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We Indians love a good horror film. Even a bad or mediocre one. Vikram Bhatt's latest offering, Raaz 3, proves just that. According to boxofficeindia. com, the movie raked in nearly Rs 11 crore on its opening day and is only the 16th film so far to breach the 10-crore mark. Like his other films, this one too appears to have garnered plenty of ticket buyers and mixed reviews, like much that's come before.
Bollywood has been in the horror business for a long time now. Kamal Amrohi's Mahal (1949) was possibly the first 'scary' hit. It was followed by Bees Saal Baad (1962) and Bhoot Bungla (1965). But the earliest superhit was Jaani Dushman (1979), which not only boasted a luminous star cast (Sanjeev Kumar, Sunil Dutt and Rekha) but turned out to be a trendsetter.
A spate of B-grade films in the 1980s from the so-called 'kings of horror', the Ramsay brothers, soon gained prominence. These were low budget efforts that used a heady mix of scares and sex to lure movie-goers. Ask any aficionado and they'll tell you of Purana Mandir (1984), Veerana (1985), Purani Haveli (1989), Bandh Darwaza (1990).
But the genre owes its modern revival to Ram Gopal Varma and Vikram Bhatt. While it was Rakeysh Om Prakash Mehra's Aks (2001) that finally broke the spell of B-grade horror, it was Varma and Bhatt who brought Hindi horror to multiplex masses.
Bhatt's Raaz (2002) and Varma's Bhoot (2003) created ripples in an industry that had had enough of romance and action. These two films, in another first, featured rising stars - Bipasha Basu and Ajay Devgn. But horror films continue to be associated with few genuine chills and, unfortunately, a lot of laughter.
Says critic Rajeev Masand: "Unfortunately, for a film to be a blockbuster in India it needs stars like Shahrukh and Salman. Irrespective of the genre, it needs star wattage. And horror flicks aren't generally for family viewing like romance or drama - so they get even fewer viewers. "
So why do film makers keep trying? "I like to scare people, " says Vikram Bhatt, "the more it scares them, the more I enjoy. Unfortunately, the media leads viewers to believe that watching horror films is beneath them. " And when it comes to critical opinion, Bhatt turns caustic. "The reviews aren't mixed, they are one-sided. But I don't blame the critics, they have to feed off my blood. But I will continue making films because I'd rather be a king in hell than a slave in heaven, " Bhatt says.
So could these films do better if they featured Sharukh Khan or Katrina Kaif? "I haven't approached any stars because I believe there are films that need stars and some that don't. The audience isn't interested in the romance in a horror film, they want to be scared. And to do that, I need a good story not superstars, " he explains. Masand agrees, saying, "If the story is good the film will work even without stars, " he adds, "but it will not be a blockbuster. "
While Bhatt doesn't want to cast superstars, there are some who can't afford to. Shyam Ramsay of Ramsay Productions once said in an interview that their budgets don't allow them the luxury of choice and so they prefer casting newcomers.
"But even if Salman or Katrina were to star in horror films, you wouldn't remember them for their performances but the story instead. Maybe that's why they may choose not to opt for a horror flick, " says Masand.
But even with great stories and a good cast, will Bollywood ever make something comparable to Hollywood hits such as The Grudge, Omen or The Ring?
"It's not difficult to make a Grudge. But our films are about music, sexuality, and romance - not just horror. Movies like 404 (2011) have tried going the Hollywood way and have done well. Why do you think we haven't had as many superhero or sci-fi movies? Because the audiences abroad are very different, " says Bhatt.
Could it also be the lack of technical expertise? "Technically and special effectswise, Hindi horror films are weaker. That aside, you don't need always need them. Look at Paranormal Activity, The Blair Witch Project or even Bhoot - they all work on the 'less is more' principle, " explains Masand.
Shyam Ramsay once said that his budget for Saamri (1985) was Rs 1. 5 crore and Rs 2 crore for Bachao (2010). The difference in the budget of two films nearly 25 years apart is indicative of the change in quality. But the business of horror has very few losses, thanks to the sheer curiosity factor. So there's always a money-back guarantee.
"Marketing horror is always easier. You just slap on a scary poster and it's done, " says Bhatt. Masand agrees, "The returns are always decent even if the film turns out bad. It's inexpensive compared to other genres. "
So back to the million dollar question: Is horror meant to live in the shadows forever? Can Bollywood step up its horror game? "I think it's unlikely that horror flicks will ever be blockbusters. And people have seen so much that scaring is becoming harder so film makers have to come up with something really good to be successful, " sums up Masand.
There'll always be takers for scary movies and the theatres will never run empty. But to give the audiences sleepless nights, filmmakers really need to step up their game. Movie making in 3D is a start but the expectations are higher and so, the scary needs to be scarier.
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