Horror tale: Can the female ghost save Bollywood?

Why the woman-centric horror comedy is having its moment in the sun

By Yasser Usman

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A still from Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2
A still from Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2

Published: Thu 23 Feb 2023, 3:57 PM

While it’s true that Pathaan has given a new lease of life to Bollywood, we must also remember the onscreen ‘bhoot’ or to be more precise, the ‘haunted women’ that had saved Bollywood when the superstars were falling flat not so long ago.

It was the story of a possessed woman, played by Tabu, that had brought the family audiences back to theaters after the pandemic. Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2 was one of the biggest blockbusters of last year. The film ‘revived’ Bollywood. But it wasn’t just one film, if you notice there is a silent revival of the outdated, discarded 'horror genre’ in the last few years in Bollywood.

And in this updated version of horror genre, the winning ingredients seems to be a ‘haunted woman’ story with comedy elements and a dash of feminist narrative added to the ghostly yarn. This cocktail of fun and fright are hitting the bull’s eye more than ever.

This triumph of the ‘horror comedies’ can actually be traced back to its prequel, Priyadarshan’s Bhool Bhulaiyaa (2007) when Manjulika’s ghost (Vidya Balan) had set the box office on fire. At that time the success of this horror-comedy was attributed only to the star power of Akshay Kumar and Vidya Balan.

Post this, the somber Talaash (2012) bombed despite excellent performances by superstar Aamir Khan and Kareena Kapoor Khan. There was a haunted woman in Talaash but the other major ingredient — the humour was missing.

It took Amar Kaushik’s Stree (2018) for Bollywood to open its eyes to the sub genre ‘horror comedy’. Inspired by an urban legend of Karnataka — Nale Ba, Stree was the story of a witch who lures and preys on men who cannot resist her sultry call. Made on a modest budget of 14 crores, the well-made Stree went on to earn more than 150 crores. The industry had now realised that horror mixed with comedy, satire and a simple feminist message was a solid success formula that needed to be milked.

A still from Bulbbul
A still from Bulbbul

Surprisingly, around the same time, when filmmakers tried to explore the horror genre minus the comic track, the films didn’t work. Anushka Sharma’s haunted-woman take in Pari (2018) and Anvitaa Dutt’s visually dazzling tale of women abuse in Bulbbul (2020) were talked about but not as successful as Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2 or Stree.

In an attempt to repeat the Stree victory, more horror-comedies were churned out. But there were major misfires too. The Tamil blockbuster Kanchana (2011) was remade as Laxmii (2020) with Akshay Kumar as the hero possessed by a spirit of a transgender. This horror-comedy remake was so atrocious that it was branded a disaster even though it didn’t get a theatre release and directly landed on OTT.

The producers of Stree too followed the same template in their next horror-comedy Roohi (2021) but it lacked the slapstick humour and feminist nuances of Stree.

A still from Bhoot Police
A still from Bhoot Police

The bonding of bhoot and Bollywood continued. Saif Ali Khan-Arjun Kapoor’s Bhoot Police (2021), Varun Dhawan’s Bhediya (2022) and Katrina Kaif’s Phone Bhoot(2022) also failed. These films simply demonstrated Bollywood’s restlessness to repeat the formula of Stree and Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2 with no work done on the scripts. It also proved that horror-comedy genre is not everyone’s cup of tea.

If we go back, Bollywood has attempted horror comedies since 1960s. Legendary comic actor Mehmood's Bhoot Bungla (1965) could well be termed as the first horror-comedy. It had a haunted house, murders and Mehmood plus RD Burman. But those were the times of romantic and social dramas in Bollywood. Comedy was designated only to comic actors.

The leading stars were not really interested in horror movies. The genre was looked down upon. Director Rajkumar Kohli’s Jaani Dushman (1979) is perhaps the only successful horror film of the seventies that boasted a mainstream starcast.

A still from Jaani Dushman
A still from Jaani Dushman

The flag bearers of hardcore horror films in Bollywood were of course Ramsay brothers. Their B-grade horror movies started the trend in the 1970s and films like Do Gaz Zameen Ke Neeche (1972), Darwaza (1978), Dahshat(1981), Purana Mandir (1984), Tahkhana (1986), Veerana (1988) unleashed a horror series characterised by sex, sleaze and sinister.

However, the repetitive plots, double meaning comedy, skin show and tacky special effects ensured that the films were never taken seriously and phased out gradually. The Hindi film industry never really believed in the horror genre except a few solid attempts like Ram Gopal Varma’s Raat (1992) and Bhoot (2003). Superstars Salman Khan and Shah Rukh Khan too attempted ghost stories with comic elements in Hello Brother (1999) and Paheli (2005) without much success.

A still from Raat
A still from Raat

While Bollywood remained non-noncommittal to the horror genre, the film industries of South India regularly produced better horror films spiced with comedy and mostly possessed strong female characters. Tamil horror-comedies like Chandramukhi (2005), Arundhati (2009), Nagavalli (2010), Kanchana (2011), Rajamahal (2014), and Bhagamathi (2018) became big hits and created a loyal audience of this genre in the South.

As always, Bollywood took notice of this new success ‘formula’ and adapted the Malayalam psychological horror-comedy Manichitrathazhu (1993) as Bhool Bhulaiyaa in Hindi. The first bonafide horror-comedy hit in Hindi. Saif Ali Khan's Go Goa Gone, inspired by the Hollywood Zombie films was also a success. But barring a few exceptions like Stree and Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2, the Hindi film industry hasn’t really produced strong original horror comedies like the Tamil or Malayalam film industries.

Unlike the tacky Ramsays era of the 1970-80s, we now have cutting edge technology and excellent VFX to support these kinds of films. If only Bollywood can crack better concepts and stories, the horror genre has the pull to bring audiences to the theatres. Director Anees Bazmi demonstrated it with the well-made blockbuster Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2. But Roohi and Bhediya’s horror story at the box office also proved if the story of the haunted is not brewed properly, it will haunt the producer and the industry more than the possessed.

Usman is a film commentator and author based in London


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