The 'real' stories behind the plots of Ramsay horror films

In the 1970s, Ramsay Brothers introduced Indian audiences to a fear they hadn’t known before. Subtlety wasn’t exactly the forte of the films they produced and directed — and yet these films managed to send a chill down the spine of the audiences at the time. Even as modern Indian filmmakers finetune and redefine the genre, it cannot be denied that the Ramsay brand of horror was an important entry point for Indian films to horror. The question, however, remains — why did the filmmakers choose to stick to horror? Ghosts in our Backyard (published by HarperCollins), a new book written by Alisha Kirpalani whose maternal grandfather F.U. Ramsay was the patriarch of the family, examines the Ramsays’ own experiences with the supernatural, some of which inspired certain bone-chilling scenes in the films. In a conversation with wknd., she talks about the legacy of the Ramsays, and why her mother, despite being absent from the fame that the family enjoyed, may just have laid the foundations for it.

Alisha Kirpalani with her mother Asha
Alisha Kirpalani with her mother Asha

Anamika Chatterjee

Published: Thu 13 May 2021, 6:33 PM

What drew the Ramsays to the horror genre?

They started with historicals. And then they made a film called Ek Nanhi Munni Ladki Thi (1970), which did alright. But what they noticed in the film was a scene where Prithviraj Kapoor wore a mask and the audiences were visibly scared. My uncles were smart enough to gauge that there could be a potential in tapping into this genre, and suggested this to my grandfather. While they were toying with this idea, my mother told my grandfather a story he really liked and turned it into a film called Do Ghaz Zameen Ke Niche (1972). Growing up, we were mostly in splits because we always had some prop or the other at home. One day, for instance, my aunt had come over and wanted to drink water. When she opened the fridge, she saw a human head and screamed aloud. It was a prop for a film, a mask that had come from abroad. On the occasion of Rakshabandhan, the brothers would line up on the sets to be tied rakhis by my mother and after the celebrations, they would have to feed sweets to the crew members, including the guy who was in the ghost’s attire. It was all in a day’s work for the Ramsays (laughs).

The going was anything but easy for the family after they moved to India post- Partition. What were these initial days of struggle like?

My grandfather (Fatehchand U. Ramsay) tried his hand at radio and then went into garments business. But there may have been a creative gene there. Films were turning out to be a big business. So, he took a gamble. At that time, there were many mouths to feed in the family, and in films, he saw a business where he could rope in my uncles too. In fact, there were times when he’d insist that my uncles read books on filmmaking all night to understand the medium better. By the time I was growing, being on the set would be like a family picnic where all my uncles and family members were around. As a child, I’d wonder why the guy who played the monster did not look scary at all. But as soon as I would see him on the big screen, he’d give me jitters. That also showed that horror is ultimately an amalgamation of so many other factors — sound, makeup, storyline. It’s a very tactile and sensory genre.

When did you first watch a Ramsay film?

I belong to a film family from both sides, my father was a film financier. So, we watched films in reels. We paid for one and another followed. The torture was when you couldn’t get to see the climax and had to wait for the last reel. I guess watching movies in piecemeal also broke the fear. In terms of technique, my favourites were Purana Mandir (1984) and Veerana (1988). But in terms of getting absolutely petrified, it would be Darwaza (1978) and Andhera (1975).

Could there have been a larger reason for the popularity these films enjoyed? What made the Ramsays stick to this genre?

I think this is the adrenaline of fear. That rush that most human beings crave, while others are too afraid of it. Funnily, I had many people come up to me and say that they would take their dates out to watch Ramsay films because just when there would be a jumpscare or two, the girls would be clinging to their companions. So, you could say, Ramsay Brothers facilitated romance in those days (laughs). There was also enough amount of titillation in the films. The horror branding eventually got very strong, which was a good thing as well as a bad thing because they couldn’t easily break away from that label.

Today, that very titillation in the movies is seen as objectification of women and often subjected to criticism. Why was it such an important ingredient for a Ramsay film?

I can only bring it down to the Sindhi businessman brain (laughs). On a serious note, they were not aiming for Oscars. They knew what the masses wanted and went for it. In real life, it was a joint family living together and they were very old-school on many fronts. I still remember when my grandfather met my husband, he told me I should not marry him because he was too good-looking. I joked, “Do you want him to look like one of the ghosts in Ramsay films?” (laughs). For all the titillation in the films, my grandfather was very strict with his daughters. My mother got married when she was only 19. They saw movies as business. My grandfather called them tiffin-box productions, where food for the crew would be cooked at home and the whole family would tag along for the shoot. They got saddled with the B-grade label. I remember a few years ago, one of my uncles Gangu (Ramsay) asked me, “Beta, why are people suddenly interested in the Ramsays now?” I told him, “Because you have made something that’s lasted.” I don’t think they have really seen glory days.

In the book, you write about the supernatural experiences of the Ramsay family. Was it like opening a Pandora’s box?

I realised the siblings had not spoken about their own experiences of supernatural. In a way, everyone in the family was afraid of the family business. They either pooh-poohed it or shunned it. I remember my uncle Shyam Ramsay was once driving back home and he gave a lift to a lady, who was beautiful beyond belief. Being chatty, he started talking to this woman and soon figured, there was something wrong with her. He then noticed that her feet were turned inwards. Incidentally, he dropped her near a graveyard. Imagine a horror filmmaker being scared of ghosts. This anecdote was part of Veerana. But today, I look at supernatural differently. In terms of percentage, human beings can be far more destructive than spirits. So, I did not think twice before writing these stories.

But your cousin Saasha reportedly said that the Ramsay family does not believe in ghosts.

That’s her experience. Her dad’s account is on record, by the way. You see, anyone who has not experienced this will have their own take. I have gone through the process of reaching out to my uncles and recording their stories. Many had not even told their children about it.

Keshu Ramsay, Aamir Khan and Asha
Keshu Ramsay, Aamir Khan and Asha

Do you feel that you have risked credibility by writing about supernatural experiences of your family members? After all, there are many who do not believe such things.

One hundred per cent. It can even turn me into a subject of mockery. But it’s absolutely fine. The book is a tribute to my mother. When an earlier biography had come out, my mother had asked Tulsi uncle if he had mentioned that the idea for Do Ghaz Zameen Ke Neeche had come from her. He’d said he’d forgotten. My mother was disappointed. My book starts with that. Everyone knows Ramsay Brothers, but they don’t know the Ramsay Sister. That’s her one little claim to fame, considering she gave up everything to take care of her family. The fact that I was able to give this book to my mother is special. It’s worth all the mockery and disbelief I will be subjected to.

The Ramsays entered the television space with Zee Horror Show. How did that change the game for them?

I think people loved that they could sit at home and get their daily dose of horror with family. You didn’t have to go to the theatre, it took away from that expense. Also, watching television was a great bonding experience.

When you talk about Ramsay films, you also think of actors like Anirudh Agarwal. What sort of relationship did the Ramsays have with these actors, given that one could spot them in many of their films?

The Ramsays were essentially soft-spoken people. Recently, Pranutan (actress Nutan’s granddaughter and actor Mohnish Behl’s daughter) posted about my book on her account. I sent her photograph of Nutan and Mohnish at a cousin’s wedding. They were family people. The equations were maintained for a long time which perhaps accounts for the repetition of actors in all their films.

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