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Desi horror picture show: ‘Shaitaan Haveli’

With 'Shaitaan Haveli' on Amazon, we finally have a homegrown streaming series that is defiantly, recognizably, stubbornly Indian

Mukesh plays an ageing horror film actor in ‘Shaitaan Haveli’.
Mukesh plays an ageing horror film actor in ‘Shaitaan Haveli’.

The Indian horror film is unlike any horror film in the world. This is principally because we attempt to make horror films while shying away from making actual adult films. As a result, we have almost always made toothless and bowdlerized versions of the genuine article. Even our B-grade horror films, unapologetically trashy while they have been, steered mostly wide of foul language and, despite relying heavily on the trope of the gratuitous shower sequence, rarely came close to flashing us a nipple. The posters for the films were far tawdrier than their contents. We may as well call them B+ movies, really.

Now, an Amazon Prime comedy called Shaitaan Haveli raises its trishul in tribute to the lurid librettos of the Ramsay Brothers, with a self-aware and affectionate parody of the genre. Created by comedian Varun Thakur, this is perhaps the first of the Indian streaming shows to have both a distinct personality as well as a premise that doesn’t sound like it’s been knocked off from a beloved international production. The idea is as straightforward as an accursed bloodline: a director in a porn star moustache and a florid shirt takes a ragtag crew to make one last horror film, and they end up at a haunted mansion. Surrounded by all manner of Hindi movie horror clichés, they decide to keep filming even as the plot gets appropriately intricate and inane. Boogie frights, if you will.

The big twist in India is that after years of having their content infantilized by broadcasting restrictions in television and theatres, creators and storytellers are now using online and streaming platforms for all manner of profane expression. This is often, sadly and childishly, the only kind of envelope-pushing the Indian streaming shows do, finding their thrills in four-letter words. This is why it’s fascinating to see how, even as Shaitaan Haveli pays homage to the sleaze of the past, it does so with the childish profanity of modern Indian shows, and the combination somehow clicks. Young people in a haunted haveli running behind a shape-shifting witch and evading zombies do seem to have rather earned the right to swear.

The show starts with a couple cruising the blue-tinted roads in a vintage convertible, the boy being pleasured by the girl, who suggests they draw a line and wait till they are actually married. The boy, quite practically, says this may take a while because of political complications: One of their fathers is a gau rakshak and one is in the leather trade. This is a throwaway line, but it is on the backs of these quips—and not the obviously contrived plot machinations—that Shaitaan Haveli works. Because work it (mostly) does, unlike the poorly conceived non-horror movies made by fictitious director Harinam Singh in his bid to become India’s Nolan (he pronounces the name Nolain, as if it were the jaggery filling a sweetmeat, but one cannot fault the man’s ambition).

You can get a sense of the show’s puerile humour from the episode titles themselves, my favourites being “Horror Ki Ma Ki Shoot" and “Jaanta Hai Mera Purvaj Kaun Hai", corny puns that don’t deserve to be translated into English here. Besides the Ramsay storytelling staples—like 200-year-old curses and the overwhelming importance of the Amavas Ki Raat—there are interestingly subverted character types, like the popular saas-bahu serial actress who had her career derailed by a video of her drunken rant going viral, and the white girl only brought in for the shower scenes who turns out to speak perfect Hindi and proves to be a paragon of virtue and logic. As for the shower scenes themselves, there are three distinct ones with distinct moods, Singh explains, for narrative reasons.

The show’s most committed performances come from Bhupesh Singh, who plays the ever-compromising (and ever-ready) director Hariman; Mukesh, who plays an ageing horror hero now reduced to villainous roles, and—most entertainingly—Surender Singh, a hulking man with an Amrish Puri voice, who plays the villain of the piece, Chandaal, in a solid salute to the characters once played by the towering Anirudh Agarwal in Ramsay movies like Purana Mandir and Saamri. He puts the dead in deadpan.

Thakur himself is quite likeable as the struggling actor who gets a side role, dry enough to be scornful about lifting Shaun Of The Dead ideas, yet eager to wave about four-pronged weapons with gusto. The show works also because, like the low-quality films made with bad actors it seeks to emulate, it relies on scraps of the whole ensemble rather than depending largely on any one or two actors or characters. Thakur is the de facto leading man but there isn’t enough of him on screen for his limited acting ability to be a hindrance.

Weighing in at eight 20-minute episodes, the show doesn’t quite earn its running time—you can stop watching after Episode 5—but, because of how amazing television is these days, this is, frankly, a complaint that can be levelled at many a series: All of the Marvel-Netflix shows, for instance. Shaitaan Haveli is an enjoyably goofy show with a defiantly, stubbornly Indian heart. Thanks to the poor prosthetics, you won’t mind watching it throb, in time with the creepy-cheesy soundtrack. Saamri would giggle.

Streaming tip of the week

McMafia, a brand new BBC mini-series about the British-raised son of Russian mafia exiles, is now out on Amazon Prime. The thriller stars James Norton, the magnificent David Strathairn and our very own Nawazuddin Siddiqui, so it may well be worth a watch.

Stream Of Stories is a column on what to watch online.

He tweets @rajasen

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