Sunday, 18 November 2018

Ghost stories: Bollywood hasn’t figured out how to use spectres in its cinema

Ghost stories: Bollywood hasn’t figured out how to use spectres in its cinema
26 Aug

There is no need to be scared of the old Madhusudan temple; it’s just Bipin Babu’s ghost that haunts it. He just sits by the broken parapet and hums an old song. Sure, an apparition with turned feet floating over a parapet and humming may be an unusual sight, but completely harmless. Why should it bother you?” So said my uncle, trying to dispel our fears of the famous haunted temple in our village.

Ghosts are not always meant to evoke fear. They are an integral part of our heritage, and a ghost story can be funny, melodramatic, tragic, or all of that at once.

Unfortunately, Hindi cinema has not used ghosts much outside the realm of horror films, and when it has, the theme hasn’t worked very well. For example, despite the star cast of Shah Rukh Khan and Rani Mukherjee, Paheli (2005) was a flop. There may have been several reasons behind its failure, but the ghost trope certainly did not help. Another truly well-made film called Ek Paheli (1971), starring Feroze Khan and Tanuja, failed because of the ghost trope. Even though Indian folklore is rich in stories of the supernatural, Bollywood has failed to crack the genre.

Horror comedy

Ghost stories have been more successfully used in horror comedies. I’m only referring to films consciously marketed as horror comedy, as opposed to horror films that may be unintentionally funny. This is a seriously under-explored genre in Bollywood, but surprisingly, it has been relatively more successful. Films like Bhoothnath, Go Goa Gone, Great Grand Masti and Golmaal Returns have done rather well at the box office.

Around the late 1930s, Ranjit Movietone released a film called Haunted House or Bhutiya Mahal, and described it as a “hilarious ghost comedy” and “a haunted house that will enormously entertain you.” The film was a commercial success but Ranjit Movietone did not create another horror comedy, even though they made numerous other films.

Twin terror

Ghungroo, starring Om Prakash in a double role, was a huge box office success in 1952. Produced by Filmkar Ltd. and directed by Hiren Bose, the film revolves around twins named Balam and Vinod. Balam is murdered and his ghost possesses the body of his twin, Vinod, who is a simpleton but soon starts behaving like his smart brother. The comedy in the film stems from Vinod’s erratic behaviour, and it then goes on to become a revenge story. Om Prakash’s performance was universally praised by critics.

Later, this theme appeared again in two films: Ghazab (1982) and Hello Brother (1999). Ghazab, starring Dharmendra in a double role, was very similar to Ghungroo; however, the story was reversed — the imbecile brother is murdered and the smart one avenges his death. Dharmendra’s flair for comedy and his strength as an action hero is beautifully utilised in this film, and it was a hit. In Hello Brother, a funny, loveable ghost, played by Salman Khan, is the highlight. Though not a big hit, the film made decent earnings.

There are some notable exceptions to the general appeal of horror comedy. When the enormously successful Bengali film Bhooter Bhabishyat (2012) was remade in Hindi as Gang of Ghosts (2014), it was touted as the first Hindi horror comedy. It was a huge failure. Before Gang of Ghosts, another successful Bengali horror comedy, Bancharamer Bagan (1980), had been remade in Hindi as Isi ka Naam Zindagi (1992). This too was a flop. Clearly, the remakes lost something in translation and the charm of a Bengali ghost tale simply could not become pan-Indian.

The writer is a historian based in Queen’s University, Canada. Watching old Bollywood films keeps her going.



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