Thursday, July 9, 2020

Paranormal Bollywood
When I first joined this blog, it was mainly with the intent of talking about the fantasy genre because that is what, as an author, I prefer to write. I didn't mean to turn myself into ATB's de facto Bollywood representative. But here I am again, unapologetically fan-girling. This time, though, I'll at least try to maneuver this post into my usual wheelhouse by talking about fantasy in Bollywood movies.

As a genre, particularly in the way US consumers define it, fantasy and/or science-fiction in Bollywood isn't common. There have been a few attempts at super-hero films that have achieved mixed results and mixed reviews (see Krrish and Ra One as examples). One of my most favorite Shah Rukh Khan films is Peheli, where Shah Rukh plays a romantic and mischievous spirit very similar to a djinn. He uses his magic to help win the heart of the girl with whom he is smitten. However, compared to Krrish and Ra One, it's a simpler, quieter film that relies more on Shah Rukh's particular charm and less on special effects and big action sequences.

English-language fantasy/sci-fi movies sometimes do really well in India (such as the Avengers franchise), so it's not entirely true that there isn't an audience for the subject matter. There are many social and economic reasons why big-budget fantasy and sci-fi movies aren't being made in India at the same rate as in other parts of the world, and there's a great article on it here: Bollywood Fantasy Films Still a Distant Reality? I won't spend my time rephrasing what The Asian Age has to say. Instead, I want to focus on one place where the paranormal genre is blooming and flourishing in Bollywood, and that's in the horror movie industry.

We have several horror authors here at ATB who can talk about the genre with more understanding, nuance, and expertise than me. But just because I don't write it doesn't mean I don't consume it. I love horror and have since I was a kid. Ask my mom how many times I made her read me The Berenstain Bears and the Spooky Old Tree (Do they Dare?!?!).

As much as I love Bollywood for its unabashed appetite for romance and happy endings, I also love it for how enthusiastically it embraces the opposite of all that.  I was inspired to write this post after recently participating in a Netflix watch party. Several friends and I watched and critiqued Betaal, a new Hindi-language release on Netflix (There are 4 episodes but it's easily binge-able in a single afternoon). I was particularly excited to see it when the trailer revealed that it appeared to deal with zombie-like creatures, and zombies have always been one of my favorite horror tropes.
Hired to displace tribal villagers, several highway officials unearth an old curse and an army of British soldier-zombies. The movie is set in a remote village that serves as the battleground between East India Company Army officer Lt. Col John Lynedoch, his battalion of zombie redcoats from the Indian Rebellion of 1857, and the fictional CIPD, a modern para-military/police force.

The story explores obvious anti-colonialist sentiments, but also military corruption, mistreatment of
indigenous people, complicity, and Indian mythology. It employs a lot of practical effects, particularly with the make-up, which I love, since I'm not a huge fan of CGI. Although it never set out to be funny, there were some fantastic unexpected moments of humor that literally had everyone in the watch party howling. We all want T-shirts that say, “Hard Brexit, Matachod!”  But I guess you'll have to watch the movie to get that joke.
We also loved the music score and the atmospheric cinematography.

If you're interested in dipping your toe into the water with some shorter paranormal Hindi tales, I also recommend Ghost Stories, a four part horror anthology on Netflix with a literal a monster story, a psychological/metaphysical thriller, and two completely different kinds of ghost stories.

I'd be absolutely remiss if I failed to recommend Tumbaad, one of the best horror films (regardless of it being Hindi) that I've seen in a long time.

Set in British India village of Tumbbad, Maharashtra in the 1920s, three generations of a family face horrifying consequences when they build a temple for the first-born of a goddess, named Hastar--he who must not be worshiped.

Hastar is a terrible entity who can curse a person yet also can grant gold coins.  The myth of Hastar is, when the Goddess of Prosperity created the world she gave birth to Hastar followed by 16 Crore Gods and Goddesses. Hastar being her first born was her favorite child, but Hastar was very greedy. When the Goddess of Prosperity offered Hastar the ownership of all the gold in the universe or all the food, he took the gold as well as tried to take over the food in his greed fighting with his brothers and sisters. The 16 crore gods and goddesses overpowered Hastar and when they tried to kill him, the Goddess of Prosperity intervened and begged for his life. The 16 crore gods and goddesses accepted her request on one condition, that Hastar will never be mentioned in the Puranas nor he should be ever worshiped.

Starring Sohum Shah in the lead role as Vinayak Rao, it follows the story of his search for Hastar's hidden treasure, and the consequences of mindless, violent greed. 

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