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The roots of the Ramsays

Sharks, shamans and 'Sholay': the films that influenced the Ramsay brothers

A still from Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’.
A still from Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’.

There are some obvious things to be said about the Ramsay Brothers. They made low-budget, tacky-looking horror films, full of things that always seemed in danger of falling apart: haveli doors creaked, buxom women screamed so gustily you worried their tight costumes would pop open, and even the monster masks that begat those screams sometimes seemed like they might fall off in great brown gobs. They specialized in gore and titillation. And of course, they were derivative. You’d be right in thinking that their most immediate inspirations were schlocky B-movies from other cinematic cultures – the best-known of which are Britain’s Hammer horror films. But when you get around to watching the Ramsay films closely, you see how cinematically well-educated and enthusiastic they are, and how they weave some very disparate sources into their work. Execution doesn’t always match intent, but that’s another matter.

Also Read: Ramsays and the birth of ‘desi’ horror

Here are some films whose DNA may be found in the Ramsay cinema – including a few you weren’t expecting.

Island of Lost Souls (1932) and The Island of Dr Moreau (1977)

One of the Ramsays’ most atmospheric works, Dahshat – a film that somehow manages to be ludicrous and authentically creepy at the same time – features the mad Dr Vishal (Om Shivpuri) who conducts nefarious experiments with animals in his laboratory (which never seems to be well-lit, making one worry that he can’t see what he is doing; was that fox-head really supposed to go on that frog-body, for example). This subplot owes a debt to the HG Wells story Island of Dr Moreau and its film adaptations, the best of which is the 1932 Island of Lost Souls with Charles Laughton as the doctor – but given that Dahshat was made in 1981, it was more likely inspired by the 1977 Burt Lancaster-starrer The Island of Dr Moreau.

Also Read: The Ramsays: horror runs in their blood

Jaws (1975)

In 1982, the Ramsays announced a film that was conceived as a tribute to Spielberg’s blockbuster about shark attacks. It’s another matter that the underwater monster in Maut Ka Saaya looks more like the doleful Mer-Man from the Masters of the Universe franchise. The poster you see here suggests submarine menace combined with lots of disco-dancing, which makes sense given that Bappi Lahiri had recorded some songs for the film. Sadly, we will never know if he ripped off his own popular Disco Dancer soundtrack for the shark theme (“Fishy, Fishy / Aaja, Aaja?"), since the film was never completed.

Jaani Dushman (1979)

There is something poignant about watching Rajkumar Kohli’s wolfman-in-a-village classic and realizing that this is the sort of movie the Ramsays may have made if they had had large budgets and access to big-name actors. Like much of their work, Jaani Dushman contains a subtext about the struggle between tradition and modernity: the story, about a hairy monster abducting and killing brides while they are heading to their marital homes, can be seen as a parable about a conservative society’s fear that its young women may become bold enough to choose their own grooms. Given who the monster eventually turns out to be, the film also feels like a commentary on feudalism, a motif of the Ramsay Brothers’ cinema too.

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)

It’s hard to imagine what this impressionistic landmark of silent cinema might look like in colour, and conversely, it’s hard to imagine what a Ramsay Brothers film would look like in black-and-white, without the bright red blood, the over-decorated havelis and the many-hued tribal costumes. Yet the twain do meet, sort of, in Dahshat: the plump, slightly hunched Dr Vishal bears a physical resemblance to the mountebank Caligari, while his mute, grave-digging servant (known only as “goonga") is strikingly similar to Caligari’s sallow-faced sleepwalker-assistant. (If you can find any other similarities between the two films, your imagination is wilder than mine.)

Friday the 13th, The Evil Dead, and other slasher-film franchises

A major horror trope that emerged in Hollywood in the ‘70s and ‘80s was the slasher film where horny youngsters went off into the woods together and were picked off by a monster just as things were getting steamy. The Ramsays had to be more conservative when it came to nudity – the heroines always showered in swimming costumes – but the sex-and-death link is there for anyone to see.

Poltergeist (1982) and The Exorcist (1973)

It has long been a truism that little girls are among the scariest things you can see in a horror movie. In the 1988 Veerana, young Jasmine starts behaving very strangely after a tantric casts a spell on her – in one scene, she attentively watches a TV screen that has nothing but “snow" on it. First-world films like Poltergeist could do terrifying things with such a scene, but its effect here is mitigated by the fact that static-watching was the fate of many of us “normal" people in the Doordarshan era.

An American Werewolf in London (1981)

John Landis’s horror-comedy has one of the most celebrated man-to-monster transformation scenes ever filmed, with magnificent makeup and special effects employed to “realistically" turn the protagonist David into a werewolf. Compare this with similar moments in Ramsay movies – with similar transformations being effected through clumsy dissolves and lighting – and you see how lack of resources can create a huge gap between ambition and execution. The “what if" question arises again.

Also Read: Hearing the fear

The Shining (1980)

What connection can there be between one of the most self-consciously stately of horror films – directed by an auteur like Stanley Kubrick, who carefully designed each frame – and a Ramsay film? Well, the Overlook hotel, in which Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) slowly goes insane, is said to be built on an ancient Indian burial ground – and this theme of a sleek modern monument being haunted by the murky past recurs in the Ramsays’ Hotel, which was made a year later.

And some even more unusual suspects:

Purab aur Paschim (1970)

The first true Ramsay Brothers film, Do Gaz Zameen ke Neeche (1972), begins with the upright hero rescuing a young woman from goons and letting her stay overnight in his house. Dressed in a western outfit at this point, she changes into a saree just for dinner (before slinking back into a short nightie for bed). Taken together, the five-minute sequence feels almost like a riff on Manoj Kumar’s Purab aur Paschim, with its misty-eyed view of what the Bharatiya nari should look like. And there’s a twist: unlike her counterparts in Purab aur Paschim and other Hindi films of the time, this woman continues to be the predatory vamp – taking away her husband’s money and plotting murder – even after donning sari and sindoor! How diabolically anti-national.

(Speaking of which, the film’s ending mildly resembles the climax of the 1955 French shocker Les Diaboliques.)

Sholay (1975)

The 1984 Purana Mandir – one of the Ramsays’ better films – provides a glimpse of what Sholay’s Ramgarh village might look like if it had a flesh-eating shaitan looming over it, a supra-villain so scary that Gabbar Singh would have to be recast as a slapstick comedian. A bizarre subplot in Purana Mandir has the twitchy Jagdeep playing a version of Gabbar, not so much terrorizing a village as buzzing around it (Machchar Singh is his name). Rajendra Nath is the armless Thakur Murdaar, and a somewhat glammed-up Lalita Pawar (pushing 70 at the time) is Basanti. How all this ties in with the main plot – about nubile youngsters heading to the jungle to confront the ancient demon Samri – you must discover for yourselves.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)

In the same film, the Ramsays went meta-meta by throwing in a tribute to the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns that had influenced Sholay. In one comic track in Purana Mandir, Jagdeep and the hunky Puneet Issar play out a version of the scenes in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly where Blondie (Clint Eastwood) rescues Tuco (Eli Wallach) from being executed at the last minute. They couldn’t find a poncho for Issar, so he drapes a burlap sack around himself while performing these rescues; much more appealing, though, is the scene where he exercises in tight underwear, a rare example of the Ramsays indulging the Female Gaze.

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