Kaiju Shakedown: The Ramsays of Bollywood
From 1984 to 1993, the Ramsay family were the kings of Bollywood’s “doom boom,” a brief spot of grimy horror in the otherwise squeaky-clean Indian film industry. The Ramsays had enjoyed success in rural markets with horror movies throughout the Seventies (“Places where even the trains don’t stop, that’s where our business was,” Tulsi Ramsay said in a 2009 interview), and horror had occasionally been caught creeping around Bollywood’s margins. In 1984, the Ramsays released Purana Mandir, the second-highest-grossing film of the year (and their biggest financial success), and it sent monsters smashing into the mainstream.
Between their first moderate horror hit, Do Gaz Zameen Ke Neeche (72), and the last gasp of their empire of evil, Mahakaal (93), the seven Ramsay brothers each did their part. Gangu was the cinematographer, and lensed the best-looking Ramsay movies. Tulsi and Shyam co-directed many of them, but Tulsi was also the one who cared about production design while Shyam was the one who cared about editing along with brother Arjun, who handled postproduction. Kumar was the writer, Kiran did sound, and Keshu did lighting and filled in wherever he was needed. Auxiliary Ramsays included patriarch F.U. Ramsay, who was a failed movie producer before his sons convinced him to try horror, while mom and various sisters-in-law who cooked for the crew and did makeup.
Horror lived fast and died young in A-list Bollywood cinemas because unscrupulous producers, not the least of whom were the Ramsays themselves, quickly began churning out Purana Mandir knock-offs, generating a glut of goopy gothics that flowed like sticky ichor from a wound. The formula was easy: a prologue set in the past to establish an ancient curse, a present-day ruined mansion haunted by a slow-moving monster, and a bunch of teens who show up and provide the body count. Calling them cookie-cutter is insulting to cookies, as witnessed by this list of the Ramsay Brothers’ Ten Horror Movie Tropes.
Ripping Off Western Horror
If a movie went into the Ramsay Brothers’ VCR, it was totally stripped for parts with minutes. With billowing banks of fog and whole neighborhoods of gothic dungeons and ruined graveyards lit by swathes of primary-color lightning, Ramsay movies are the visual spawn of Hammer films and Mario Bava movies. But even on a scene-to-scene level, they love to steal. Their uniquely surreal possession movie, Veerana (88) features a group of cloaked wizards with giant, prune-like heads who sit around a table in an underground dungeon silently rocking back and forth, and lifts both the TV static screen from Poltergeist and the head-spinning from The Exorcist (spicing it up by having their evil witch’s legs also rotate 360 degrees before she kills). Their big-budget attempt to make a genuinely quality movie, Bandh Darwaza (90), takes pages from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Mahakaal is almost a scene-by-scene remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street. It’s actually surprising how easily its plot (ancient curse visited on parents winds up seeing their children chased by a monster child-murderer) translates into Ramsay-Land.
The Ramsays didn’t spend money on sets, but instead filmed on location, usually at the same handful of mansions, temples, and graveyards located within a few hours’ drive of Mumbai. These places were reused so often that they took on the comforting quality of old friends. The dungeon haunted by the crusty-faced monster in Tahkhana (86) was outfitted with some swinging chains to become the lair of the knife-gloved, mulleted Freddy Krueger imitator in Mahakaal, and it’s also the same dank dungeon found in Purana Mandir, which was partially shot in a mansion later reused in Purani Haveli (89).
These aren’t just locations but emotional powerhouses that add as much charge to the scenes as the characters. Sometimes more. In Purana Mandir, a father hates the idea of his daughter having sex because all women in his family are cursed to die gruesome, pus-spewing deaths the second they give birth. He takes a hard line against romance until her hunky beau smashes through a portrait of said father (who’s in costume as his own ancestor), revealing a long tunnel leading to a dank dungeon in her familial mansion where the key to ending this anti-sex curse lies festering in a locked cage. Freud, anyone?
A movie like Purani Haveli meanwhile starts with nothing more than shots of empty rooms as screams echo on the soundtrack, before an ominous disco number introduces a series of close-ups of statues and paintings depicting the crucifixion of Christ. Which leads to another Ramsay staple…
Close-Ups of Dead Animals and Statues
Purana Mandir was the Ramsays’ first big hit, so they can be forgiven for only including one stuffed cheetah, but to their credit, they got the maximum mileage out of cutaways to his frozen, snarling face. Knowing a star when they saw one, their subsequent films featured walls encrusted with taxidermy (including dogs, unfortunately) and paintings of animals (German shepherds in Veerana, horses in Mahakaal) that provided visual exclamation marks. In Veerana they ominously zoom on so many different stuffed dead animals that you can’t even tell what’s important to the scene anymore. Their mega-budget Bandh Darwaza took an aesthetic leap forward by featuring ominous zooms on living horses and bats instead. Sometimes these creatures are actually part of the plot, as in Veerana, in which cinematographer Gangu shot them from every angle possible. Thanks to his energetic approach, it’s one of the Ramsay’s best movies. One scene was shot through a fish tank, which at first seems like a purely visual flourish, but then a young girl (possessed by a dead witch) uses her freaky staring eyes to make the tank explode in front of her concerned aunt. And in Purani Haveli, the monster has one weakness: close-ups of statues of Jesus.
The Ramsays also loved giant evil statues, and every single one of their movies contains at least one of these suckers, which Tulsi Ramsay jealously guarded from rival marauding producers in the family prop warehouse. In Mahakaal, the statue is a giant skull-face made of dead bodies. In Purani Haveli, it’s a skull-faced demon wearing a suit of armor that comes to life and crushes its caretakers with one massive metal-shod foot. Unfortunately, its menace is undermined by the fact that it doesn’t so much stride through the halls of the spooky old mansion as hobble along like an arthritic turtle, totally incapable of bending its knees. In Veerana, we get a massive Satan seated on a throne that shoots fire from his upturned palms, ready-made for a heavy metal album cover. The giant evil statue of Bandh Darwaza is a bat with outstretched wings and red-light-bulb eyes that bursts into flames whenever the horny evil vampire does.
Every Ramsay movie features musical numbers because, come on, it’s Bollywood. But except for Bandh Darwaza, which ambitiously stages them in dungeons, crypts, and rainy backyards at night, these musical numbers were shot as cheaply and thoughtlessly as possible, usually in broad daylight, in parks, at the beach, or beside ponds. The narrative excuse to use these locations was always the same: let’s have a picnic! There are so many picnics in Ramsay Brothers movies that one begins to become uneasy. What does all this picnicking mean?
Purana Mandir springs for a musical number in a nightclub, and Veerana delays picnics for as long as possible, but Mahakaal more than makes up for it. After one of its characters is raped, her friends cheer her up by taking her on a picnic, driving her around on the hood of their jeep like a dead elk while they stand in the back and wave beach toys from side to side. The lyrics they sing could hardly be more salacious: “Come on, you know you want to / Come on, you know you want to / Come on, you know you want to… have a picnic with me.” Which leaves one to wonder exactly what “picnic” means in this context. A few scenes later, it’s pretty clear what they mean. In Mahakaal, “picnic” means “Let’s stay overnight in a weird hotel run by Hitler Johnny Lever.”
Fat Funny Guys
Like death, Johnny Lever is an inescapable fact of Bollywood. A permed, short, fat, “funny” guy, he can be spotted in hundreds of movies cutting up and making audience members silently contemplate suicide. In Ramsay movies, he actually brings some level of professionalism to his Michael Jackson impersonation in late Ramsay movies like Mahakaal and Bandh Darwaza. Before those, the Ramsays couldn’t afford Johnny Lever and had to hire Johnny Lever imitators. In Purana Mandir, it’s comedian Jagdeep in a curly comedy wig and sporting a speech impediment. In Purani Haveli, the fat comedy guy dresses in a burqa and suggestively gnaws a long white radish on a bus as a farmer leers and murmurs: “I like the way you get that down you.” In Veerana, the fat comedy guy emerges naked and hairy from a bathroom and invites another character inside because he “just dropped the soap.” And when Johnny Lever shows up in Mahakaal—both as a Michael Jackson–imitating dork and his twin brother with a Hitler mustache who runs a motel—his first joke is sexual, as he speculates that they’re both the bastard sons of a traveling salesman.
Ramsay movies are full of cross-dressing, actresses showering in bathing suits (to avoid censorship), songs with dirty lyrics (“Can you take it?” goes one in Mahakaal, “Can you take it all the way?”), and their monsters are basically sexual urges on legs. The witch in Veerana copulates with and then eviscerates her victims. In Bandh Darwaza, the vampire Neola is summoned to impregnate the infertile protagonist’s wife. There is sex all over these movies, and the camerawork in most scenes can best be described as leering, zooming in on the cleavage and sweaty thighs of its lead actresses, as the young men strip down to show off their muscles.
Ramsay movies usually escaped the censors because they flew under the radar, circulating mostly on the rural circuit, but after Purana Mandir was a big hit they attracted more attention. Veerana, one of their only movies to feature a female monster, was held up for a year with censors insisting on 46 cuts, trimming everything from the expected (shots of stripping for a bath, suggestive dialogue) to the unexpected (the brutality of the villagers needed to be toned down during a lynching scene, and the censors ordered the removal of a shot of a man being kicked in the nuts). So the Ramsays just sublimated their weird sexuality even further. After Neola is murdered in Bandh Darwaza, he returns from the grave and looms over the female lead who is draped in a revealing white sari and wrapped in chains, writhing on the floor of his tomb while he stands over her, dripping viscous white fluid from his hands before sensuously sucking her blood.
Sure, the Ramsays hired name actors like Johnny Lever later on, but when they started in the Seventies, their motto was “No stars, no cars,” which meant that their cast and crew took the bus to locations and they didn’t hire stars. Instead, they went for beauty-pageant winners, children of famous actors, and novelty thespians. Jagdeep was famous for his role in Sholay (which was later spun off into its own movie); Jasmin, the bulging-eyed witch from Veerana, was a model who made three movies and disappeared; and Puneet Issar (Purana Mandir, 3-D Saamri, Tahkhana) was famous for throwing the punch that almost killed mega-star Amitabh Bachchan in Coolie.
Monsters in Chunky Makeup
The real stars of Ramsay Brothers movies were their monsters. Sometimes they resembled little more than walking wads of rubber cement. Sometimes they were screaming pieces of wood. In Purani Haveli, the hairy monster that stalked the halls of the haveli had the long shaggy hair, unkempt beard, and slow stumble of a Portland hipster who’s into craft beers. But their best monster was Anirudh Agarwal, star of both Purana Mandir and Bandh Darwaza. A 6-foot 7-inch civil engineer, Anirudh was a glowering, towering presence whose cheekbones look like they were hacked from a tree trunk and whose forehead looks like it could crush stone.
In Purana Mandir he played a gargantuan devil-worshipper who sucks out eyeballs and provided nightmare fodder to thousands of Indian children. But his best role was as Neola in the last Ramsay movie, Bandh Darwaza. With the smoldering screen presence of Tony Todd (Candyman), Agarwal stalks the familiar ruined havelis with his Drac cape a-flapping until the finale, when he does what every monster does at the end of a Ramsay movie: he explodes.
Final Monster Explosion
Every Ramsay movie ends with the monster exploding. Every single one. At the end of Bandh Darwaza the giant bat statue with light bulb eyes blows up, and so does Agarwal. There’s an exploding witch at the end of Veerana. And Purani Haveli takes it up to 11. Its hairy hipster monster stumbles out of a church where he’s been weakened by exposure to all those close-up shots of Jesus statues, when the cross on top of the church is struck by an optical lightning bolt (another constant feature of Ramsay movies are the same stock shots of optical lightning used over and over again), which sends it plunging to the ground, piercing the monster’s chest. The monster promptly explodes and catches on fire. If the monsters in Ramsay movies are basically enormous, undead, walking, homicidal phallic symbols, then it’s only fitting that they explode at the climax.
Patriarch F.U. Ramsay died in 1989, and the family’s big-budget attempt to recapture their glory days, Bandh Darwaza, limped out of theaters after only two weeks. Audiences didn’t care much about Mahakaal, and their attempts to remake their classic films have largely been met with yawns. Shyam and Tulsi moved to television with their Zee Horror Show that ran for 364 episodes from 1993 to 1998. Keshu Ramsay changed his name and kept working in Bollywood, eventually achieving what his brothers only ever dreamed of: mainstream respectability. He’s the producer of the popular International Khiladi series. When Keshu was contacted for an interview around 2009 about his old days as part of the Ramsay Brothers, he reportedly said over the phone, “I do not think that I would like to talk about this anymore”—and hung up.
LINKS! LINKS! LINKS!
It’s hard to find recommendations for Bollywood movies, because the Most Important Bollywood Movies of All Time aren’t always the most fun, and if you ask Indian Bollywood fans which movies are their favorites, their taste often runs more to great performances and dialogues, rather than the real crazy stuff that Western newbies to Bollywood want. So today’s links are a free hit of rough ’n’ ready fumes from the Bollywood bong that should get your head spinning.
… But first, let’s give a brief moment of appreciation to Todd Stadtman’s beautifully designed book on 1970s Bollywood action movies, Funky Bollywood. I could quibble with bits, but overall this is a truly great, accessible guide to about 58 action movies, five spy films, and five Westerns from Bollywood’s silver age when big stars, big budgets, and big blockbusters were the order of the day. This book just came out this week from FAB Press, and reading it makes you want to fill your eyes to overflowing with all the psychedelic glories of old-school Bollywood cray-cray.
… Nothing says Seventies Bollywood more than the first five minutes of Amitabh Bachchan’s Don (78). There are no subtitles on this clip, but who cares? Watch an explosive entrance by the Big B, then groove to the deep green funk of the opening credits, and hang in there for Don himself (yes, he’s a mafia don named Don) killing a man for wearing the wrong shoes. Bolly-Heaven Achievement… unlocked.
… Aalavandhan (01) is a Tamil movie (remade in Bollywood as Abhay) directed by and starring Kamal Haasan as twin brothers. One is a SWAT commander; the other is a psychopath. When SWAT brother tells his imprisoned brother he’s getting married, his insane bro decides his brother’s fiancée is Satan and busts out of prison to kill her. In this scene, he’s out on the streets and off his meds and has to resort to recreational drugs to control his psychosis. The Oscar for Best Use of Ronald McDonald in a film goes to…
… If you want more Kamal Haasan, his Dasavatharam (07) features him playing 10 roles—10!—including President George W. Bush. Yes. That is correct. President George W. Bush.
… Okay, so it’s a Tollywood movie, but Telugu (and Tamil) cinema are where many of the best cinematographers and best action directors come from in India, and Bollywood’s always poaching talent from its Southern cousins. Why? Just check out this chase scene from Alluda Majaka (95), which doesn’t know when to call it a day, and that’s quite all right.
… Lest you think it’s all about Tollywood, Bollywood still dishes up the awesome with movies like Aankhen (02), probably the best movie about a gang of blind men recruited to pull a bank heist that also features musical numbers ever made.
… And let’s not forget beautiful moments of ridiculous action ballet from Bollywood flicks like Singham (11), a throwback to the old-school action movies of the Seventies, with Ajay Devgan as a badass cop.
… For psychic whiplash, there’s nothing quite like watching the terrorist training montage set to “Mere Watan” from Fiza (00) in which future Bollywood dance sensation Hrithik Roshan plays a radicalized Islamic assassin preparing to knock off a couple of politicians with balletic grace.
… Later, Hrithik would star as a mentally handicapped chap in the E.T. knock-off (with musical numbers) Koi… Mil Gaya (03). And he’s going to spend decades atoning for that.
… If you’re just in it for the music, this Rough Guide to Psychedelic Bollywood sales page lets you sample close to 30 tracks from Sixties and Seventies Bollywood numbers and it’s a sweet, skunky introduction to the genre.
… If you’re in it for the dance craziness, Bollywood has still got it in movies like ABCD (Anybody Can Dance) (13). This Indian response to So You Think You Can Dance? shoots moments of heavy ultra-drama out of its eyes like lasers, as in this moment when the dance teacher returns in the nick of time to rescue his young students from defeat in an underground dance-off.
… But special effects, action, and ridiculous car crashes aside, what Bollywood does best is give some truly magnetic performers the kind of showcases celebrities haven’t gotten since the big Technicolor Hollywood musicals of the Fifties. It’s completely electrifying to watch Aishwarya Rai own the screen so totally in her early movie, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (99), using nothing more than her eyes. In the “Nimbooda Nimbooda” number from the film she basically collapses time and space using sheer screen charisma. If you can turn her off before she’s finished, then check with your doctor: you may not have a soul.