History of Indian Horror Films
The earliest horror films in Indian cinema revolved around themes of reincarnation and rebirth. They were mostly stereotypical ghost stories. The attempt was not to scare as much as to give the love story a new dimension. The earliest Hindi horror film was Kamal Amrohi's debut directorial ‘Mahal’, released in 1949. Starring Madhubala and Ashok Kumar the film is a complicated ghost story, which sees Kumar’s character moving into an abandoned mansion with a tragic history. The film was a major box office hit and is also immortalised by Madhubala's beauty and Lata Mangeshkar's first major hit song "Ayega Aanewala". Atmospherically photographed in the German expressionist style appropriately by the German cameraman Joseph Wirsching, the film is heralded as an all time classic.
Indian Horror Films of 1950s and 1960s
Bimal Roy for the first time dealt with the theme of avenging spirits in his film ‘Madhumati’ (1958). The film was widely accepted. Post ‘Madhumati’ several filmmakers explored the horror genre. ‘Woh Kaun Thi?’, ‘Bees Saal Baad’, ‘Noorie’ and others had been successful in arousing the element of fear. ‘Gumnaam’ and ‘Bhoot Bungla’, both released in 1965 were the other major horror movies of this time. One of the major aspects behind the success of these horror movies, apart from a good storyline, was the presence of high-class music and singing, a Bollywood trademark. These films also featured well-known actors and directors who helped present some of the most chilling scenes in Indian cinema. Background music in films like ‘Mahal’ and ‘Gumnaam’, ‘Madhumati’ and ‘Woh Kaun Thi?’ helped create the magic.
Indian Horror Films of 1970s
With the supernatural being a popular theme, most horror stories revolved around spirits trapped in the mortal world. There was the odd attempt at making straight up horror films as well. In 1976, ‘Nagin’, featuring Sunil Dutt, Jeetendra, Rekha, Reena Roy, Feroz Khan, Kabir Bedi and Mumtaz, made everyone take notice and was a huge success. The film follows the bloody revenge of a female shape-shifting snake, against a group of people who killed her mate. The film was followed by another successful horror film in 1979, ‘Jaani Dushman’, again featuring Sunil Dutt, Jeetendra, Rekha and Reena Roy, alongside the versatile Sanjeev Kumar who portrayed the cursed creature. Reena Roy and Feroz Khan starred in ‘Jadu Tona’ as the tormented guardians of Baby Pinky who is possessed by a spirit from a nearby Peepal tree. The other Hindi horror films of the time were ‘Do Gaz Zameen Ke Neeche’, ‘Jadu Tona’, ‘Darwaza’ and ‘Aur Kaun?’.
Indian Horror Films of 1980s and 1990s
The 1980s saw a qualitative change in the type of horror films being made by Bollywood as most filmmakers began remaking famous horror films from Hollywood. In 1980, Padmini Kohlapure played the possessed child in the unnerving ‘Gehrayee’. Probably the best of ‘The Exorcist’ inspired films, it has a number of eerie sequences and an uncomfortable atmosphere. The 1980s also saw Rajesh Khanna, superstar of the 1970s take on the role of a serial killer in the unsettling and original ‘Red Rose’. He also featured with the more camp and less impressive ‘Woh Phir Aayegi’.
In 1985, Naseeruddin Shah reprised the serial killer role in the impressively taut ‘Shart’. However, despite the occasional horror film that had top stars and directors involved, the 1980s saw Indian horror films become synonymous with low budget B-grade movies made by the famous Ramsay Brothers. This family of filmmakers cornered the low budget market and produced horror films for decades. Somewhat unfortunately, it did mean that the horror genre became ghettoised and never really broke out of that narrow mould. The horror film genre continued to remain stuck in a warp which saw films that were made on a shoe string budget, had pathetically awful special effects and featured all the same people film after film. And yet the films had great entertainment value and at least offered something different from the mainstream. Starting from their initial horror success ‘Do Gaz Zameen Ke Neeche’ in 1972, the Ramsay Brothers had come into their own in the late 70s with films like ‘Darwaza’ and ‘Guest House’, the latter famously starring a chopped hand. The 80s yet remained their most prolific period and brought such hits as ‘Sannata’ (1980), ‘Dahshat’ (1980), ‘Purana Mandir’ (1984), ‘Haveli’ (1985), ‘Saamri’ (1985), ‘Veerana’ (1985), ‘Tehkhana’ (1986), ‘Dak Bangla’ (1987), ‘Purani Haveli’ (1989), ‘Shaitani Ilaaka’ (1990) and ‘100 Days’ (1991). Most of the themes revolved around evil spirits and deformed creatures terrorising villages. It was a successful formula and one that was rarely deviated from.
Most Ramsay films utilised the services of an elite band of actors including the thespian Deepak Parashar, the sirens Huma Khan and Aarti Gupta, and the comedians Jagdeep and Rajendranath. Such was the success of one of the Ramsay films, ‘Purana Mandir’ (1984) that an immediate sequel, ‘Saamri’ was made the following year.
Revival of Indian Horror Films
During the 90s, the majority of horror movies were unsuccessful at the box office, with only one successful horror movie at the time which was ‘Raat’ (1992). After the disappointing horror films in the 90s, it would be a decade after ‘Raat’ until another horror hit. The genre was resumed and revived with Vikram Bhatt's ‘Raaz’ (2002). The film, although inspired from the Hollywood hit 'What Lies Beneath', became an instant box office hit. More horror films were made following its success, such as Ram Gopal Varma's ‘Bhoot’, ‘Krishna Cottage’, ‘Naina’, ‘Darna Mana Hai’, ‘Darna Zaroori Hai’, ‘Click’, ‘Raaz 2’, ‘Phoonk’ etc. Priyadarshan's 2007 smash hit ‘Bhool Bhulaiyaa’ was a unique take on the horror genre and made proper utilisation of comedy along with a thrilling plot.
Indian horror films attained a new dimension with the release of Ekta Kapoor's ‘Ragini MMS’ (2011). The film was presented in a digital video format and became an instant hit upon release. With its gripping plot inspired from a true incident and high quality production, the film paved the way for further horror films in the country. ‘Haunted 3D’ also achieved a new level in this genre by using the 3D technology for the first time stereoscopically in presenting the film. This film was also much appreciated by the audience. The contemporary Hindi horror movies include ‘1920’, ‘Alone’, ‘Darr @ The Mall’ amongst others.
Other than Bollywood, many horror films are made in different regional cinemas in the country. These films are generally based on the local culture and depict the local folklores. With the improvement in technology and original crafted storylines, Indian horror films are elevating their standard to that of the much loved Hollywood horror movies.