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Meet the original kings of horror who created an empire - and a cult following - in the 1980s.
While shooting their first horror film, the Ramsay Brothers accidentally dug up a body. "Half a body, " says Tulsi Ramsay. It was October 1971. They were filming, appropriately, for Do Gaz Zameen Ke Neeche (Two feet beneath the ground), India's first zombie movie, at a graveyard near Mahabaleshwar in Maharashtra. "People, working there had shown us where to dig and said, 'Nothing will happen here, '" Tulsi recalls. But something did, and angry villagers who lived nearby surrounded the crew. They managed to pacify the villagers, and then they reburied the body and, as a gesture of atonement, lit an earthen lamp where it lay. Tulsi, who was co-directing the film with his brother Shyam, asked the crew to pack up. It was 2:30 am when he started walking back to his guesthouse alone, about a kilometre away, to clear his head. "I'd barely left the graveyard when leaves on a tree next to me started rustling: ShhShhShh. " His eyes light up when he tells a scary story. He punctuates sentences with sound effects.
We're sharing a sprawling sofa on the 15th floor of a posh Lokhandwala high rise. "I heard heavy breathing and footsteps : Cheu, Cheu, Cheu, " Tulsi continues. "I thought it was some aatma-vaatma (a spirit) from the graveyard. " He prayed and ran to his guesthouse. When he arrived, the heavy breathing had stopped. "It was me, " he says. So were the footsteps. "The soles of my chappals had come loose. "
Tulsi, 67, has created something of a life around paranormal experiences as a director of 29 horror movies, but this is the closest he has come to one.
At a time when the average Hindi film took about a year and Rs 50 lakh to complete, Do Gaz Zameen Ke Neeche was shot in 40 days on a budget of Rs 3. 5 lakh. Here's how. Seven brothers boarded buses with small-time actors, a sparse film crew, their wives and their mother and father and drove to a government guesthouse in Mahabaleshwar that cost Rs 12 a room. They didn't spend on sets because they shot on location. They didn't spend on costumes because these were picked out of actors' wardrobes. The cameras were all borrowed.
The eldest brother, Kumar, wrote the script. Tulsi and Shyam directed. Kiran worked on sound. Gangu was the cinematographer. Keshu assisted him and handled production too. Arjun helped with production, but mainly worked on the edits. Their mother, Kishni, and her daughters-in-law cooked and helped with makeup. "We would sleep for four hours a day and shoot for eighteen, " Tulsi says. When it was complete, they publicised the movie on radio, mostly with faux-scary voice ads. The film ran to full houses in the first week after its release. It made Rs 45 lakh.
The brothers repeated this model to make 35 more movies, which epitomise the lower depths of 1980s Bollywood sleaze and gore, but which have secured their place in Hindi cinema's hall of fame as the pioneers of horror. The "Ramsay Brothers", as they are called, have in these films, and in India's first horror show on television, featured ghosts, ghouls, monsters, zombies, witches, vampires and every conceivable version of things that go bump in the night. Mostly, they've been the first to do so.
And mostly, the Ramsay movies were hits. Some, like Purana Mandir (1984), were among the biggest moneymakers of the year. Tulsi remembers bigger film families, like the Kapoors, viewing their rise in the 1980s with unbridled curiosity. "They would keep laughing at us and wonder what we brothers were doing. But they would watch our movies. "
Today, the brothers are mostly semiretired, and rarely work together anymore. Shyam Ramsay has directed three films on his own in the last decade. And Tulsi has produced a horror movie directed by his son Deepak, 38. They weren't anywhere near as successful as the Ramsay releases of the 1980s. Elsewhere, these earlier films have been resurrected. Deepak has sold some film rights to YouTube where they register lakhs of views each, and to Canadian DVD brand Mondo Macabro, featuring "the wild side of world cinema". Four decades after they started making movies, the Ramsay Brothers are being re-received as camp.
Ramsay House, at Lamington Road, Mumbai, is where Deepak says "it all began". The building is a ghost of its former self. A siris tree twice its size spreads out across the dilapidated three-storied structure, covering faded French windows and a sloping tin roof. The shutters are down on the ground floor office that's been closed for 18 years. On the office fa�ade are large black signboards that say in peeling red and white letters: "Ramsays" and "Ramsay Films" in English and Hindi.
Fatehchand U Ramsay, a Sindhi, had planted that tree when he moved here from Karachi after the partition in 1947, with his wife, two daughters and four sons;the three other sons were born in India. A radio engineer, the foreigners he dealt with anglicised his surname from Ramsingh to Ramsay. With his electronics company doing badly, he decided to try his hand at the movie business. He co-produced Shaheed-E-Azam Bhagat Singh, India's first film on the martyr, in 1954. It flopped.
His second film in 1963, for which his older sons were enlisted, was a historical epic called Rustom Sohrab. It did well, and the Ramsays decided they were in show business for good. The Ramsay family unit became the Ramsay film unit.
F U Ramsay's next film, seven years later, was a family saga starring Prithviraj Kapoor. It bombed at the box office.
Tulsi and Shyam visited theatres to figure out why. They saw audiences filling otherwise empty seats, even bribing ushers to catch a ten-minute sequence where Prithviraj Kapoor steals a valuable artifact from a museum. Only, Kapoor, at six feet two, wears a hideous mask, armour, black boots and a long black cape - "just like Dracula, " Tulsi says. When the police shoot him the bullets bounce off. "Thayk, Thayk, " demonstrates Tulsi. "He's like a ghost. A monster. "
It was evident what audiences wanted. They wanted that jolt of horror. And the brothers, as fans of this genre, set about convincing their father to let them make a horror film that they would write, direct, shoot and make almost entirely among themselves. A three-month-long workshop followed, with film books on a houseboat in Srinagar. Then a Sindhi "workshop film" shot mostly within a Chowpatty flat. Then Do Gaz Zameen Ke Neeche. After the success of the zombie film, their father "let us brothers run the show, " Tulsi says.
When I visit Ramsay House, paint peels off a narrow concrete flight of stairs leading up to the first floor. There's no doorbell or knocker, so I slam the door latch. After ten minutes, Arjun Ramsay opens the door with tussled grey hair fringing an otherwise bald pate, a benign smile and a crumpled shirt. Arjun, 64, is the only brother who stays at the house now. He's moved to the second floor. He calls the ground floor office a "bhoot bangla" because it's been shut so long.
His craziest memories are in that office. He recalls how the brothers convinced a film distributor to fund their second production, Darwaza - India's first "creature horror, " a sub-genre of film featuring a supernatural monster.
On the day the distributor came for the meeting, Arjun wore the costume and waited in a room while Tulsi and the distributor negotiated next door. In between arguments, they heard monstrous grunts and the clanging of chains. Then Arjun, with a horribly disfigured face, protruding teeth, hairy arms and legs, giant talons and dragging chains that seemed to have just been snapped, rushed into the room, roaring at the distributor. The distributor shrieked, then fell to the floor and, as Arjun puts it, "His heart had nearly stopped beating. "
"I knew then that I had a star in that monster, " Tulsi says. "I had Rajesh Khanna, I had Shah Rukh Khan. " They got the funds and made back much more, when Darwaza was released in 1978.
Purana Mandir was the next creature horror to rock the box office. Made for about Rs 2. 5 lakh, it grossed about Rs 2. 5 crore. The star was Anirudh Agarwal, a sixfoot-seven-inch tall civil engineer who played 'Saamri', a super demon who rapes and disembowels newly wed brides and mutilates and eats children and corpses.
What made them consistently successful during the course of the 1980s, Pritish Nandy, a film producer and former film critic says, was their propensity to produce films in quick succession. "You could call the Ramsays tacky, or any number of things, " Nandy says. "But the regularity and consistency with which they made these movies made them a brand. And they had a serious connect with the audience. "
Most of the Ramsay following came from small cities and towns, where the films ran - some still do - for years. Many of the films were set in small towns with haunted havelis. This is one of the reasons why Shyam, 60, often called the creative head of the brothers, feels their target audience relished their movies. "[ They] could relate more to our films because of these locations contrary to an urban setup, " Shyam says.
The Ramsays mixed and matched from horror movies around the world. Gothic horror sequences with an overdose of smoke and diffused blue light. Stuffed animals from Alfred Hitchcock and Hammer movies. The use of primary colour filters from Italian horror maker Mario Bava's Black Sabbath and Blood And Black Lace. Chase sequences from American slasher films like Black Christmas (Bob Clark) and Friday The 13th (Sean S Cunningham). And an obsession with Bram Stoker so that coffins house creatures of every faith, even those vanquished by an Om sign or Shiva's trident. The brothers' films rarely matched these movies in their execution, but the lodestone of Ramsay horror, the gore - rolling heads, blood baths and ghastly faces - often helped mask the lack of technical expertise or inability to sustain a mood.
Arjun credits Shyam for devising most of the horror sequences and Tulsi with adding the Bollywood masala, a formulaic medley of slapstick comedy, sex, song and dance, action and melodrama. According to Nandy, this mix made the movies more "comic book horror - not so much the horror that would scare you, as horror you would enjoy".
Then there was the sex. "You can't deny that sex sells, " Shyam says. "Of course, if shot aesthetically. " There are endless camera zoom-ins on parts of the female anatomy. Lewd jokes abound. Romance is used as garb for injecting vulgar innuendo. But even with their A rating the Ramsays fought shy of crossing over into porn. There's no kissing or overt nudity. Aarti Gupta is the centrepiece of a shower scene in Purana Mandir where her shower sprays blood instead of water. Yet a modicum of modesty, so characteristic of 1980s Bollywood, is ensured in that she is, inexplicably, wearing a bathing suit.
By the late 1980s, things were beginning to slow down on the big screen for the brothers. The last big Ramsay hit - Bandh Darwaza, with Ajay Agarwal playing a burly vampire - was in 1990.
"In the 1990s we diverted towards the small screen," Shyam says. "We made over 700 episodes of 'The Zee Horror Show'. The Ramsays became a household name with this show." Later renamed 'Anhonee', it ran for eight years. The show cut out the gore and sex but had its fair share of creaking doors, screaming dogs, blood, a black cat driving a car and a woman's head cackling on a plate.
With the 2000s came the multiplex - with ticket prices five times higher and a largely middle class urban audience. "The audience is now clearly fragmented," Nandy explains. "There are the rural masses, who have greater links with the past, and the intelligent urban audiences who have a greater disconnect with the past."
The original version of this article appeared in the 'Ghost Stories' issue of Motherland, a magazine about contemporary Indian subculture published by Wieden+Kennedy Delhi. (motherlandmagazine. com)
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