Earlier today, we posted a review for the Hindi independent film, Miss Lovely. While the film isn't a horror picture itself, it very much lives in the world of the cheap creature feature that was a staple of late '80s-early '90s Indian single screen rural theaters. Filmmakers like the Ramsay Brothers, on whom Miss Lovely's Duggal Brothers are very likely loosely based, could make very profitable careers with very meager capital. Like most of South Asian popular entertainment, Hindi Horrors passed by largely unnoticed in the west until Mondo Macabro's Pete Tombs took an active interest and released three of the most action-packed horror double features on the market today.
Mondo Macabro's Bollywood Horror Collection is probably one of their most well-loved series, and with good reason. As a veteran of Indian cinema, I can say that these films take Bollywood's love of excess and steer it in a completely new and insane direction. The Ramsay Brothers are of the auteur kind. While their films may be derivative and even downright thieving at times, there's no denying the Ramsay touch as soon as the first frame flickers across the screen.
I wanted to know where Pete Tombs' love for Hindi horror comes from, and how he selected the films he eventually released on his own label, and he sent me this fantastic answer. This response is unexpurgated, because it was so amazing I couldn't bring myself to edit it:
I was born and grew up in London, often living in areas where there was a large Asian population. Whether their families had come from India (north or south), Pakistan, Sri Lanka or Bangladesh, it didn't seem to make any difference - for entertainment, they all looked in the direction of Bombay and its brash, garish, three hour, song-and-dance extravaganzas. Bollywood! It seemed to unite many different languages, creeds and classes.
For a while, I lived on the borders of Southall, which has one of the UK's largest south Asian communities. I remember walking past cinemas with colourful posters adverting screenings of the latest Amitabh or Madhuri starrer aimed at Hindi speaking audiences starved of home grown fare. Later, video shops filled this gap and it was here one could find the flops as well as the hits, the "B" movies alongside the grade A star vehicles. And it was here that I found the Indian horror movie. There was precious little writing back then, at least in English, about these strange beasts, but from odd snatches I'd read and from stories told me by Indian pals, I knew that they did exist.
Going into Indian video stores and asking for horror movies back then was a strange experience. One was just as likely to encounter laughter as often as helpful advice. "There aren't any" was a pronouncement I heard on a number of occasions. But most often it was "Why?" Why do you want to see these things? We have much better films here, they would say, getting out the latest comedy romance or a Raj Kapoor masterwork. What I hadn't reckoned on was that horror was pretty much a dirty word in the Indian movie business. The films were considered cheap jack exploitation for the most part and certainly sexploitation. Although full-on nudity was still a long way off for Indian movies, horror films were vilified by the mainstream for their many scenes of "exposure" - girls in wet saris, bikinis or short skirts - and for the generally suggestive tone they deployed. The heyday of Indian horror had been the latter part of the 1980's. Hard times had hit the local industry and so low budget, skin packed exploiters were the order of the day. And horror boomed.
Fortunately for my research, the Indian audience is one that seeks out the newest release, the latest hit. So by the time I was looking for them (in the early 90's), many of the pioneering or "classic" Indian horrors had long been confined to the bargain basement or the sale bin. So I would visit stores in Balham, Forest Gate, Wembley, Southall etc and come back laden with bags of cheap and dusty cassettes of films I'd never heard of but had been assured were "pure horror".
I don't want to even try to add up the hours I spent watching these things. I would spend whole weekends and evenings until the early hours spooling through them, looking for themes, names, familiar faces. There were gems to be found, but many duds. I soon came to recognise the familiar tropes of Indian horror and the frequent borrowings from the west. Sometimes these were surprising: I found references to Bava and Fulci films; but most often what I found were just Indianised versions of the latest horror hit from the US or UK.
I began to recognise names, not just of actors but of directors too. And soon I had a wish list of who I needed to find if I was to know more. And so, a trip to India. I spent a few weeks in Bombay (as it was then called) and traveled often to the dusty suburbs to meet the likes of Vinod Talwar, Mohan Bhakri and, above all, Tulsi Ramsay, all names that had occurred with the greatest frequency in my viewings. In a very short time I received a crash course not only in how the Indian film business works and how horror fits into that world, but also on Indian culture, morals and manners. I will always be grateful to the above who gave so generously of their time and expertise.
When we decided to start releasing some south Asian films on DVD, for a number of reasons the title we started with was actually from Pakistan, not India, and was one of the most obscure films we ever put on disc. Zinda Laash - The Living Corpse - was a film so rare that it was not featured (at least, not then) in any of the reference books on horror or vampire cinema. I had never heard of the film and it was only thanks to our friend Omar Ali Khan that we came across it. He had sent me a bunch of clips from strange Pakistani films that he'd collected over the years and the one that stood out for me was a short, five minute section showing a black and white, classically shot and framed, vampire film. I freaked out and begged to see the whole thing, only to be told that all that remained of it was a cut down, 60 minute version.
Fired up by our interest, Omar began his search in the back streets of Lahore, Pakistan's film capital, and eventually we were delighted to be able to say that we had located the film's original negative and were able to release (more or less) the full length version of what had been, in its time, a banned and controversial movie in Pakistan. The only film to be rated "X" ! We even heard lurid stories of audience members fainting at sight of the on screen vampire and of Christopher Lee rushing to see it to check out his Pakistani rival. In his search for the film, Omar had also met its director and star, both of whom were happy to sit down for in depth interviews about their experience of making what was effectively Pakistan's one and only vampire film - as well as one of the very few horror films ever made there.
Our next south Asian release was more expected. This was a double bill from the famous Ramsay Brothers Horror Factory: Bandh Darwaza and Purana Mandir. The former (the title means "Closed Door" but is far more resonant to Hindi speakers) is a vampire film, but quite a long way from Dracula. Its very Indian story tells of a childless woman who visits a mountain dwelling mystic to help her conceive. This is something that used to occur in rural parts (maybe still does). In reality the "priest" would have sex with the woman - hence the pregnancy. In Bandh Darwaza, the mystic is a vampire-like monster. Aroused from his coffin, his limbs dripping with a gloopy, seminal fluid, he pays a nocturnal visit to the terrified woman who has visited his spooky lair up on "Black Mountain". She is commanded by the evil mystic's followers that, if her first born is a girl, she must hand it over to them. Of course she refuses, and years later the evil vampire comes looking for her and the now grown up daughter.
The companion feature was the 1985 release Purana Mandir (The Old Temple). This had been a massive hit in its time and still stands up well today. It's been much imitated but never bettered and is undoubtedly in the top 5 of Indian horror movies. It's got a spectacular opening sequence and keeps up the pressure for most of its running time with lots of highly energetic horror moments. The female star, Aarti Gupta, was a newcomer but certainly one of the Ramsays spunkiest heroines. She's gone on to become a very well connected fixture on the Mumbai social scene, running a successful advertising company and has working on the production of films such as A Mighty Heart.
One feature that confused western reviewers of Purana Mandir, even if they enjoyed the film, were the large chunks of comedy that were cut into the scenes of shock and terror. In Purana Mandir they are mostly provided by a chap called Jagdeep. I guess Indian audiences must have found him hilarious, but there was a never a better illustration of the adage that comedy rarely translates. If I were to say that Jagdeep is about as funny as a broken leg you might think me a little unkind. But when you watch his act, you'll change your mind.
This inclusion of comedy in the midst of horror illustrates a key point about Indian commercial movies, horror films included. They are classic "something for everyone" productions. The idea of genre doesn't really exist the way it does here in the west. Although things have changed over the years, back in the day Indian films used to be constructed the way they were in old Hollywood. That's to say you always had some comic relief characters, a vampish female, some singing and a bit of dancing, even in dramas. And so the early horror movies were all mixed masala productions. Nowadays many Indian movies are made with no comedy and no songs. But until very recently both were de rigeur.
The other common element was what came to be known as "the horror face". That's to say, the evil inside had to be clearly visible from outside. So the monster or the bad guy would always look the part, with any possible combination of wild staring eyes, red contacts, vicious fangs and a face with the complexion of burned pizza. Subtlety was not the order of the day. However if you're looking for knock down, drag out horror and monster movies in the old school style, these Indian shockers really deliver. The main influences, at least since the mid 80's "doom boom", appear to have been Sam Raimi's Evil Dead franchise and Hammer. So you get primary colored Gothic-style melodramas filmed in a highly kinetic, whizz bang style that rarely stands still. Sound FX, lightning flashes (often from the same piece of stock footage!), abandoned temples and spooky old mansions - these are the staples of "Golden Age" Indian horror.
After our Bollywood Horror Collection volume One, we went back to the Ramsays again and this time worked with them to access original negatives and produce new masters. The first fruit of this collaboration was Veerana - Vengeance of the Vampire. For my money, this is second only to Purana Mandir as a balls to the wall Hindi Horror classic. The first twenty minutes or so are a mini masterpiece with everything that we love the Ramsays for. Horror. Sex. Thrills. Crazed, candy colored lighting. Loud music. Thunderstorms. It's all there. The production values are second to none and the inventive camera work of Gangu Ramsay really shines. The companion film here was Purani Haveli, to which we gave the English title Mansion of Evil. This is a lesser known work, but one with many fine sequences and a superb monster in the form of a giant metal statue that comes to life at midnight.
Our third trip to the Ramsay vaults produced a couple of surprises. Mahakaal was, let's say, "heavily influenced" by the A Nightmare on Elm Street series. A few reviewers even said it was better than some episodes of that series. Well, we're not going to complain. It's got lots of weird dream sequences, plentiful fights, some snarling bad guys and for once the comedy is almost funny, featuring one of the campest Michael Jackson impersonators outside of a Bangkok tranny bar. The companion piece, Tahkhana, is often written off as just an attempt to imitate the huge success of Purana Mandir. It features many of the same cast but stands on its own with a more intricate than usual plot, two spunky heroines and some really top class monster movie madness. Certainly one of my personal favorites from the prolific Ramsays.
Since the release of The Bollywood Horror Collection volume Three, we haven't ventured back into the world of Indian horror movies. That's not for lack of desire on our part. But sadly the financial uncertainty that now plagues the whole DVD/Blu Ray business, the easily available "free" downloads and a diminishing band of adventurous buyers have all gone to make such a thing rather too much of a risk. Hopefully things will change, but for now, if any of the above releases sound interesting to you - get them while they are still in print. The clock is ticking.
The clock is ticking, indeed. This is a familiar refrain that I hear from independent home video distributors all the time when I ask them how business is going. It makes me sad that not only does piracy take such a big chunk out of the profits of companies and individuals who dedicate their energy and often their own personal fortunes to making wonderful gems like this available to the world.
This is not the end of our exploration of Mondo Macabro's catalog, however, and I hope to include at least a couple more of their areas of specialty to share with you. These will probably include Japanese craziness, Filipino and Indonesian craziness, and hopefully some of the wonderful films of the Eurohorror boom of the '60s and '70s. Hopefully it won't take so long to get back in the saddle either. Look for the next Video Home Invasion soon!