Monday, October 31, 2022

Un-kvlt goes to the Movies - Veerana screening by Bollywood Crypt

Warning, long-ass post ahead. If you want to skip my rambling childhood horror movie reminiscences and go straight to my impressions of the event, scroll to below the event poster image.

Although I consider myself a fan of vintage Indian horror cinema, particularly from the Hindi film industry, I have actually seen few of these films at the cinema. This was inevitable since I was merely a schoolkid in the 1980's and early 90's when the Ramsay family studio - led by the director duo of Tulsi and Shyam Ramsay - had their crowning moment as the Czars of the Indian horror scene and were spawning imitators like Mohan Bhakri, Vinod Talwar etc.; going to the cinema to see a scare flick was out of the question. 

Also, this was the age of VHS rentals. Middle class Indian homes were discovering that, for a fraction of the cost of a cinema outing, you had the option of watching films in the comfort of home, albeit on a much smaller screen. You also had access to a far wider range of Hollywood films than were screened in the halls. At the time, I was lucky enough to have parents that were quite liberal about what their kids could watch and didn't believe in minute supervision. So long as it wasn't outrageously raunchy (even there I actually got away with Roger Corman's gleefully sleazy Humanoids from the Deep), anything from Bollywood masala to martial arts to bullet-fests to splatter fare was fair game. Alongside Hollywood horror staples like The Omen, The Exorcist, The Evil Dead, and Nightmare on Elm Street it was on VHS that I first saw several Ramsay horror / suspense flicks, including Saboot, Purana Mandir and Veerana.

I believe the first Indian horror film I saw in a theater was Ram Gopal Varma's Raat (1992), and it made a big impression at the time. But Raat's was more aligned with Western horror film tropes and represented a shift from the traditional Indian horror flick pioneered by the Ramsays. So when Deepak Ramsay in 2006 directed Aatma, I felt compelled to visit the cinema at least to get the experience of a Ramsay movie on the big screen. Coming off the experience of directing the majority of the 300+ episodes of the anthology format Zee Horror Show, Deepak served up a nicely done latter day Ramsay horror feature, alongside Shyam Ramsay's Ghutan (2007). But there remained a yearning to experience one of the classic Ramsay features in a cinema hall with an audience.

Unfortunately, while India has had a highly prolific film output spanning multiple states and languages, it rarely bothers to preserve and celebrate its legacy. And genres like horror are like the 'differently-abled' stepchild the industry would rather not acknowledge. Horror stars and makers in the West enjoy the adulation of fans decades after the original release of their films, but the concept of genre film related merchandise, fan conventions and retrospective events barely exists here.

So when Bollywood Crypt founding owner and (confession) my good friend Sandesh Shenoy announced a screening of the Ramsay's monster classic Veerana (1988), it was for me a not-to-be-missed opportunity. This event came about as a spinoff from several Ramsay films being restored in high-definition by renowned cult horror / exploitation video label Mondo Macabro. These are intended for release as a lavish blu-ray boxset that will provide horror fans across the world a full-blooded entry into the wacky sub-genre of 'Bollywood Horror'. It seemed only appropriate that the premiere screening of one of these restored versions should happen in India.

Setting up for the show.

Not content with just showing the film to an audience, Sandesh made it an event evening, inviting Deepak Ramsay as a special guest to represent the Ramsay family, and Bollywood horror / suspense genre historian and trivia expert Dhruv Somani to give some context about the film and its lasting legacy (My own brief impressions about Veerana can be obtained in this Un-kvlt Vlog post).

The obvious advantage of watching a film in a convention / festival milieu is of course that the audience is here for the love of the film. This was immediately reflected in the experience. Within the plushly appointed cozy 80-seater screening room of Suchitra Cinema & Cultural Academy, the atmosphere was electric. Veerana's bombastic opening was met with hearty whoops. All through the film, people responded to it, applauding the horror segments, laughing at the slapstick bits, enthusiastically endorsing lead girl Jasmin's charms, cheering the explosive finale where good manages to win over seductive evil. One can act all snooty, but there's something to watching a crowdpleaser in this kind of setting, you find yourself enjoying elements which in a more isolated setting appear gauche or cloying. In short, the showing was a blast.

Visually, the new master for Veerana looks miles ahead of any previous video release. There's still a fair amount of film damage, mind - some discoloration, some vinegar syndrome - that would either be beyond repair or take too much effort and money to correct. But you can see a lot more texture on objects & faces. In-house cinematographer Gangu Ramsay's Bava/Argento inspired use of garish primary colors is beautifully represented. I hope this degree of rejuvenation will hold true for all the other releases on the upcoming blu-ray set.

(L-R) Dhruv Somani, Deepak Ramsay, Sandesh Shenoy

The delicious cherry atop the cake was the post-screening interactive session, when Dhruv Somani came up on stage to discuss the work and legacy of the Ramsays with special focus on Veerana. For those relatively new to the Ramsay horror phenomenon, there was much to chew on here, including the mystery of the voluptuous Jasmin, who despite making huge waves as Veerana's lethal succubus dropped out of sight and was never heard of after. When the session was thrown open to the audience, both hardcore Bolly-horror nerds and relative newbies eagerly bombarded Dhruv with questions. For several of these queries, additional clarification and personal perspective came from Deepak Ramsay; the best was an amusing anecdote of when Aniruddha Agarwal - Purana Mandir's towering monster Saamri - was accidentally locked inside an actual coffin during the film's making. By the time he could be rescued, he had been reduced to tears while still caked in his fearsome makeup. The soft-spoken Deepak seemed genuinely pleased with the audience response to Veerana and hinted at some major announcements from the production house that would build on their legacy.

Equally exciting, Bollywood Crypt is working on the possibility of having a touring theatrical retrospective of all the restored Ramsay films. I don't know if this would be everyone's cup of tea, but so far as I am concerned they can...

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Un-kvlt Vlog 1 - Ramsay Horror Special - Veerana (1988)

 The Un-kvlt Site steps into the realm of Vlogs with this piece on the classic Ramsay horror Veerana. Apologies for the poor webcam audio. I still need to figure out how to get my computer to take input from a dedicated mic.

Thursday, October 20, 2022

Kantara aka The Forest [dir. Rishabh Shetty]

Thankfully, after the initial wave of generic spectacle 'pan-India' films from the South Indian film industries, we are seeing the distribution of more culturally rooted narratives. Maniratnam, one of the first southern film-makers to hit mainstream national fame way back in the 90's, recently unleashed the first installment of his pet project, a lavish and sprawling two-part adaptation of the Tamil historical fantasy adventure novel Ponniyin Selvan. But the other film making waves across the country in its multiple dubbed avatars is on a wholly different end of the scale in terms of magnitude and budget: Kantara aka The Forest from Kannada movie-maker Rishabh Shetty.

Unlike Ponniyin Selvan's 10th century milieu, Kantara is majorly set in the present (or as contemporary as it gets in the narrative's remote rural settling), but it begins from a centuries old tradition where religion and myth are inextricably intertwined. The 'Bhoota Kola' (Spirit Dance) is a ritual in which a chosen one acts as conduit for the deity or guardian spirits and speaks for them. In olden times, the proclamations of the Bhoota would be taken as divine judgement. But as modernity and the ensuing corruption seep through society, even divine judgements start to be questioned. Thus, when the village's Bhoota conduit reminds the descendants of the erstwhile ruler that their forefather had given away the forestland under his jurisdiction to the original settlers, they respond with scorn and threats of legal action. Then there is the conflict between the age-old tribal way of life, in which they take resources from the forests for their needs, and federal-government mediated  measures that deny them access to those very forests in the name of conservation.

By couching its Chosen One story against this engrossing backdrop, Kantara aims to rise above the common herd of 'mass' movies. Of course, it takes a while to fulfill that potential. The protagonist Shiva (Shetty, who also writes and directs) is painted in HERO shades right from his dramatic introduction as the champion of the Kambala, the traditional buffalo race. In the grand tradition of mass heroes, he is charismatic, generous, hot-headed, flirtatious...the works. In that same tradition, he has an entourage of comic relief sidekicks and a mother constantly frustrated by his pranks. But Shiva is also the defender of the locals and their traditions against external forces even though, to the mother's vexation, he has refused to act as conduit for the Kola ritual. 

The first challenge to Shiva's people comes from the forest department led by the rule-bound stubborn Murali (Kishore). Shiva responds to this in the manner he knows, by carrying out guerilla raids into the forest and frustrating Murali's attempts to enforce his dictates. But then, an old and insidious enemy rears his head, threatening to disgorge the villagers from the land they have occupied for centuries. This is when Shiva transforms into the role the film has till then hinted as his destiny, a transformation that superbly infuses the hero trope with a mythical flavor and pushes it into a remarkable niche for the genre.

This transformation is for me the center-piece of the film, one that raised it above all my previous reservations. Till then Kantara was a reasonably strong mass entertainer. But after an astounding opening and the legend created around the Bhoota conduit, the film seemed to have cast aside its ambitions in that regard. Too much time was spent in giving Shiva the standard mass hero treatment. The film's humor started to repeat itself, sometimes in very ill-placed situations. Also, the manner in which some major characters shifted direction were done in an abrupt and unconvincing manner, suggesting either weaknesses in the original writing or material left on the editing table. 

But by God, once that transformation begins, when Shiva takes on the role of spirit conduit and delivers divine retribution to the oppressors of his people, all those nits were simply swept away. In the depiction of that sequence, the astounding visuals of a dust and violence streaked night, the guitar riff-driven strains of the Varaha Roopam song, Shetty's body language and facial contortions, we get a demented and incredibly visceral piece of heavy metal performance art. Watching at the cinema I was left breathless and shaking in my seat, goosebumps forming over my goosebumps. In that transcending moment, Kantara for me rose from mass movie to class entertainment.

Sunday, October 9, 2022

Thazhvaram aka The Valley [dir. Bharathan]

If the Italian cowboy films are Spaghetti Westerns and their Bollywood inspired counterparts like Sholay (1975) are Curry Westerns, then this Kerala-born take on the genre should probably be called an Idiyappam Western. Jokes apart, the team of writer MT Vasudevan Nair (MTV) and director Bharathan have done an excellent job of transmuting the Western into a new milieu. It's not as wholly seamless as Akira Kurosawa and Hideo Oguni's (Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Sanjuro) work on molding the Western into Japanese culture, but a solid effort nonetheless.

The genre inspirations are (ha!) hat-tipped from the beginning when the silent protagonist Balan (Mohanlal) walks alone across landscapes - no horses or Stetsons here - stared at by vultures while a mouth organ based opening theme plays. Very early on, Balan's objective is made clear - he wants to kill Raju/Raghavan (Salim Ghouse, dubbed). In either a moment of conscientious hesitation or a narrative contrivance (since there would be no film otherwise), he does not avail himself of the first opportunity, but goes over to the settlement where Raghavan lives.

This place is even more remote than the stereotype rundown cowboy town with the dusty central avenue and the fly-infested saloon. Hidden behind hills, the titular valley is virgin farmland with few inhabitants. Balan only meets widower Nanu (Sankaradi) and his daughter Kochooti (Sumalatha), who work their farm with some daily-wagers. Balan pretends to be an old friend of Raghavan, casually visiting. Likely a consequence of loneliness, Nanu is garrulous and extends effusive hospitality to the stranger. In fact he has also not so long ago also coaxed Raghavan to buy land and settle down near him, looking upon the man as a prospective match for Kochooti.

The brooding small-scale revenge drama (think Sergio Corbucci, not Sergio Leone) is mainly about the cat and mouse game between Balan and Raghavan. Shortly after making acquaintance with Nanu's family, Balan suffers a murderous attempt by Raghavan and is badly injured in the process. Rescued by Kochooti, he is brought back to the house, but must now guard himself against further attacks - each night becomes a test of survival. On the other hand, Raghavan is worried about his shady past being revealed to his new neighbors, especially since he hopes to marry Kochooti. Alongside these maneuvers we get periodic flashbacks to Balan's old life, which reveals the nature of the tragedy that led to his seeking revenge on Raghavan.

MTV's screenplay is a thing of joy, skillfully juggling the tense interplay between its male leads while delving into the backstory of their conflict. The motifs of the Western - the stubble-chinned taciturn protagonist draped here in unwashed Veshti and poncho-like shawl, the remote setting, the sometimes savage practices (like killing wild pigs with crude mines), the long shots dwarfing the characters in the landscape, the extended standoffs - are incorporated into the narrative without seeming out of place in the Kerala setting. While the film is obviously centered around the two enemies, both Nanu and Kochooti are well-etched characters, the latter displaying a pleasing level of sass even when she has to oppose her father to be true to herself. Venu's evocative cinematography and the thoughtful editing by B Lenin and VT Vijayan (who had previously collaborated on several of Maniratnam's early films) keep the film engaging. Without spoilers the ending is faithful to the bleak, roving spirit of the landmark Italian westerns.

Thazhvaram's weakness mainly lie in its flashback / exposition elements where you have a throwback to a more conventional hero. The colorful outfits and aura of brash naivete Mohanlal dons here are not enough to convince you that his Balan is an eligible lover for the excessively ebullient Raji (former child star Anju). Wikipedia's page on the actress, tentatively puts her year of birth as 1978, suggesting that she was 12 at the time of this film; this lends a wholly icky pedophilic spin to their on-screen romance. Balan also seems to have a rather shaky moral compass, only mildly chastising his then-buddy Raghavan for even such crimes as murder, until it comes to bite him on the ass.

These niggles notwithstanding, Thazhvaram comes highly recommended as a South Indian Western which draws deeply from its inspirations, but is not a slavish imitator.

Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Shree Krishnaparunthu aka The Holy Kite [dir. A. Vincent]

The "Krishna Eagle" referred to in the title of A. Vincent's horror drama Shree Krishnaparunthu (SKP) is a Brahminy Kite. The bird is seen as the representative of GarudaVishnu's celestial mount  in Hindu mythology. In the film it is the guardian deity for a family of respected shamans / white magic practitioners that use it for the benefit of the common people, curing them of possessions, snake-bites and other ills. The knowledge of the family is passed on to its male heirs. When the film begins, the old practitioner Padmanabhan (Jagannatha Varma) gets a premonition of his own death and decides to pass on the heritage to his nephew Kumaran (Mohanlal). The trouble is, Kumaran has till then led a wayward hedonistic life indulging in opium and women. Can he be trusted to take on the family mantle and continue with their righteous tradition?

Vincent was a rarity in Indian cinema, a film-maker that took the horror genre seriously. The stories he made were culturally rooted and given the sensibility of a Gothic melodrama, not reliant on jump scares or sleaze quotient to garner attention. In 1964 Vincent made his directorial debut with Bhargavi Nilayam (Bhargavi's House), in which a tenant encounters the spirit of a woman in the house he is occupying, and learns of how she was killed. In 1978 he helmed Vayanadan Thamban, an ambitious romantic horror. In that one the warlock Thamban (played by Kamalahaasan) turns to devil worship for eternal youth, in return for which he must periodically provide his master with virgin sacrifice. The narrative spans several generations, visually indicated by the changes in social and cultural milieu. Thamban is both a vampiric predator that honey-traps women for sacrifice while repeatedly escaping capture, and a man that battles with his own conscience over his actions.*

SKP is a sort of spiritual successor to Vayanadan Thamban, in that it is also a culturally rooted story in which the horror elements are tied in with the protagonist's moral compass. After Kumaran accepts the uncle's teaching he transforms into an austere, celibate priest with the power to heal the needy. He is powerful enough to tackle the menace of vengeful spirits like Lakshmikutty, who bears a deadly grudge against him, and the insidious attacks of a competing black magician who wishes to destroy the influence of the Garuda clan. Kumaran's powers hold sway so long as he is able to control his baser instincts.

Alas, that state of affirs does not remain. He starts to desire a young woman Bhanumathi, and when unable to contain his lust, visits the local prostitute. This marks the beginning of Kumaran's fall from grace. Over time, his righteousness is replaced by ego. Even after having failed to keep the mandatory celibacy, he refuses to relinquish the position of priest to any successor. The forces invoked by the white magic practiced in his clan become diminished, and to counter his failings, he turns to the practice of a darker sorcery with the worship of the boar-headed goddess Varthali/Varahi. While it initially serves his purpose, aiding him to do his miracles and protect the family from rivals, this has its own set of consequences. The film does not explicitly pit the various schools of magic as one-note good and evil (Varahi is a female offshoot of one of Vishnu's avatars) - but they represent different schools of thought with conflicting philosophies that cannot coexist. There is a strong grounding of polytheist mythology here, a refreshing contrast from the more simplistic God vs The Devil narrative of western horror films.

Kumaran's shaky moral core continues to blindside him, leading to both personal tragedy as well as the destruction of his entire clan. At the end there is a moment of redemption when Kumaran, burned in a fire after trying to make away with the sacred texts from the family shrine, expends his dying breaths initiating his innocent nephew into the original clan tradition.

SKP is trademark Vincent in both its virtues and its flaws. Its biggest triumph is the serious exploration of a specific folklore. Thanks to a combination of effective writing and a young Mohanlal's thespian talent, the grey shades of the protagonist are superbly layered, rendering him a credible character than a good/evil archetype. Vincent's creative eye is also able to give a distinct identity to his deities, demons and spirits, wholly away from the hackneyed spooks of hack horror-makers. But there are the issues of pacing and visual continuity as in his other films. Those expecting the spit and polish of Western horror ventures will find these flaws jarring (anyone familiar with low-budget genre Indian films will not).

But with all its flaws, SKP is a compelling moral fable that provides rich rewards to those seeking a genuine horror experience in a unique cultural setting. While I wish I could recommend it unreservedly to serious horror fans across the world, one barrier is that the film does not so far appear to be available in subtitled form, and while you can get a cursory idea from the visuals alone, viewers really need to have a working knowledge of Malayalam to grasp the intricacies of the plot. I was lucky in having a Malayalee friend who generously spared his time, and we paused the film multiple times to discuss both the dialog as well as the context of the cultural practices depicted, making it a truly enlightening experience for me. I do hope others get as lucky, because these films have too niche an audience to entertain the idea of any international label presenting them in translated form. That said, the full feature in the original language is available on Youtube, so you can try your luck:

* While Vincent's original version of Vayanadan Thamban is a classy Gothic, it was however heavily mutilated for its Hindi dubbed version titled Pyaasa Shaitan (Thirsty Devil) by camp icon Joginder Shelly, who has been described as India's answer to Ed Wood. After bagging the rights to Vincent's film Shelly randomly rammed  in inserts of himself as the devil, making faces at the camera, and tasteless sleaze material that only made for an incomprehensible experience.