In 2017, journalist Shamya Dasgupta wrote an engaging history of the horror films produced and directed by members of the Ramsay clan between the 1970s and ’90s.
“Part Babubhai Mistry-style mythological imagination, part Hammer Horror with baroque design flourishes inspired by 1960s Italian giallo, the Ramsay films are now synonymous with Indian horror movies,” filmmaker Ashim Ahluwalia noted in the illuminating foreword to Dasgupta’s Don’t Disturb the Dead (HarperCollins India). “From the ominous stuffed animals littering almost every Ramsay project, to the cavernous castles, hidden tunnels and inexplicably moving objects, their cinematic world had a discrete language. As a film-maker looking back, one can only marvel at just how detailed, unique and distinctive that universe was.”
Dasgupta told the stories behind such fan favourites as Do Gaz Zameen Ke Neeche (1972), Hotel (1981), Purana Mandir (1984), Veerana (1998), Purani Haveli (1989) and Bandh Darwaza (1990). He also interviewed members of the Ramsay family – led by patriarch FU Ramsay and comprising seven brothers – as well as some of the recurring cast members, including Ajay Agarwal and Aarti Surendranath (who was credited as Aarti Gupta in the movies).
Ahluwalia is present, but Dasgupta isn’t, in Kings of Horror, a documentary on the Ramsay scarefests. Directed by Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh, Kings of Horror provides a summary of the Ramsay cinematic universe. The 27-minute film has been produced by the Public Service Broadcasting Trust and is among the titles that will be shown at its annual Open Frame festival between September 20 and 24 in Delhi.
While Thomas and Ghosh interview several filmmakers and commentators for the documentary, including Sriram Raghavan, Anurag Kashyap and Jerry Pinto, Ashim Ahluwalia provides the most consistently fascinating insights about the impact of the Ramsay movies. There was “raw energy”, rich atmospherics and a near oneiric quality in the average Ramsay production, Ahluwalia observes. The movies functioned according to a set of laws different from those of mainstream Hindi film industry, Ahluwalia adds: the Ramsays created a “mini-independent film economy” by making movies on the quick and the cheap.
It would be fascinating to watch a film essay or a full-length documentary by Ahluwalia on the devices used by Indian horror films and the influence of the Ramsays on a genre long dismissed as lowbrow and inconsequential. Until then, we have to be content with parsing his views in documentaries such as Kings of Horror.
The film intersperses clips from Ramsay classics with the interviews. Anurag Kashyap notes that a history of Indian cinema that ignores the Ramsays would be incomplete. Sriram Raghavan remembers the manner in which Do Gaz Zameen Ke Neeche was publicised on the radio. There are enough characters who hunted or were hunted down in the Ramsay films to constitute a league of monsters, comic book writer Abhijeet Kini notes.
The documentary makers also interview Ajay Agarwal, who played the demon in several Ramsay films. He reveals the method by which he would lift people clear off the ground by their necks, but admits that he isn’t too fond of the movies since they were “not psychologically challenging”.
Producer Aarti Surendranath, who played key roles in Ramsay films, rewinds to the moment in Purana Mandir (1984) when she steps into the shower, only to be drenched in blood rather than water. Although Purana Mandir was a surprise monster hit that confounded the film industry, it failed to boost Surendranath’s career. And yet, she points out, the films are remembered, which means the Ramsays were on to something.
The crisp running length of Kings of Horror – 27 minutes – ensures that it works best as an introduction to the movies’ pulpy pleasures. For a more detailed history of the Ramsay family, there is Shamya Dasgupta’s book. And for a critical understanding of the aesthetic of these movies, one will have to wait for Ashim Ahluwalia to make his own film on the unsettling and unforgettable universe that the Ramsay family created and ruled for over two decades.
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