The seven-foot tall monster and the Scream Queen who made the Ramsay horror films memorable

The golden rule of casting for a Ramsay brothers’ movie: ‘The boy should be smart and the girl should be sexy.’

“For decades, the equation has been simple: Horror = Ramsay,” writes Shamya Dasgupta in his absorbing and thoroughly researched biography Don’t Disturb the Dead The Story of the Ramsay Brothers. Dasgupta profiles the family that ran a radio and electronics business in Karachi before relocating to Mumbai in 1947. The family started producing Hindi films in 1954 before specialising in horror films in the early 1970s. The films, including Do Gaz Zameen Ke Neeche, Purana Mandir and Saamri, were made by various members of the family, and until the 1990s, the Ramsays were synonymous with the genre. In these edited excerpts, Dasgupta tracks down he actors who populated the Ramsay universe and gathered their own cult following along the way.

In India, there has been only one long thread of horror films, that of the Ramsays, with Ram Gopal Varma and Vikram Bhatt in more recent years making slicker movies in the genre – more in the psychological-horror field than straight-out curse-and-monster, good-and-evil, blood-and-gore horror. In that Ramsay filmography, one man stands out as a true-blue ‘monster’: Ajay Agarwal. Given different circumstances, he could have been one for the ages, really.

I read somewhere that Agarwal, born Anirudh but credited as Ajay in the Ramsay ventures, was over seven feet tall. ‘Seven feet! No, no, no,’ he laughs, a booming sound that seems to be coming from seven or eight feet up. ‘I am six-four. Maybe six-five. That’s all. Tall, but not too tall. People think I am taller, but that’s because Gangu Ramsay shot me in such a way that I looked bigger.’

So he was tall, rangy and rather, erm, unattractive – Agarwal’s own opinion. He says casually, ‘I have such a face, they (the Ramsays) didn’t even need to put make-up on me. My face … I became a horror face for everyone.’ A ‘horror face’, but not always playing a monster, like in 3D Saamri, or in the many films Agarwal did for other makers afterwards.

Shyam Ramsay offers, ‘Ajay, sorry Anirudh, had a very different face, even without make-up. If you see him today, if he walks on the street, people will turn around and look at him. That’s what his face was like. He was perfect for us.’

Purana Mandir (1984).

Jerry Pinto explains the phenomenon: ‘As for the acting skills of those involved, it didn’t really matter, because they were props and all they had to do was manufacture the right responses and get through the scenes. Everyone was really waiting for the monster.’ For Agarwal.

That, unfortunately, has not been the lot of many Ramsay regulars, many of whom walked into the Ramsay offices looking for a break and got one because the Ramsays were never too picky. ‘The boy should be smart and the girl should be sexy,’ Tulsi tells me. He goes on to add that so many youngsters from all over the country come to Bombay to get lucky that there was no dearth of potential actors with those qualities. ‘They came easily, and we didn’t have to spend too much money on them; often they wore their own clothes and sometimes we arranged clothes for them. That’s it.’

Ajay Agarwal, the Ramsays’ pet monster.
Ajay Agarwal, the Ramsays’ pet monster.

Surendra Kumar was one such actor, who came from ‘somewhere in Haryana wanting to be an actor’. ‘He was good-looking, tall, looked smart and spoke well, so we cast him in Ek Nanhi Munni Ladki Thi and then in Do Gaz Zameen Ke Neeche. Bas! Then he went his way and we went ours,’ says Tulsi.

The brothers spent most of their money on locations, on the mood and the atmospherics, the props, the music and the monsters. Substitute one hero with another and not much is lost, or gained. As for the actors, the likes of Surendra Kumar, a low-budget ‘B-grade’ film is just a launch pad.

‘They used to come cheap and they were happy to spend all their time with us. Dev Anand, Sunil Dutt, Rajesh Khanna, Dilip Kumar – they didn’t want to do horror. They were expensive. I won’t lie, we did try to get them. But not in a big way. We approached them, let’s see what they have to say. But with the actors we got, we went to Mahabaleshwar for forty to fifty days at a stretch; there were no date hassles, no ego issues. The hero and heroine made tea for us and they became part of the family, and we didn’t have to spend much money,’ Tulsi explains in his disarmingly straightforward manner.

As more than one Ramsay actor says, the brothers didn’t pay much but they always paid on time. ‘They were very jolly; there was a lot of fun all the time. The whole family would be there, eating, drinking, working,’ says Ajay Agarwal, adding the three words so many people have to say about the Ramsays: ‘very nice people’. He goes on: ‘They were not making big payments, because they made low-budget films. But it was a family affair, which was nice. And they were all very honest. What they promised you, they paid you. They would say right at the start that they couldn’t pay much. And all of us knew that they genuinely didn’t have much money.’

The Ramsay family. Courtesy HarperCollins India.
The Ramsay family. Courtesy HarperCollins India.

One of those actors, who became a part of the family and continues to speak of them with great fondness, is [Aarti] Gupta – someone who has well and truly moved beyond the Ramsays, and even acting, and made a name in other areas.

When Gupta accepted the role in Purana Mandir, she was trying to find a space for herself in the industry, having started out as a nameless dancer in Tariq’s troupe in Nasir Husain’s Hum Kisise Kum Naheen in 1977. There were a few forgettable performances here and there after that, and then the Ramsays picked her up.

As for Gupta, she did it all – swimsuits, close-ups of her bosom as Mohnish Bahl’s character takes her photos when she climbs out of the pool, hits the beach where the camera lovingly goes over her (she’s in a swimsuit and some sort of sheer cape, which is also tied around her head), and later, does the Scream Queen routine masterfully when she and her friends go to the old haunted haveli where Saamri had been buried many generations ago. The acting overall is above par by Ramsay standards, with Sadashiv Amrapurkar, Pradeep Kumar, Jagdeep, Satish Shah, Lalita Pawar (in a role she might not have thought back to with great fondness), as well as Bahl and Puneet Issar, all competent actors, in the mix. The stars, of course, are Agarwal, and Gupta, who put out a template of sorts for the typical Ramsay heroine.

Mohnish Bahl and Aarti Gupta in Purana Mandir (1984).

Not everyone looks back at his or her association with the Ramsays fondly, and that’s understandable. Many of the actors who appeared in these horror films early on in their careers earned a ‘B’ tag, and never quite got a chance to express themselves at a higher notch. Hemant Birje, for example. The hulking Tarzan acted in Tahkhana, his second film, and, two years later, in Veerana, his eighth film and one of the Ramsays’ best. But his career went on a steep downward slide and though he has accumulated close to a hundred credits over the years, not many of them have crossed the ‘B’ or even ‘C’ circuit. He is one person who has nothing good to say about the Ramsay brothers. Or so I heard, because attempts to speak to him were met with a brusque ‘I don’t want to talk about the Ramsays’ message.

Another actor who believes the Ramsay association may have impeded his career is Mohnish Bahl. Remember, as Nutan’s son, he would not have lacked for advice on the movie-choosing front.

‘As far as I am concerned, Purana Mandir didn’t help my career at all. But it was a wonderful experience, mainly because they are all such good people, and they were so good at knowing what they wanted to do. I would act with them again today if I could. I think they can do it again if they wanted to, because they are fabulous with their craft,’ says Bahl.

When she signed Purana Mandir, Gupta was still in her teens. She had done some modelling, and was being talked about. Movies were the next logical step for this army kid, somewhat in the footsteps of Zeenat Aman and Parveen Babi. Some of the Ramsay brothers went to meet her, and they played her the haunting ‘Woh beete din yaad hai’ that had been made and recorded for the movie by Ajit Singh, the music director. She heard the song and, she says, fell in love with it, knew it was going to be pictured on her (twice over), and signed up.

Unlike Bahl, she does regret doing the movie, but leavens that with talk about the Ramsays, stressing again and again that they were the most wonderful people she has met in the industry. Gupta might not have really made it as an actor, but she is still a big part of the circuit. While still very young, she married Kailash Surendranath – son of Surendranath, the leading man from the 1940s – an ad film-maker with a giant body of work whose greatest claim to fame remains ‘Miley Sur Mera Tumhara’, a film Gupta produced.

Excerpted with permission from Don’t Disturb the Dead The Story of the Ramsay Brothers, Shamya Dasgupta, HarperCollins India.

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