With the slick horror films of today’s hindi cinema, we meet the original kings of low budget productions packed with sleaze, gore and terrifying creatures.
While shooting their first horror film, the Ramsay Brothers accidentally dug up a body. “Half a body,” says Tulsi Ramsay. It was October 1971. They were filming, appropriately, for Do Gaz Zameen Ke Neeche (Two Feet Beneath the Ground), India’s first zombie movie, at a graveyard near Mahabaleshwar in Maharashtra. “People working there had shown us where to dig and said: ‘nothing will happen here,’ ” Tulsi recalls.
But something did – angry villagers who lived nearby surrounded the crew. They managed to pacify the villagers, and then they reburied the body and, as a gesture of atonement, lit an earthen lamp where it lay.
Tulsi, who was co-directing the film with his brother Shyam, asked the crew to pack up. It was 2.30 am when he started walking back to his guesthouse alone, about a kilometre away, to clear his head.
“I’d barely left the graveyard when leaves on a tree next to me started rustling: ShhShhShh.” His eyes light up when he tells a scary story. He punctuates sentences with sound effects.
We’re sharing a sprawling sofa on the 15th floor of a posh Lokhandwala high rise. There’s an overarching view of suburban Mumbai beyond. Tulsi’s grandchildren run around the flat, peeking in occasionally to listen to their grandfather. Above us, a slow ceiling fan casts shadows on Tulsi, his faded blue-striped collar t-shirt and his palm that he’s shaking to the tune of those leaves.
“I heard heavy breathing and footsteps: Cheu, Cheu, Cheu,” Tulsi continues. “I thought it was some aatma-vaatma (a spirit) from the graveyard.” He prayed and ran to his guesthouse. When he arrived, the heavy breathing had stopped. “It was me,” he says. So were the footsteps. As he then realised: “The soles of my chappals had come loose.”
Tulsi, 67, has created something of a life around it as a director of 29 horror movies, but this is the closest he has come to a paranormal experience.
At a time when the average Hindi film took about a year and 50 lakhs to complete, Do Gaz Zameen Ke Neeche was shot in 40 days on a budget of Rs 3.5 lakhs. Here’s how it was done: seven brothers boarded buses with small-time actors, a sparse film crew, their wives and their mother and father and drove to a government guesthouse in Mahabaleshwar that cost Rs 12 a room – they took eight rooms. They didn’t spend on sets because they shot on location. They didn’t spend on costumes because these were picked out of actors’ wardrobes. The cameras were all borrowed.
The eldest brother Kumar wrote the script. Tulsi and Shyam directed (most Ramsay films bear the directorial credit “Tulsi-Shyam”). Kiran worked on sound. Gangu was the cinematographer. Keshu assisted him and handled production too. Arjun helped with production, but mainly worked on the edits. Their mother Kishni and her daughters-in-law cooked and helped with makeup. “We would sleep for four hours a day and shoot for eighteen,” Tulsi says. When it was complete, they publicised the movie on radio, mostly with faux-scary voice ads. The film ran to full houses in the first week after its release. It made Rs 45 lakhs.
The brothers repeated this model – Tulsi calls it “a picnic,” their father called it “tiffin box productions” – to make 35 more movies, which epitomise the lower depths of 1980s Bollywood sleaze and gore, but which have secured their place in Hindi cinema’s hall of fame as the pioneers of horror. The “Ramsay Brothers,” as they are called, have in these films, and in India’s first horror show on television, featured ghosts, ghouls, monsters, zombies, witches, vampires and every conceivable version of things that go bump in the night. Mostly, they’ve been the first to do so.
And mostly, the Ramsay movies were hits. Some, like Purana Mandir (1984), were ranked among the biggest moneymakers of the year. Tulsi remembers bigger film families, like the Kapoors, viewing their rise in the 1980s with unbridled curiosity: “They would keep laughing at us and wonder what we brothers were doing. But they would watch our movies.” While few mainstream filmmakers followed the Ramsays’ lead, the popularity of their films spawned a sea of C and D grade filmmakers who made cheaper, crasser horrors, with practically no plot or production value, that could possibly be ranked among the worst films in cinematic history.