In his introduction to Don’t Disturb The Dead, Shamya Dasgupta’s book about the Ramsay filmmaking clan, filmmaker Ashim Ahluwalia had this to say about the wide-ranging influence of the horror maestros:

“… it was the second-rung film-makers who were inspired by the Ramsay brothers’ style and production methods that, in turn, inspired Miss Lovely. These were the rougher, cheaper, wilder lot: directors like Mohan Bhakri, Vinod Talwar, Harinam Singh, Sheetal, Joginder and J. Neelam. In their time, all unhailed film-makers, making primal, anarchic films and extending the boundaries of the medium.”

Ahluwalia’s Miss Lovely (2012), about a pair of brothers who make sex-laced horror films in the 1980s, was mistakenly thought to have been based on the Ramsay productions. In his introductory note, Ahluwalia cites his debut feature’s actual inspirations, including the siblings Kanti and Kishan Shah, “who shot nasty horror films in less than four days, often all at one location in Madh Island”.

Ahluwalia is careful in his descriptions of filmmakers dismissed as “C-grade” and “sleazy”. The attempt to shake off the pejorative tags and gain respectability are among the themes of the Amazon Prime Video show Cinema Marte Dum Tak.

The riveting documentary series meets four directors who made down and dirty Hindi movies between the early 1990s and the mid-2000s. J Neelam, Vinod Talwar, Dilip Gulati and Kishan Shah are not only given the opportunity to revisit their glory years but also invited to each make a new short film.

(L-R) J Neelam, Vinod Talwar, Dilip Gulati and Kishan Shah. Courtesy Vice Studio/Amazon Prime Video.

As the directors dust off moth-balled scripts, reassemble frequent collaborators, and get back into the groove, their joy at returning to the sets is as palpable as it is infectious. Each of them has the mien befitting a profession marked by chutzpah. Interviewed at length, often in their domestic settings, Neelam, Gulati, Talwar and Shah bask in the spotlight that has often been denied to them.

Ashim Ahluwalia is a creative consultant for the Vice Studios production. Vasan Bala, himself a fan of pulp cinema, serves as series creator. The six episodes have been directed by Disha Randani, Xulfee and Kulish Kant Thakur.

The mosaic of nostalgia and the present-day filmmaking exercise contains shards of information that will be known only to hard-core fans of this brand of cult cinema. There is no shortage of charismatic characters or revealing anecdotes. The films themselves – disreputable by design, made on measly budgets with basic production values, released with racy titles, stacked with shock value – reappear in the form of clips (a shout-out is due to research head Pritesh Kumar Srivastava and his team).

Apart from the main subjects, there are interviews with the technicians, actors and distributors who inhabited the scene, including Raza Murad, Mukesh Rishi, Kiran Kumar, Harish Patel and Hyder Gola. A prominent personality – and scene-stealer – is Kanti Shah, Kishan Shah’s brother and the director of such cult favourites as Loha and Gunda.

Kanti Shah. Courtesy Vice Studio/Amazon Prime Video.

Kanti Shah places himself at a remove from his compatriots. He also swats away allegations that the rules of the game were changed by his practice of inserting “bits” into the celluloid prints – pornographic clips that were spliced into movies in theatres to evade censorship. Pressurised by distributors and theatre owners to follow suit, many other directors found themselves unable to keep up.

These “bits” were what gave the scene its notoriety, the directors featured in Cinema Marte Dum Tak suggest. Each of them says in different ways that films are neither big nor small, A-grade nor C-grade. They are merely films, meant to entertain the audiences for which they are intended.

The series rejects the judgemental lens through which pulp cinema has been viewed. These movies had a dedicated following among working-class audiences and thrill-seekers and turned out neat profits for several years, the series reveals.

As Rakhi Sawant hilariously says on the show, “People love watching ooa aa ouch films.”

A larger analytical framework through which to regard this subset is swapped for full-throated celebration, with tints of poignancy. The manner in which women’s bodies were paraded, particularly in graphic rape sequences, is ignored.

Also unaddressed is the paradox between championing what is described as transgressive art and building up to a very mainstream red-carpet moment. There is the nagging question of whether the pulp producers are actually more interesting than the films themselves.

Sapna Sappu. Courtesy Vice Studio/Amazon Prime Video.

Various characters tear up while talking about their struggles. Sapna Sappu, the uninhibited actress who was the “Sridevi of this scene”, as one of the filmmakers says, is bracingly honest in discussing her travails. Dilip Gulati speaks for himself and every other denizen of the Bollywood netherworld when he declares, “I am there!”

That statement also captures the show’s greatest strength: its tender treatment of the directors as dedicated, passionate professionals who were no different from their peers. Alongside the illustrious names who litter the history of Hindi cinema, other names were there too with equally interesting and important experiences, Cinema Marte Dum Tak decisively proves. The heartfelt tribute to a demonised lot trumps the tendency towards repetitiveness and the occasionally unwieldy structure.

Cinema Marte Dum Tak (2023).