I am often asked, ‘What was it like to be a grandchild of the Ramsays, where horror was my playground?’
My mother used to take us to visit my Naana and Naani (grandparents) on Saturdays. My maamas, maamis (maternal uncles and aunts) and cousins lived together at Lamington Road in Bombay. My grandparents would be sitting on their individual beds, which were joined at the head in the narrow room. On seeing me, my grandmother would delightedly greet me with her characteristic hearty laugh and draw me into a warm hug. Then she would untie the knot at the end of her sari to give me some money from her hidden stash. I would bashfully refuse, even though I secretly wanted to grab the notes. She would then squeeze the money in my eager palm. Later, I would jump onto my grandfather’s bed. He would ruffle my hair, planting an affectionate kiss on my cheek. As I grew older, the kiss was replaced by a gentle hug.
With the money my grandmother had given me, I would buy a variety of sweets and wrap a mixture of them in paper. Along with my cousin sister, who was my partner in crime, we would run down to the office and sell our version of ‘paan’ to my indulgent uncles for one rupee a packet. They would look up smiling from their animated discussions and rummage for change in their pockets. At the end, I always made a profit and went home with double the money. This was my ritual for years on end.
The Ramsays’ dark room
Another memory I have of those days is being assigned the task of tearing open envelopes in the buzzing office at Lamington Road and arranging the contents neatly. The envelopes contained photographs and letters from aspiring actors and actresses wanting to be cast in a Ramsay film. My cousins and I would enjoy discussing the merits and demerits of the aspirants and their entreating requests. Most of them were from small towns, looking for their big break in Bollywood – youthful men with Rajesh Khanna-like haircuts striking a pose; young women wearing skimpy dresses, looking seductively at the camera in the hope of being a heroine or perhaps even a cadaver in the next Ramsay movie. It was a tad pitiful, because even to our immature minds, most of them would not make the cut. The elusive dreams of stardom were flippantly strewn across that desk.
There was a portion of the office, which was always fascinating to me. It was the Ramsays’ dark room, with trays in which negatives from films under production would be developed and the photos hung to dry. It was like a secret room away from the chatter of the outer office. The red lighting cast a surreal glow on the black-and-white stills of menacing monsters and their hapless victims. I would inevitably make my way there and bravely pore over each photograph, each scarier than the last. Alone, I could barely spend a few minutes there before darting back to the comfort of the soothing daylight and my uncles’ avid discussions of the ongoing or upcoming productions.
Actors and actresses would come in for their story sittings. Technicians, music directors and whomsoever was involved with the films frequented the office. Plates of boiled eggs garnished with salt and pepper were offered to visitors and a grated apple milk drink or watermelon juice served as the thirst quencher. These were in uninterrupted supply because the vendors ran their business at the office doorstep.
There were always some people hanging around outside, trying to catch a glimpse of the action taking place inside. I felt very privileged that I could walk in and out as I pleased and not be stuck in the sweltering heat like the curious bystanders were. As soon as I opened the office door, jostling onlookers would attempt to peek inside the mystery that was the Ramsays.
Casually lying around were terrifying masks of ghouls, monsters and witches. I still remember the smell of the latex rubber as I tried them on and scampered around the office trying to spook everyone and being a pest. The one thing I can say about my maternal family is that they were unfailingly kind and gentle, amused at my antics. Finally, exhausted and hungry, I would make my way up the stairs to the family residence, where my grandmother waited with a big smothering hug, a paper dosa and sheera from the neighbouring Ramanjaneya restaurant.
I also went for a couple of location shoots and saw the Ramsay monsters upfront, but I would barely bat an eyelid. Watching an actor turn into a fiend from scratch was not particularly frightening.
When the film was ready, the Ramsay clan got to see it in all its gory finality. The same monsters, who were not so fearsome during the shoot, were so petrifying that I would have nightmares for days on end. That was the high! That hair-raising moment where you don’t want to look at the screen, but you can’t look away either.
The intoxicating rush of terror stayed with us, and so my mother and I devoured horror films over the years. That was our link to each other and to her family. In the course of our binge-watching, my mother and I suggested that her brothers watch a suspense film we had enjoyed. They did, and the story captured their imagination. An adaption followed – Telephone, one of the rare Ramsay Brothers murder mystery movies.
Regretfully, like my childhood, it all ended.
My grandparents passed away. Their beds touching each other lay empty. The brothers ultimately went their separate ways. The overgrown sisal tree that my grandfather had planted now covers the naked desolation of the building at Lamington Road. Their films released and faded into oblivion. The office remains locked with the eroded Ramsay Films banner holding on to the past. That era of horror is over, and only the memories and movies remain.
Excerpted with permission from Ghosts in Our Backyard – The Ramsays’ Real-Life Encounters with The Supernatural, Alisha Kirpalani, HarperCollins India.