Madhumati’ or ‘Naagin’, the horror is diluted by romance or fantasy. Why is there a reluctance to make pure horror films?
Our horror films are mostly about a ghost feeling wronged and returning for revenge, or reincarnation. These themes are tied to our religion and belief system.

It will be difficult to transplant a haunted house film here from the West because here we live in flats and the haunted house film is about the fears of someone entering your private property, invading your privacy. You need a big house, attic, basement, the works.

Again, you can’t have slasher films like Friday the 13th or Halloween or Texas Chainsaw Massacre here because we do not have a serial killer culture. Most Indians are still struggling to survive, while mental health issues developing from increased isolation resulting in damaged and lonely people going on killing sprees is an American thing.

What is more valuable to us culturally is family, relationships, love. So something threatening that can be better turned into a horror film.

Ragini MMS (2011).

We also don’t have a popular horror literary tradition or a mass market horror fiction industry.
Horror emerged from English writers like MR James and Bram Stoker because of certain cultural reasons. These writers used horror to explore what was wrong with their society at the time, and that was one way of masking those issues without getting into trouble.

Horror then should be the easiest genre for India.
But I don’t think there is an interest in exploring India through horror. Maybe there will be, slowly. Horror is a great tool to address every relevant issue, without having someone knock on your door for upsetting values or whatever.

All great horror fiction came from turbulent times, and we have got out our own share of them right now. If anything, today, we have more fodder for horror.

Will we ever have our ‘Get Out’?
I am sure. 100%. It’s only a matter of time before someone cracks it.

Pavan Kirpalani (left) on the sets of Bhoot Police. Courtesy Pavan Kirpalani Instagram.