Who's afraid of Shyam Ramsay

A chopped hand claiming innocent lives. A black cat driving Premier Padmini. The Ramsays have been the unbeaten kings of seedy horror films. Aastha Atray Banan meets the brain behind such inanities

Photo: MS Gopal

SHYAM RAMSAY looks too genial to be making horror movies. With a rotund, smiling face, he seems intent on scaring the heebie jeebies out of you. And although the cult Ramsay name has become synonymous with seedy horror movies, there is nothing creepy about the director. He even offers this reporter a role in his next movie, maybe his version of a good deed. He has just returned from Nashik where he went to gauge the reaction of the audience to his new film Bachao, which follows the shenanigans of a film crew shooting a horror film who realise there are real ghosts on the sets. He tells us why bachcha bachcha knows the Ramsay name — “It’s not just about horror. We have got more. Sex, comedy and songs — can a horror film get any better?”

He could be right. When one thinks of horror, every true blue movie lover in India chants the Ramsay name. It all started in 1972, when Shyam and his famous family made the hit, Do Gaz Zameen ke Neeche. The late 1970s saw films such as Darwaza and Guest House. In the 1980s, they gave hits like Sannata, Purana Mandir, Haveli, Saamri, Veerana and Shaitani Ilaaka. The heroes of these movies were spirits and deformed creatures and the victims were barely clad women and lost-in-the-middle-of-nowhere couples. Though none of them would admit it today, many big names have worked with the Ramsay banner — be it Rakesh Roshan, Deepak Parashar, Raza Murad, Kiran Kumar, Navin Nischol and Javed Jaffrey.
The Ramsays truly became a household name with the Zee Horror Show, that gave television its cheesiest horror show ever. Film critic Raja Sen says the Ramsays offered a vivid sense of the surreal to the audiences. “They followed the tradition of the Hammer horror films from the UK. My earliest Ramsay memory is seeing a black cat drive a Premier Padmini,” he says.
Ramsay, 58, realised early that he was going to be a maker of the macabre. Hollywood film Dracula, the first horror movie he watched, set the cogs in his brain moving. “I was fascinated by Dracula, Frankenstein and Werewolf. I used to read plenty of horror stories and even took inspiration from news reports either about unsolved murders or ghostly sightings,” he says. And though his father FU Ramsay, who fled from Karachi to Mumbai, was known for films such as Rustom Sohrab (1963), Shyam and his brothers had other plans. Tulsi directed the first few and then started writing, Keshu, who passed away recently, handled production, Arjun production design, Kumar story and screenplay, Gangu dealt with cinematography and sound, while Shyam stuck to direction. “People watch horror movies because they need a break from all the drama. Why do you go on a roller coaster ride? For the rush, right? Well watching horror movies gives you the same rush. We also have another important ingredient — sex. We don’t want you to get too scared. That’s why we have a young seductress in our films,” he says.
His confidence is contagious. It’s also true that Ramsay films have never pulled in the multiplex crowd. Maybe because their films became repetitive slews — a car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, the couple in it finds a haveli with a deformed caretaker and as they get down and dirty on a massive bed, the monsters creep out of the woodwork. “These tried and tested environments work. People in villages still believe in witches and say that a woman is a witch if her feet are turned backwards. In metros too, people may not be as superstitious but everyone believes in evil spirits.”
Though the elite in the metros would never strut in their Jimmy Choos for a Ramsay film premiere, the banner has its fans in the Tier 2 and 3 cities. “Our films do well in Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. That’s why we are still able to sustain ourselves,” says Shyam candidly, adding, “Even the industry is proud of us. We are one of the rare families that have become a household name.”

‘People watch horror films as they need a break from drama. We have another important ingredient — sex,’ says Shyam Ramsay

Their genre has been flooded with snazzily produced movies such as Ram Gopal Verma’s Bhoot and Vikram Bhatt’s Raaz in the past few years. Shyam is in awe of these directors. “After watching Bhoot, I was happy to know there are directors who are keeping the genre alive. For many years, we have had no competition, but now I am always on my toes.” And though the Ramsays can’t compete with the Karan Johars, their resilience has to be applauded as they have to make do with much lesser. SV Srinivas, a film theorist at the Bengaluru-based Centre for the Study of Culture and Society, says, “They are a curious mixture of Christian notions of afterlife and evil and Indian mythology, which reveals itself in the form of the sexual devil woman. Technically, their only draw could be the kind of make-up they do. But the most fun about these movies was the predictability.”
HIS LAST MONTH’S release Bachao was touted as India’s first comedy-horror film, but it failed to create any ripples. But Shyam seems undeterred. “Our next movie will have even better effects. We are not going anywhere,” he says. The star of Bachao, Shakti Kapoor, who has been a constant in many of the Ramsay films, blames the failure on lack of publicity. “Bachao was not publicised properly. But Shyam is a great director. Who is RGV or Vikram Bhatt? Shyam is their father,” he says. Actress Archana Puran Singh, who became a household name thanks to the Zee Horror Show, feels “it’s sad that in India, they have not got their due”. “Maybe the next generation of Ramsays should take over and reinvent the banner,” she adds.
Already putting the fate of Bachao behind him, Shyam seems ready to charge ahead. “If there is day, there has to be night. If there is God, there has to be evil. And that’s what I want to reveal. Horror is my only calling and I will fulfill it all the way through.”