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 KeNeeche 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.
In the 1990s the Ramsays moved to the small screen, finding success with the Zee Horror Show that ran for eight years. In the 2000s, the horrorscape was taken over by slicker filmmakers like Ram Gopal Verma and Vikram Bhatt. The brothers are mostly semi-retired, and rarely work together anymore. Shyam Ramsay has directed three films on his own in the last decade. And Tulsi has produced a horror movie directed by his son Deepak, 38. They weren’t anywhere near as successful as the Ramsay releases of the 1980s. Elsewhere, these earlier films have been resurrected. Deepak has sold some film rights to YouTube where they register lakhs of views each, and to Canadian DVD brand Mondo Macabro, featuring “the wild side of world cinema.” Four decades after they started making movies, the Ramsay Brothers are being re-received as camp.
Ramsay House, at Lamington Road, Mumbai, is where Deepak says “it all began.” The building is a ghost of its former self. A siris tree twice its size, spreads its branches out across the dilapidated three storied structure, covering faded French windows and a sloping tin roof that seems about to cave in. Among all the newer buildings, it looks out of place, as though belonging in a small town rather than a metropolis. The shutters are down on the ground floor office that’s been closed for 18 years. The props and costumes of 36 films have been locked away in a godown at Malad. On the office façade are large black sign boards that say in peeling red and white letters: “Ramsays” and “Ramsay Films” in English and Hindi.
Fatehchand U Ramsay, a Sindhi, had planted that tree when he moved here from Karachi after the partition in 1947, with his wife, two daughters and four sons; the three other sons were born in India. A radio engineer, the foreigners he dealt with anglicised his surname from Ramsingh to Ramsay. With his electronics company doing badly, he decided to try his hand at the movie business. He co-producedShaheed-E-Azam Bhagat Singh, India’s first film on the martyr, in 1954. It flopped.
His second film in 1963, for which his older sons were enlisted, was a historical epic called Rustom Sohrab.It did well, and the Ramsays decided they were in show business for good.
India was a strictly socialist state back then and to be part of a film team one had to belong to a film workers union. So over the course of the two films, F U Ramsay got his sons union cards according to what he felt each had a knack for. Gangu, for instance, was a good photographer – so he would assist a cinematographer, Kiran liked music – so sound assistant, and Kumar as the most educated – “a double graduate” says Tulsi – was tasked with screenwriting. The Ramsay family unit became the Ramsay film unit.
F U Ramsay’s next film, seven years later, was Ek Nanhi Munni Ladki Thi, a family saga starring Prithviraj Kapoor. It bombed at the box office.
Tulsi and Shyam visited theatres to figure out why. They saw audiences filling otherwise empty seats, even bribing ushers with a fraction of the ticket price to catch a ten minute sequence where the same Prithviraj Kapoor steals a valuable artifact from a museum. Only, Kapoor, at six feet two, wears a hideous mask, armour, black boots and a long black cape – “just like Dracula,” Tulsi says. When the police shoot him the bullets bounce off. “Thayk, Thayk,” demonstrates Tulsi. “He’s like a ghost. A monster.”
It was evident what audiences wanted. They wanted that jolt of horror. And the brothers, as fans of this genre, particularly of the British “Hammer Horror” films such as Dracula and The Curse Of Frankenstein,set about convincing their father to let them make a horror film that they would write, direct, shoot and make almost entirely among themselves. A three month long workshop followed, with film books (the brothers swear by The 5 Cs Of Cinematography by Joseph V Mascelli), on a houseboat in Srinagar. Then a Sindhi “workshop film” called Nakuli Shaan shot mostly within a Chowpatty flat. Then Do Gaz Zameen Ke Neeche. After the success of the zombie film, their father “let us brothers run the show,” Tulsi says.
“Seven of us would share two rooms on the first floor of Ramsay House in those days. After work we would keep planning, discussing scenes, talking business, telling each other ghost stories.” He lays a bet: who can come up with more ghost stories by the time a cup of tea is over? He claims he can do five.
When I visit Ramsay House paint peels off a narrow concrete flight of stairs leading up to the first floor. There’s no doorbell or knocker, so I slam the door latch. After ten minutes, Arjun Ramsay opens the door with tussled grey hair fringing an otherwise bald pate, a benign smile and a crumpled shirt. Arjun, 64, is the only brother who stays at the house now. He’s moved to the second floor. He calls the ground floor office a “bhoot bangla (haunted house)” because it’s been shut so long.
His craziest memories are in that office. He recalls how the brothers dealt with a film distributor, who was cynical about the success of their second production, Darwaza — India’s first “creature horror,” a sub-genre of film featuring a terrorising supernatural monster. Tulsi had to convince the distributor that it would work in order for him to fund the filming. They’d already invested heavily by spending Rs 72 000 on the monster’s costume and makeup, designed by legendary British makeup artist Christopher Tucker, and inspired by the hunchback of Notre Dame.
On the day the distributor came for the meeting Arjun wore the costume and waited in a room while Tulsi and the distributor negotiated next door. In between arguments, they heard monstrous grunts and the clanging of chains. Then Arjun, with a horribly disfigured face, protruding teeth, hairy arms and legs, giant talons and dragging chains that seemed to have just been snapped, rushed into the room, roaring at the distributor. “Tulsi had said: just attack him,” he remembers, laughing. The distributor shrieked, then fell to the floor and, as Arjun puts it: “his heart had nearly stopped beating.”
A huge crowd gathered outside the office to watch. “I knew then that I had a star in that monster,” Tulsi says. “I had Rajesh Khanna, I had Shah Rukh Khan.”
They got the funds and made back much more, when Darwaza was released in 1978. Tulsi advertised it on the radio offering Rs 1 000 to anyone who would watch it alone.
Purana Mandir was the next creature horror to rock the box office, released alongside the big-budget filmLawaris, starring Bollywood’s favourite tall man Amitabh Bachchan. It beat its collections to become the second biggest hit of 1984. Made for about Rs 2.5 lakhs, Purana Mandir grossed about Rs 2.5 crores. This time the Ramsays had a different star, their own tall man: Anirudh (screen name: Ajay) Agarwal, a six feet seven inch tall civil engineer who played Saamri, a super demon who rapes and disembowels newly wed brides and mutilates and eats children and corpses.
The Ramsay Brothers’ films comprised mostly newcomers and character actors, and became a launching pad for some (F U Ramsay had cast Shatrugan Sinha, when he hadn’t done any films yet, in Ek Nanhi Munni Ladki Thi; the brothers cast Shakti Kapoor in Darwaza). The Ramsays had their own, unique criteria for what they perceived as promising talent. They rarely enlisted stars, and in part because of their tawdriness, the Ramsay films were not perceived as the kind where an actor would get a big break. Few from their large band of actors really made it to Bollywood’s A set.
Hemant Birje, who was in many Ramsay films after launching his career with the B-movie Adventures OfTarzan, refuses an interview. Instead he sends this cryptic SMS: “Bcoz ramsay film i loss my cariyr.” Aarti Gupta, now Aarti Surendranath, an ad film producer and Mumbai socialite, was the Ramsays’ “scream queen.” She recalls endless jibes about her being a “Ramsay horror actress” from those in her circle, but laughs them off. “The Ramsays were like family to me,” she says.
What made them consistently successful during the course of the 1980s, Pritish Nandy, a film producer and former film critic says, was their propensity to produce films in quick succession, making their presence equally dominant compared with big budget productions. “You could call the Ramsays tacky, or any number of things,” Nandy says. “But the regularity and consistency with which they made these movies made them a brand. And they had a serious connect with the audience.”
Most of the Ramsay following came from small cities and towns, where the films ran – some continue to do so – for years. And many of the films were set in small towns with haunted havelis (mansions). This is one of the reasons why Shyam, 60, often called the creative head of the brothers, feels their target audience relished their movies. “[They] could relate more to our films because of these locations contrary to an urban setup. Also the fear element can easily be accomplished in far off remote corners rather than cities,” Shyam says.
The Ramsay movies mirrored beliefs prevalent in rural India, such as a chudail (witch) whose feet do a 180 degree turn before she reveals herself or a medieval curse that holds true in present day. The Censor Board would order a disclaimer preceding some films to rubbish any superstition they might encourage.
The Ramsays mixed and matched from horror movies from around the world. Their movies are full of influences for a horror aficionado to spot. Gothic horror sequences with an overdose of smoke and diffused blue light. Stuffed animals from Alfred Hitchcock and Hammer movies. The use of primary colour filters from Italian horror maker Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath and Blood And Black Lace. Chase sequences from American slasher films like Black Christmas (Bob Clark) and Friday The 13th (Sean S Cunningham). And an obsession with Bram Stoker so that coffins house creatures of every faith, even those vanquished by an Om sign or Shiva’s trident. The brothers’ films rarely matched these movies in their execution, but the lodestone of Ramsay horror, the gore – rolling heads, blood baths and ghastly faces – often helped mask the lack of technical expertise or inability to sustain a mood.
Arjun credits Shyam for devising most of the horror sequences and Tulsi with adding the Bollywood masala,a formulaic medley of slapstick comedy, sex, song and dance, action and melodrama. According to Nandy, this mix made the movies more “comic book horror – not so much the horror that would scare you, as horror you would enjoy.” And when a film didn’t work, Tulsi remembers his father criticising them: “You should have put more masala,” he would say. “I didn’t get any jhatkas (shocks).”
There were unrelated subplots where martial arts exponents showed off their skills or ones for comic relief, for instance, a parody of Bollywood blockbuster Sholay in Purana Mandir. The humour was often crass and in the same film Jagdeep accuses Lalita Pawar – an actress with an eye defect – of winking at him. And for music, the likes of Kishore Kumar, Asha Bhonsale and, most often, 1980s disco king Bappi Lahiri were roped in for some films.
Then there was the sex. “You can’t deny that sex sells,” Shyam says. “Of course, if shot aesthetically.” There are endless camera zoom-ins on parts of the female anatomy for so long that, as reviewer David Austin writes: “you’d think you’re watching a Japanese game show.” Lewd jokes abound. Romance is used as garb for injecting vulgar innuendo. But even with their A rating the Ramsays fought shy of crossing over into porn. There’s no kissing or overt nudity. Aarti Gupta is the centrepiece of a shower scene in Purana Mandirwhere her shower sprays blood instead of water, and eyes shut, she lathers herself. Yet a modicum of modesty, so characteristic of 1980s Bollywood, is ensured in that she is, inexplicably, wearing a bathing suit.
“We work around a well-balanced script to offer a completely entertaining package,” says Shyam. “Script and content are most important.” Predictably, at the heart of most Ramsay scripts is the idea of family. The crux of a classic Ramsay horror plot is that a demon or witch doesn’t have anything against the protagonist, but a score to settle with their dead ancestor. And the climax of a Ramsay horror is nearly always preceded by melodrama: a father giving up his life for his daughter, a man for his best friend. Tulsi believes this sentimentality distinguishes Indian horror from that elsewhere in the world. “In the foreign movies you don’t have people sacrificing their lives for one another so readily,” he says. When the horror arrives “everyone is running alone.”
By the late 1980s things were beginning to slow down on the big screen for the brothers. Keshu, who passed away a year and a half ago, branched off around that time to make action blockbusters. Kiran joined him. All the brothers, except Arjun, had produced or directed their own horror films under the Ramsay Brothers banner. But the last big Ramsay hit – Bandh Darwaza, with Ajay Agarwal playing a burly vampire – was in 1990.
“I don’t think the Ramsays not making any more movies was a matter of changing tastes or a decline in audience,” says Khalid Mohamed, a film critic and director who knew the family. “I think it was because the brothers didn’t work together anymore.”
In the early 1990s Tulsi and Shyam tried their hand at other genres like action movies and also a children’s adventure movie featuring the Yeti, called The Magnificent Guardian.
“In the 1990s we diverted towards the small screen as it has a huge audience,” Shyam says. “We made over 700 episodes of The Zee Horror Show. The Ramsays became a household name with this show.” Every brother, other than Keshu, was involved and Tulsi’s son Deepak directed 200 episodes.
Later renamed Anhonee, it ran for eight years. The show cut out the gore and sex but had its fair share of hooting owls, creaking doors, screaming dogs, blood, a black cat driving a car and a woman’s head cackling on a plate. All the ghost stories the Ramsays had filed away came in handy. “Once my servant from Bihar told me about very interesting ghosts in his village,” Tulsi says. “A few episodes came of that.”
With the lukewarm response to the few films the Ramsays released in the 1990s, Arjun puts the fading popularity of their movies down to the clones they spawned in the previous decade. Clones, like Vinod Talwar and Mohan Bhakri, who made cheaper, more vulgar films and released them mostly in non-metros (the B centres). These clones spawned other clones in turn, who would release only in small towns or really low-cost theatres. “The horror genre got crowded and mixed up,” Arjun concludes. “The Ramsays were clubbed with everyone and people got sick of it all.”
With the 2000s came the multiplex – with ticket prices five times higher than they were previously – that completely redefined Indian cinema. Films which took months to make up their money earlier would now do so in a few weeks in the multiplexes. The chunk of profits from cinema today is made up from urban middle class audiences, for whom films have to be palatable, unlike the 1980s when the small town and rural viewers contributed equally to a producer’s kitty. “The audience is now clearly fragmented,” Nandy explains. “There are the rural masses, who have greater links with the past, and the intelligent urban audiences who have a greater disconnect with the past.” The Ramsays have been unable to capture the latter.
“You need ‘flame,’ ” Tulsi says. “We had ‘flame’ when we started out. Like Raj Kapoor had ‘flame.’ Like Ranbir Kapoor has ‘flame’ now. Shyam and I keep talking about this. We have to get the ‘flame’ back.”
Byline: Rishi Majumder
Photographs: Sheetal Mallar