Home-grown horror

The Browsers Ecstacy

Home-grown horror

 Spooky: The ‘Paranormal’ franchise delves deep into our latent fears.From gross out, in-your-face horror the genre is returned here to the eerie, creepy kind - the kind of minimalist horror movies I grew up watching or hearing about. As a child I was often frightened/entertained by my older cousin sisters who would tell me horror stories.

These would be loose retellings of Tamil horror movies that seemed to have taken a permanent place in their heads (and eventually in my head), and whether it was Yaar Nee? or Shanthinilayam, the hero would wake up every night in a damp, dilapidated bungalow and see a woman in black flowing hair adorned in jasmine, wearing a white sari, eerily roaming the corridor, her anklets softly jingling.  He follows her and when he finally catches up with her (or she allows him to) he sees, just before she turns around to show her face, that her feet don’t seem to touch the ground when she walks.

And then there’s a stifled shriek. Not from inside the movie but from inside the room -and that would be usually me: because one of my cousins had whipped her long black hair over her face, and her large eyes stared malevolently at me. The others shrieked with laughter. All the stories ended with one of my cousin sisters turning into the demon-woman. I was shocked several years later to see the same demon-woman (or her cousin sister) at the end of Ringu, crawling out of the television, her face covered by her flowing black hair. All you see is one large white eyeball through her hair.

It’s scarier than anything CGI can do for you. And then she made an appearance again in Ju-On. Hollywood horror movies had made me forget these familiar Indian ghost stories, and a Japanese movie of all things jolted me right back to my haunted childhood. And now Paranormal Activity 1 and 2 returns me to the same kind of horror atmosphere. It seems to me now that these haunted house tropes were not just South Asian or even Asian but more folkloric -the writer-director of the first Paranormal Activity is originally Israeli, not North American or European. Significant little detail, I should think.

Looking back at our own movies, I am grateful for Ram Gopal Varma who returned us to our own horror story roots in Peye. Instead of falling back on European or American horror movie conventions, Varma dipped into the cycle of horror stories we grew up hearing in our families.

Peye evokes all the stock folkloric archetypes found in our ghost stories: the woman in a white sari with anklets (who turns out to be a female revenant thirsting for revenge) the house that can be reached only through a graveyard, the mysterious caretaker who knows more than he’s telling and a lunatic who prowls the compound warning the new tenants to get out before it’s too late.

Peye opens with a spooky pre-credit sequence that sets the tone and mood of the film: a lone cyclist riding past a graveyard in the thick of the night. As the bicycle creaks away on a narrow, muddy lane (it's obviously a short-cut he should have never taken, the fool) he sees a woman in a white sari standing still by the roadside. She beckons to him and begins to walk - no, glide - into the graveyard and he gets off his cycle and follows her. And that of course is the end of him -but not before he notices that her feet are turned outward.

 Chandramukhi and Arundhati, two recent gigantic hits, referenced the other parallel tradition in our supernatural stories: the possessed-goddess woman, the black magic magician, and the battle between good and evil.  It doesn’t work as thoroughly for me as the archetypal ghost story, but it seems to grip the imagination of a large movie going public in India. In this genre, I preferred another low budget B-goddess-movie, Padai Vettu Aman. It belongs to a subgenre of South Indian cinema: the Amman movies or the ‘'goddess movies.’ These are basically devotional movies with a strong spiritual and supernatural elements underpinning the (apparent) song and dance plot.  They evoke or parallel the kind of religious iconography that you see in bazaar/calendar art.

In the 70s there was a sudden revival of devotional-supernatural cinema in South India, particularly in Telugu and Tamil cinema. And the audience filled the theatres to capacity, seeing it more as pilgrimage than entertainment. After Hollywood, I had dismissed these things as silly or belonging to my childhood, but when I encountered them in Peye and Bhoot (and more recently in the more derivative 13 B, Phoonk and Eeeram) I realised we had our own legitimate horror conventions and ought to, like the Japanese have in j-horror, find a way to channel them (using our own native ideas of terror and fantasy) for a more global audience.

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