Thursday 12 April 2018

Indian Horror

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Bollywood Gothic

A few years back I became semi-addicted to what was termed Asian horror. This was down to the horror boom that followed the surprise success of the Japanese film Ring(u). It was followed by more Japanese films, plus Korean and Hong Kong horror. A little later other countries joined in, notably Thailand, with movies like Shutter. Vietnam and Cambodia have also produced some interesting films. A lot of Asian horror movies were made for DVD release in the US, such was the demand. But, inevitably, the genre went a little stale as tropes quickly became familiar and sequels suffered from the law of diminishing returns. At the same time other Asian countries that we don't associate with horror have started to 'come through', notably Iran - A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night.

However, while I was noodling about on YouTube looking for clips of likely movies I did notice that roughly half of the population of Asia did not seem keen on being scared. Bollywood is the world's biggest film industry, but horror movies were a tiny sub-genre in India. Most Indian horror films, about 15 years ago, were short, amateur or 'indie' productions. However, in recent years things have changed for the better. So here are some examples of Indian screen horror I've seen lately.

Image result for kanika movie

First up, Kanika (2017). Written and directed by Pushkar Manohar, this is a fairly basic 'people haunted by lethal ghost girl' tale. The influence of East Asian horror is very evident, but the production values are not very high. The main interest - for me - is the way in which the 'victims' are all members of a medical profession that has committed a very specific crime. They are guilty of gender-specific abortions on behalf of families who don't want girl children. This adds a uniquely Indian feel to what is, in other respects, a familiar tale of vengeance from beyond the grave.

Image result for horror story 2013

Look at the picture above. It is the cast of the 2013 film Horror Story. These crazy young people have a party, then some idiot suggests going to the old abandoned hotel outside the city. You know, the one that was reportedly built on top of an asylum. Derivative in the extreme, Horror Story is still a lot of fun, mainly because you can play guessing games. Will the party girl in sparkly hot-pants die first, or will it be the smooth guy in the waistcoat? And who will survive, and how will they defeat/neutralise the ghost? What is the back story of this haunting, anyway?

I enjoyed this film more than I expected, as it is well-paced and not too silly. Standard Hollywood fair with a Bollywood veneer, it does not outstay its welcome at the  Hotel Grandiose. Yes, that's what the haunted hotel is called. It's that kind of film.

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From the big screen to the somewhat smaller, for a TV show. Fear Files, aka Har Mod Pe Darr, is a long-running anthology series made by Zee TV. Each episode is about 40 mins long and tackles familiar themes, mostly. Here we find the vengeful ghost, evil spirits possessing people and/or things, witches casting spells, and other classic fare. Again, though, there is an Indian spin. Domestic violence and the maltreatment of girl children crop up more than once. It's also notable that Indian  holy men tend to be far more effective in Fear Files than priests in the average Western horror show.

Can I just add that, if it had been up to me, this series' English title would have been Don't Lucknow? Thank you, I'm here all week. I enjoy Fear Files, as I think there's an art to coming up with a series of new, standalone scripts for a long-running show, and you've got to admire the sheer work ethic of all those involves. Production values here are pretty good, although some FX are a bit ropey. The acting is pretty good, and sometimes excellent, as a series of mostly young stars do variety of Unwise Things.

The main problem, and this is an issue will all I-Horror, is the overblown score. There is a tendency to take the soundtrack to 11 with a full orchestra when a subtle piano tinkle would be more effective. This is, however, my personal bias and Indian audiences presumably feel differently. Maybe people who are less familiar with genre conventions need to be 'told' what's going on? Anyway, Fear Files is fun. If you can find it with subtitles (it's on Netflix) give it a go.

Image result for 1920 London

Finally, 1920: London. This is one of the most ambitious I-Horror films I've seen, a lavish production that has a whiff of Merchant-Ivory at times. I discovered after watching it that it's the third in a 1920 series, so more fool me. That said, it's a very enjoyable watch. The film combines conventional Bollywood tropes - notably song - with horror in a historical setting. The plot is told partly in flashback but is coherent and has some good twists.

It stars Meera Chopra as Shivangi, a princess who seems to have it all. I mean, she's a princess for a start, but she's also married to handsome, intelligent prince Veer Singh (Vishal Karwai), who is studying in London. Unfortunately, dynastic jiggery-pokery leads to a curse being put on Veer. Shivangi struggles to find a holy man who can save her prince. The only option is Jai (Sharman Joshi), the humble shepherd who Shivangi first loved and then betrayed years ago. It's a kind of 'eternal triangle' plot, but with spirit possession.

Jai travels to London to try and free Veer from the evil spirit, but his efforts seem set to fail. We learn more about the star-crossed lovers, and about the way Jai acquired his magical knowledge from a wise old guru. There's some solid character development as well as decent possession scenes. This is big-budget Bollywood, and it shows. The final showdown involves Jai entering a mirror-world to battle the undead witch, bringing a final neat twist. Along the way there's a genuine, old-style Intermission, and a surreal scene in which the princess has to pursue a psycho-kinetic lemon around an English country house. Suffice to say I was never bored.

So, there you have it. India emerges as a power in the field of screen horror. I'm intrigued by the way things have gone lately and can only hope that the genre continues to thrive in the sub-continent. At this rate some true horror classics will be produced by Bollywood in the near future. Or perhaps they already have been, and I simply haven't seen 'em?

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