Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Raising the Dead - An Interview with Shamya Dasgupta

I may have picked nits in Shamya Dasgupta's book on India's premier horror film family in my review, but it has sufficient merits in terms of providing insight into the fraternal chemistry and working methods of the Ramsays, and an affectionate examination of their contribution to the cinema of thrills, to handily recommend to fans of their legacy. After having met the author face-to-face at the book's official launch (an intimate gathering where one had the lovely chance of meeting with members of the Ramsay family, and their iconic monster-man Aniruddh 'Ajay' Agrawal), I approached him with the idea of an e-mail interview, to which he readily agreed.

Before we go talk about the book, tell us a little of your background.
Well, I’m from Kolkata, Calcutta actually. Grew up there, studied there, then moved to New Delhi where I started working, 1999 onwards. I’ve been a sports journalist all along, on the web, in newspapers, in TV for quite a few years. I wrote a couple of books. My wife, dog and I moved to Bangalore in 2012, when I joined Wisden India. My wife is an editor and a publisher.

Great, now let's talk about your interest in films (and horror films in particular). How did it all start? Were you into movies as a kid or did it develop later?
No, movies were most certainly a very, very important part of life in general from as far back as I can remember. It’s interesting – my mother is from a family of pretty eminent writers and poets and … you know the sort, ‘cultured’ Bengali family, etc. They also had some connections in the Hindi film industry. And my mother was quite obsessed with Hindi cinema, as well as Bengali cinema. Not horror, of course, because we are talking about the 1950s and 1960s in particular. My father, on the other hand, was a left-leaning liberal, an economist, a Fulbright scholar who went to the USA and Canada to study and teach, and developed a major interest in world cinema, serious cinema. While my mother developed an interest in his kind of cinema over the years, I don’t think he ever got around to understanding the magic of Hindi movies. In terms of mainstream films, I think the only one he really enjoyed was Golmaal [Hrishikesh Mukherjee, 1979].
Anyway, so I was interested in all kinds of cinema from an early age. In Calcutta, there were lots and lots of film festivals, so watching ‘good’ cinema was easy. I read a fair bit too. My father had brought back many books from the US. I guess I wasn’t old enough to really understand film theory and stuff, but I read them all. And my mother’s Filmfares and Stardusts and stuff. So, yeah, movies have always been a part of life, in a very big way. I don’t think we ever had a VCR, but there were theatres, screenings of all sorts; ‘Good’ cinema, as well as mainstream Hindi and Bengali cinema.
As for horror, I enjoy my horror all right, but I won’t say I am a horror fan. I love all cinema, horror being one of them. If that’s a disqualification when it comes to writing about the Ramsays, I don’t know. As I have always said, I approached the book as a journalist telling a story, the same way I approached the book on Indian boxing I wrote some years ago – while boxing is a sport I follow very closely, I wrote it as a reporter, not as an expert.

Tell us about your interest in the films of the Ramsay brothers. How did the idea of writing a book on them occur to you? What was the process of bagging a publishing deal for this book?
I had watched a couple of Ramsay films when still in my teens (Which means I was not supposed to watch them, I guess). This was in the 1980s. They used to have these travelling video shows in tents and I saw them there – Purana Mandir, Veerana and one other film, which I can’t remember the name of any more. I saw their other prominent films later, on TV, and then all of them multiple times more recently. As for writing about them…there are many ideas about journalism; the one I subscribe to is that the job of a journalist is to tell an interesting story, a story that will interest people, using the words ‘interest’ and ‘interesting’ in the broadest sense possible. Whether it’s an investigative story, a report about the launch of a film or a political story, when you report, you report a story that will interest people in some way or the other. I have always felt the story of the Ramsay brothers – seven brothers making low-budget horror films and becoming incredibly successful – was going to be an interesting one. To everyone, not just fans of their films. The details about them obviously emerged later as I did my research and interviews, but it was always going to be an interesting story. One thing led to another, I met Amit Ramsay, got an 'in' into the family, and then on…
And ‘bagging’ the publishing deal was incredibly easy. Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri of HarperCollins India is the premier publisher of film books in India, in English at least, and is a film obsessive. I think it took just one email to him. I can’t imagine any publisher not being interested in a story like that of the Ramsays.

 What sort of research did you do for the book?
Well, fortunately or unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of relevant information about the Ramsays. Unfortunately, for obvious reasons. Fortunately because it meant that not many people knew too much about them, which meant that most of what I was going to write would be new to people. So yeah, I dug out what I could; old magazines, some academic writings, a little stuff off the internet; and then it was all to do with the interviews. I had very few starting points, outside of the obvious questions. But it seemed to all mostly fall in place eventually.
As for the time and the effort – well, I will never say this is the definitive, most exhaustive and ultimate book on the Ramsays. It isn’t. I have a full-time job and limited means in terms of money and time and access. Within that, well, I did what I could. Would I have liked to speak to more people? Certainly. Satish Shah, for example. Gulshan Grover, Deepak Parashar and others..and so on. Didn’t happen, for various reasons. So those were misses. Within the family too, there were people I spoke to but found nothing usable. But that’s par for the course, I guess. I made a few trips to Mumbai, spent time with whoever I could, and Don’t Disturb the Dead is what I managed to come up with. I don’t think I’ve done a bad job. 

Much more than that. In fact all things considered, it's a damn fine job. Who were the most helpful sources of material (conversely, who were the least)?
All the people quoted in the book [were helpful]. Honestly. The brothers, of course. Kumar, the oldest, doesn’t keep well, and Keshu and Kiran have passed away. I had spoken to Kiran, in fact, when he was in Dubai and he had promised to chat once he returned, but it never happened. The other four brothers – Gangu, Tulsi, Arjun and Shyam – were all wonderful, as were their children. Aarti Gupta-Surendranath gave me all her time, as did Anirudh ‘Ajay’ Agarwal. Komal Nahta, Jerry Pinto, Sriram Raghavan, Sridhar Raghavan, Rajesh Devraj, Beth Watkins, Bappi Lahiri...They all had stories and opinions to share, I just collected them. There were people I tried to speak to who didn’t want to speak to me, they must have had their reasons. There were also a couple of people that I didn’t want to speak to, whatever the reasons might be. It’s not fair to take names, so we’ll leave it at that.

Fair enough. What impact did the effort of writing this book have on your life and routine?
Nothing at all. It was fun all the way. I do work on books pretty regularly, so no … no problems there at all. No story like I didn’t meet my wife and dog for days on end…

[Heh] If time and resources were not a constraint, would you have done anything different / better with the book?
Certainly. As I mentioned earlier, I would have spent much more time in Mumbai. I would have met the Ramsays and other people (their collaborators) more. Face to face, I mean. I met them a few times, and I did speak to everyone that I needed to on the phone multiple times, but that’s not the same thing. If I had more money, I would have had greater access to the archives of, say, Filmfare, Stardust, Film Information, all of those. There’s also the fact that I am not a film journalist but a sports journalist. So I didn’t have contacts in the industry in quite the same way. I might not have written the book differently, but I might have managed to make it richer in terms of detail. It’s fine the way it is, I think. No gaping holes. Some gaps, yes, but none that are major.

And now that it's out, what do you hope the book will achieve, both for its author and its subject?
For the author – I don’t know and genuinely am genuinely not bothered beyond a point. I don’t think I write to get anywhere. I don’t make a living from my books. It’s got mostly positive reviews, which is good. I hope it sells well. That’s all. For the subject – this is more important: We have seen a renewed interest in the cinema of the Ramsays in recent times; they have always had a cult following, but little recognition from the industry itself. I do hope people who read the book appreciate their contribution to Indian cinema: It’s huge. I don’t expect people to start loving their films after reading the book, but I hope people appreciate them for who they were and what they did, and achieved. And not just the Ramsays, even someone like Ajay Agarwal. He was outstanding, wasn’t he?

Couldn't agree more. Thanks a ton Shamya, for taking time out to do this. Here's hoping the book finds its audience and does some 'monstrous' business.
Thanks, Suresh.

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