Saturday, July 5, 2014

Ghosts in Indian cinema

Did this piece for BLink's After Dark issue.  

Before ghosts, there were gods. The mythological was the first distinctively Indian movie genre, fusing history and legend with social message. Like the Biblical films of Hollywood, they were also an excuse to unleash some spectacular visual effects – young Krishna emerging from the lake atop a snake in Shree Krishna Janma, the ascent to heaven in a chariot in Sant Tukaram. By the 1940s, Indian viewers were used to otherworldly phenomena on the big screen. As the mythological began to fade, a new genre supplied audiences with paranormal kicks – the gothic thriller, the first iteration of the Indian ghost movie.

The first classic ghost film made in the country was Kamal Amrohi’s Mahal in 1949. It formed the template for future gothic romances: from the hero inheriting a haunted haveli down to the reincarnation angle and a lovely singing ghost dressed in a white sari. The scenes where Ashok Kumar wanders through the house at night listening to a voice sing “Aayega aayega aanewala” have the quality of a beautiful nightmare. (German cameraman Joseph Wirsching deserves a lot of the credit.) It isn’t scary, but it sure is ghostly.

Despite sludgy pacing and an increasingly demented narrative, Mahal was a hit. It catapulted to fame the 16-year-old Madhubala and a little-known singer called Lata Mangeshkar. Mangeshkar later recalled how Mahal’s music director Khemchand Prakash and Amrohi went out of their way to make “Aayega Aanewala” sound genuinely haunting – one of their instructions was for her to walk towards the mike as she sang. The song was so popular it ended up launching the trend of the plaintively singing spectre in Indian cinema, from “Kahin Deep Jale Kahin Dil” to “Yaara Seeli Seeli”.

Bimal Roy went on to make his own pioneering ghost film in 1958. Like Mahal, Madhumati is a ghost story that’s also a reincarnation film. (Another great Bengali director, Tapan Sinha, explored similar territory with Khudito Pashan in 1960.) The ghost-as-reminder-of-previous-life device became a popular – and quintessentially Indian – trope. In Bollywood Cinema: Temples of Desire, Vijay Mishra writes that Indian cinema, by adding reincarnation to the traditional ghost film template, had “presented the gothic with a narrative which its European form never had”. Though the reincarnation film became a genre in itself, it continued to cross paths with the ghost story, culminating in Farah Khan’s spoof/tribute Om Shanti Om (2007), whose storyline resembled Madhumati’s enough for Bimal Roy’s daughter, Rinki Bhattacharya, to consider legal action against its makers.

By the end of the ‘60s, directors were looking for new ways to present onscreen ghosts. The dance of the spirits in Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (1969) was the trippiest sequence Satyajit Ray ever committed to celluloid. And in 1973, Mani Kaul, who’d already made the pioneering experimental film Uski Roti, took the bold step of dissociating the ghost film from both the melodrama and the thriller. Duvidha is a rare film that acknowledges the everyday nature of spirits in Indian culture; it treats the tale of a ghost falling in love with a woman and taking the form of her husband as matter-of-factly as possible. Amol Palekar remade it as Paheli in 2005, retaining the Rajasthan setting but adding stars (Shah Rukh Khan, Rani Mukerji) and songs. It’s a skilfully constructed film, very charming in parts, but it must be said that severe, stark Duvidha is the real masterpiece.

Starting out in the ‘70s at the other end of the spectrum from Kaul were the Ramsay brothers, pioneers of Indian B-grade schlock horror. Their films were tacky and lurid; instead than bhoots, they had darindas and chudails and daayans. The Ramsays’ success – Purana Mandir was the second highest grosser of 1984 – meant that Indian spectre cinema was pushed into an exploitation ghetto. (Mainstream ghost movies weren’t a whole lot better in the ‘80s: Dimple Kapadia’s elastic hand routine in the 1988 remake of Bees Saal Baad is a strong contender for the weirdest Bollywood scene of all time.) Gulzar tried to inject a touch of class with Lekin... (1991), but it took Ram Gopal Varma’s Raat (1992), which brought slick production values and an A-list cast to pulpy horror, to restore the ghost movie to a reasonable level of respectability. Since then, Varma has proved a committed director and producer of horror cinema, even though he seems to grow louder, not better, with each production.

The comedy ghost film, which dates back to Mehmood’s Bhoot Bungla (1965), grew popular in the ‘90s and aughts: there was Chamatkar (1992), the Tamil psychological-thriller-comedy Manichitrathazhu (1993) – a big enough hit to be remade in Telugu, Bengali and Hindi – and the ghost of Mahatma Gandhi in Lage Raho Munna Bhai (2006). Oscar Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost was adapted as Bhoothnath in 2008. The sequel, released in April this year, incorporated an election plotline and a Honey Singh number. Old-timers may complain that “Party with the Bhoothnath” is no “Aayega Aanewala”, but Bhoothnath Returns did collect 30 crore rupees at the domestic box office. Add to this the paranormal leanings of recent films like Talaash, Aatma, Ek Thi Daayan and Goynar Baksho, and it seems unlikely that Indian cinema will be giving up the ghost anytime soon.

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