July 03 2020
Of monsters and phobias: how India’s horror genre is evolving
29 October 2018

This Halloween, take a look at how Indian horror is now defined by strong storylines and a real-world connect

Some of the greatest horror films ever made liked to play with genre conventions, investigating not just what we feared, but also why we feared certain things more than others. American director Wes Craven’s work does this with an over-the-top tonality, while something like a Get Out achieves the same with its keen sense of allegory and its politically aware writing. And now, especially these last few years in Indian film and television, there have been stories that seek to dig deeper into the genre’s mechanics.

The most recent — Netflix’s Ghoul — has scored highly with both audiences and critics. Starring Radhika Apte in the lead, the show is written and directed by Patrick Graham. The series imagines an Indian Guantanamo of sorts in the near future, a top-secret military base where dissenters and ‘anti-nationals’ arrive to ‘confess’ their crimes. A not-quite-human prisoner starts to unravel this establishment by using his interrogators’ darkest secrets against them.

Getting it right

Last month, when Weekend spoke to Graham ahead of Ghoul’s release, he mentioned how the makers had decided to create a “ generic dystopia’’ to avoid targeting specific governments or individuals. “But one should also remember that today there’s a surge of right-wing nationalism and blaming minorities, pretty much around the world,” says Graham. He is right, of course, and moreover, an extremely popular discourse in horror is the wrath of the oppressed. Stephen King’s telekinetic Carrie blows up her high school after being mercilessly bullied. Diablo Cody’s Jennifer’s Body sees a high school girl becoming a man-eating demon after being murdered by a douchebag Satan-worshipping boy band.


Of monsters and phobias: how India’s horror genre is evolving

Ghoul represents the culmination of a new wave of horror shows and films in India. It gets most things absolutely spot-on, never lets the tension slack and it’s this consistency that sets it apart from some of the other films/shows in this space for the last couple of years. What it shares with them is a willingness to look inwards, to create meta-narratives with real-world import. Pari (2018), for instance, was a very worthy attempt that didn’t quite come together due to a confused second half and a somewhat predictable ending. And yet, the screenplay, especially in the first half, worked as a powerful feminist allegory about reproductive rights and the power exerted by self-righteous men over women’s bodies. Another Apte-starrer, Phobia (2016) sees her character, an artist, developing agoraphobia after being sexually assaulted in the back of a cab. The now-homebound artist’s struggle touches upon several popular dichotomies — the ghare-baire (home and away) discourse in the context of Indian women, most of all.


Of monsters and phobias: how India’s horror genre is evolving

Beyond genres

In a 2016 interview with CatchNews, Apte commented upon the claustrophobia aspect of the movie (although the protagonist technically suffers from agoraphobia, the fear of open spaces), which became a powerful metaphor for the freedom of mobility of Indian women. “My character had to look claustrophobic and suffocated and it (shooting in the same tiny room every day) helped me look like that. Every day for 30 days, you’re going to the same place and spending 14-15 hours a day there, it really helped.” Graham, interestingly, told us something very similar about scouting for locations for Ghoul. This is yet another sign of a maturity in horror screenplays: the willingness to explore non-verbal techniques, and to use physical spaces cleverly. In this context, the Bangla movie Shob Bhooturey (2017) and the Tamil psychological horror flick Aval (2017) are standouts. What the two films share are superbly shot silences, as well as their hyper-awareness of physical spaces.

Stream now

More recently, the horror comedy Stree has been praised for its witty dialogues. Lines like “Woh Stree hai, purush nahi, jo aise hi uthaa le jaayegi, pehle permission legi” (The ghost’s a lady, not a man, she’ll ask permission before carrying you off) and “Use sabka naam kaise pataa? Sabkaa Aadhar link hai uske paas!” (How does she know everyone’s name? Well, she’s linked to everyone’s Aadhar!) are only half-funny; the other half reflects difficult-to-digest truths. The prospect of Aadhar numbers being misused at a massive scale is very real. Equally real is the phenomenon of Indian men abducting women with impunity; a Maharashtra MLA infamously offered to do precisely this for his male voters not too long ago.


Of monsters and phobias: how India’s horror genre is evolving

Earlier this year, the Amazon Prime show Shaitaan Haveli attempted, with varying degrees of success, to construct a kind of homage-cum-parody to the Ramsay Brothers, makers of eminently trashy B-grade horror films in the 80s (and quite possibly, Indian pioneers of what Ekta Kapoor called the ‘horrex’ genre three decades later). Although the gags wear thin after a point, the show was smart enough to subvert quite a few tropes of the trashy horror film.

Indian horror is growing up, and it’s about time really. As a storyteller, one has to keep pace with the horrors of the real world.



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