Historically, barring a handful, Indian horror films have rarely gone beyond tacky chalk-faced spirits growling like death-metal vocalists. While filmmakers like Ram Gopal Varma, Mahesh Bhatt and Priyadarshan have dealt with horror in their films, the genre is still stuck in a time warp of the 1980s that saw Indian horror films become synonymous with low budget B-grade films made by the famous Ramsay Brothers. While the mainstream actors have often expressed their desires to experiment with their roles, most have shied away from being a part of horror films. But in the last few years, there have been films that have gone beyond the tried and tested tropes and A-listers are finally waking and warming up to the genre. With the success of horror comedy Stree— the sleeper hit of 2018— mainstream actors such as Akshay Kumar, Saif Ali Khan, Janhvi Kapoor and Vicky Kaushal are venturing into this genre and paving the path for others.
Even Sonam Kapoor has expressed her desire to direct a horror film. “I think the film is a director’s medium so whoever directs a good horror film is definitely a good director because it is not easy to scare the audience,” she had said. The horror film slate for the coming months includes Saif Ali Khan’s Bhoot Police, Kanchana Hindi remake with Akshay Kumar, Vicky Kaushal’s untitled horror film, Stree 2 and Rooh-Afza starring Janhvi Kapoor, among others. “Earlier, stars used to feel there is nothing much for them to do in a horror film as it leaned heavily on prosthetics and thrills and not on their performance. Therefore actors used to shy away. While that is changing, there is still some resistance because a lot of stars don’t want to do horror films because they feel it is not good for their filmography,” feels Trade Analyst Komal Nahta.
If the films have managed to shake off their clichéd plots and prosthetics, the credit goes to the new crop of directors experimenting with the genre. Stree director Amar Kaushik says, “Now, it is a tried and tested formula. Once the film has made money, producers are happy and more people want to experiment with this genre. Which is why you all can see so many horror films with stars lined up.”
The films now carefully stay away from gory scenes and sleaze, a far cry from the Ramsay films that were made keeping the male audience in mind. “After making so many horror films, I still wonder why it is considered as B-grade. This doesn’t happen in Hollywood; it only happens in Bollywood. Even down South, horror has found its audience. It took long for Bollywood to get the point. Why is it looked down upon? It is not right! It’s the most widely watched genre,” says Bhushan Patel, who directed Alone starring Bipasha Basu and Karan Singh Grover.
In 2003, Ajay Devgn starrer Bhoot managed to scare the wits out of the audience and was perhaps the earliest film featuring a star. But that didn’t change the fate of the genre. “Nothing changed much that time. But now, there’s a new confidence with stars and producers backing the films,” says director Pawan Kriplani who has earlier directed Phobia, starring Radhika Apte and is now directing Saif Ali Khan for Bhoot Police, a horror comedy. While the script for the film was ready in 2009, it took Pawan almost a decade to find producers and stars. “It’s a good time for a filmmaker like me. I wrote this horror comedy in 2009 and now after decade, the film is getting made. So you can understand the struggle that we have to go through. No big producers wanted to back a horror comedy back then,” he says and adds that the commercial success of films such as Stree have opened doors for those wanting to make horror films. “People are warming up to it and new doors are opening. Even when I made Phobia, I had a difficult time. Producers feel it is not lucrative and actors feel it’s a B grade movie,” he adds.
While film makers of the 80s had to rely on poor make-up and tropes, the makers of today have cutting edge computer generated graphics, believable storylines and scenarios to fall back on. Nahta says, “Stars are not going to act in any badly made films or low budget films. So the quality will improve.” With stars now venturing into it, the market for horror films will now increase as the production budgets will also increase. “Horror films need VFX and for that, we need money. So the films need stars, which will help in faster recovery. Horror is here to stay and will survive come what may. A-listers coming in is a boost to filmmakers like us. If A-listers start doing horror, it will get its due credit,” said Bhushan Patel.
While many may argue that horror films don’t have repeat value, the makers are experimenting with amalgamating two genres to make them successful. Amar Kaushik says, “Stars believe in repeat value and by adding comedy with horror, it works well for all. This is one of the reasons why horror comedy is finding a place in Bollywood.” To this Pavan adds, “Horror films have a strong base worldwide; it’s a universal genre. It is good to see that we are warming up as an industry. Now every studio wants to make a horror film. There has been a lull for a long time but now this is going to be a new inning for horror.”...