Like the one Gaulish village surrounded by the Roman empire, horror cinema has not only staved off the threat of Hollywood studio blockbusters but is actually thriving. At a time when low- and mid-budget genres like the romantic comedy and the indie drama are moving to streaming services, the one holdout in theatres is horror and its allied genres: slashers, psychological and Gothic dramas, monster movies. The year 2017 was a watershed, with Get Out making $250 million (around ₹1,720 crore now) and snagging a Best Picture Oscar nomination, and the Stephen King adaptation It made $700 million worldwide.
Hindi film horror too had a breakout year, though on a much smaller scale, in 2018. There was the critically acclaimed Anushka Sharma-starrer Pari, Prosit Roy’s vengeful-witch pulp thriller with political and feminist overtones. Rahi Anil Barve and Adesh Prasad’s period film, Tumbbad, was a phantasmagorical visual stunner. Ghoul, a Netflix miniseries by Patrick Graham, combined dystopian dread with folk legends and political commentary. Most visibly, there was Amar Kaushik’s Stree, a horror-comedy, which, on a meagre budget of around ₹24 crore, earned ₹180 crore, making it the year’s big sleeper hit.
“We will probably see a whole bunch of Stree rip-offs," Graham says on the phone, in between shooting the forthcoming Netflix horror series Betaal, which he has also written. “The film was family-friendly comedy-horror—I wouldn’t consider it a step into serious horror. But I am sure it would have opened up a bunch of doors."
If Stree’s success has little precedent in India, Sujoy Ghosh’s Typewriter (streaming on Netflix) is made in the image of a massively successful franchise. By placing four children and a bereaved policeman at its centre and playing up its pop culture references, Typewriter is more than a little reminiscent of Netflix’s own Stranger Things. Sujoy says he was inspired by the 1980s’ children-focused summer entertainers that Stranger Things continually pays tribute to. “I was thinking Goonies, and all those (Steven) Spielberg-Frank Marshall-Kathleen Kennedy-produced films, directed by Richard Donner or Joe Johnston. Or Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, which upped the scale."
Ghosh’s series mixes occult horror with a breezy kids’ adventure that unfolds in Bardez, Goa. Three schoolmates who are part of a “ghost club" find themselves fending off the real thing when a family moves into a villa in which there was an unexplained death years ago. Purab Kohli plays a stalwart policeman who is father to one of the children; Palomi Ghosh is the mysterious Jenny Fernandez, who survived the original haunting but isn’t free of its influence.
Typewriter is intermittently scary—eyes bleed, hearts are squeezed dry—but it’s still a child-friendly venture. This echoes the global trend, spearheaded by the genuinely frightening It and the cheerier but still grisly Stranger Things, of putting children front and centre in horror films (a trend continued in 2019 by Brightburn and The Prodigy). Ghosh says he likes the juxtaposition; he took on the series because he once read a Satyajit Ray remark to the effect: “If you can work with children, you can work with anyone."
In a little nod to Stree, Abhishek Banerjee, who plays a comic victim of demonic possession in the 2018 film, has a showy cameo in an episode of Typewriter as a vengeful man with occult powers.
The surprise success of Kaushik’s film has coincided with a number of horror projects being green-lit. Kaushik isworking on a Stree sequel. Akshay Kumar is making Laxmmi Bomb, a remake of the Tamil film Kanchana. Karan Johar, Zoya Akhtar, Dibakar Banerjee and Anurag Kashyap are teaming up again for Netflix’s Ghost Stories; the streaming service is also producing the horror films Bulbul and Kaali Khuhi.
Indian horror films in the past have tended to focus on the occult, but there seems to be a welcome diversity in the forthcoming releases. Game Over, a Taapsee Pannu starrer released in June, was a home-invasion thriller. Shah Rukh Khan’s Red Chillies Entertainment, along with Ivanhoe Pictures and low-budget horror stalwart Blumhouse, is creating Betaal, a zombie series set in colonial India. There’s also a small but growing subsection of Indian arthouse horror. Ashim Ahluwalia was one of the directors of the international horror anthology The Field Guide To Evil.Tumbbad premiered at the 2018 Venice International Film Festival. And this year has seen Aniket Dutta and Roshni Sen’s Japanese-folk-horror-referencing Ghost Of The Golden Groves.
Despite the gains of last year, horror is still a fledging genre in India. It may be a low- and mid-budget holdout in Hollywood; in India, there are plenty of competing subgenres to fill this space. Apart from Stree, almost none have made a killing at the box office.
Graham points out that while international horror does well at the Indian box office, Indian directors need to up their game. “Honestly speaking, the reason home-grown horror hasn’t done so well is it isn’t very good," he says. “Most of the local films are derivative, they are trying to ape Western or Japanese or Korean films. I think the people here who would go see Conjuring or It would probably laugh at the Indian horror films."