Don’t laugh: it began with a Tumblr post. Scrolling through, an eerie clip caught my eye—a bloody, sea-reflected sunset, the sudden attack of a struggling statue (Bernini’s The Rape Of Proserpina) shoved to the fore with an otherworldly wail and jaguar howl. What was this? The only clue was writhing block print: RAMSAY FILMS. Brief digging revealed it was a production logo of the Ramsays, a seven-son filmmaking squad who, overseen by patriarch/producer Fatehchand U. Ramsay (F.U. for short), pioneered horror filmmaking in India.
Outside India, the Ramsays seem critically unknown. Despite breaking ground in a cult genre, no New York film buff I asked had ever heard of them. It’s not too surprising considering the Ramsays occupy a cinematic blind spot in their own country. Industry outsiders lacking the influence and resources of bigger studios, whose films were too populist (and formulaic) to ever be critical darlings, the Ramsays were dismissed as background schlock for canoodling couples, not film history. Their movies lifted directly from Indian and European formulas, applying genre-blending masala conventions to Hammer horror tropes with a workmanlike approach prioritizing efficiency over artistry. The films definitely show their age (though the period-specific clothing and music is part of their charm) and modern viewers might wonder how anyone was ever scared by clearly telegraphed monster appearances with musical interludes. But despite recycled effects, predictable plots, and plenty of “day-for-night” photography that looks like it's 2:30 PM, there’s something endearing about these movies. If horror is where a culture’s id runs rampant, the Ramsays captured the fears and fantasies of a recently secularized country grappling with its ancient past, colonial legacy, and Westernized ideas of modernity during a turbulent era.
F.U.’s clever way of skirting India’s strong film unions was keeping it in the family—though all chipped in as needed, each brother registered as a different department of the family’s low-budget filmmaking machine: Kumar wrote, Keshu produced, Kiran managed sound, cinematographer Gangu set up lights and operated the 16mm Arriflex, Arjun edited (but often got only an A.D. credit), and Shyam and Tulsi shared directing duties (with Tulsi focused on ensuring the film had enough comedy and sex to balance the horror). They churned out nearly a movie a year (sometimes more) from 1972 to 1996, becoming industry dark horses whose box office couldn’t be ignored. Their name remains as synonymous with horror as Stephen King's—and also as maligned (just as bestselling King doesn’t come up among the literati, the Ramsays, despite scaring more than two generations, aren’t cinema).There were certainly earlier Hindi films with horror elements, like 1949’s haunting romance-reincarnation Mahal, or 1971 thriller Kuheli, based on Bengali nishi lore. There was even a 1965 Agatha Christie-inspired murder mystery Gumnaam (1965), whose sprightly number “Jaan Pehechan Ho” opens Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World (2001). But none crossed into full-fledged monster/slasher territory until the Ramsay’s 1972 hit Do Gaz Zameen Ke Neeche (Two Yards Under the Ground), when a betrayed scientist returns from the grave to avenge his death.
Simultaneously new and formulaic, the brothers shook up an industry stuck in a rut of repetitive, increasingly bloated romantic fare. How monotone was it? During the 70s and 80s when the Ramsays were in top form, mainstream Hindi cinema was so dominated by actor Amitabh Bachchan that François Truffaut dubbed him a “one-man industry.”
F.U. Ramsay came to India during 1947’s Partition, which displaced millions following the split of India into Pakistan along religious lines. Independence from Britain cemented an already-idiosyncratic Indian cinema, isolating it further from European cinema tradition to develop its own form, sans stable infrastructure. Most Americans mistake “Bollywood” for a genre, when it’s just one faction of a diverse, and to this day quite regionally-based cinema that includes West Bengal’s Tollywood, Punjabi Pollywood (operating since 1926 and deeply affected by Partition), and Tamil’s Kollywood, the second largest industry in the region with its own megastars like Rajinikanth.
Taken as a whole, India’s film industry is far more prolific than Hollywood: 2000-ish films a year and 2 billion dollars in ticket sales annually, versus Hollywood’s loose 600 films/1.3 million dollars in tickets. It’s also a mistake to imagine Hindi cinema akin to Hollywood distribution; it was only in the late 80s and early 90s that corporatization created a more standardized system. Before then, established producers worked parallel to small-time investors looking to shuffle capital and make a quick buck. So a resettled electronics repairman wanting to get into moviemaking wasn’t as strange (or as artistic) a goal as you might think. Unfortunately for F.U., his early films were flops. But his sons went to see his 1970 thriller Ek Nanhi Munhi Ladki Thi (There Was A Little Girl) with audiences and what they saw at the theater changed their lives.
A tale of object obsession starring Prithviraj Kapoor, the film opens with a daring museum robbery. A bleeding, ghoulish creature steps out from the darkness, startling arriving police. Their bullets bounce off the hideous giant. Only after his getaway is a mask pulled off, revealing the star. After that it’s a standard thriller, but the Ramsay boys noticed the audience perk up during the frightening scene. They reported to F.U. “Public cheekhti hai"/"The public screams,”1 and suggested they make one more film, a full-blown horror. Ever-indulgent, F.U. had his sons read Five Cs of Cinematography (Joseph V. Mascelli), which ended up being the entirety of their formal filmmaking education. After that it was on-the-job training.
Here’s the standard Ramsay film: a young, clearly-in-love couple leave the city for the country, impelled by a lingering family curse or just to get away. There they discover a not-so-ancient evil, one or two generations removed, which no relative thought to kill way back when. Fog rolls, taxidermy looms, the monster strikes. The lovers sing their feelings for each other. A comic side-plot of a randy housekeeper or an angry villager unfolds. More terrorizing abounds, until the monster is ultimately destroyed with the help of or (as with the lightning-strike cross-stabbing of 1989’s Purani Haveli) by a higher power. Fans of potent giallo lighting and Dark Shadows’ lo-fi gothic horror will find much to love. And 80s horror buffs will find even more: Hotel (1981) is a creative reworking of Poltergeist’s (1982) premise—an unscrupulous contractor determined to build on a not-so-ancient burial ground ropes others into his crooked scheme, each getting their comeuppance at the hands of the disturbed dead. Mahakaal (1994) was heavily “inspired by” Nightmare On Elm Street (1984), and Veerana (1989) goes full-meta with comedy provided by a “horror filmmaker” who sips his evening milk from a skull. The cutaway to his latest spooky idea is a straight lift of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers' (1978) dog with human face, recontextualized as cursed daughter—the Ramsays in a nutshell.
Lifting Western horror conventions, the brothers would occasionally replace Christianity with Hindu trappings, but really, any religion would do—Bandh Darwaza (Closed Door) (1990) is closest to a Hammer Dracula film, but in one ridiculous scene the vampire is repelled in rapid succession by a Koran, cross, Om, and finally Shiva’s trident.
The films are studies in contradiction—modern city folk are killed due to lack of belief in the supernatural, but also because they left the safety of dense urban areas for the hinterlands, where there are roving criminal gangs, antagonistic villagers, and in one of Purana Mandir’s many plot detours, a band of vicious “natives” hunting down stray women. To paraphrase the sage, the same places the Ramsays found their audience were portrayed on screen as “the cause of, and solution to, all life’s problems.”
Ramsay films operated outside the monopolies of prestigious theater exhibition circuits, aiming instead for 2-3 weeks at smaller Bombay theaters before hitting rural areas. “Jahaan pe train bhi nahin rukti hain na, wahaan business hota tha humara” (Places where even the trains don’t stop, that’s where our business was), said Tulsi.2 They ensured profit with their “No Stars, No Cars” approach, the cast taking state buses to set. Their mom and wives catered, actors’ own clothing was sourced for wardrobe, and the same locations and props appear so often they deserve their own credit. But for all their notable thrift the Ramsays spent money where they thought it counted: the monsters. They outsourced creature creation to British prosthetic artist Christopher Tucker, the genius who transformed John Hurt in The Elephant Man (1980) and created The Company of Wolves’ (1984) skin-tearing wolf metamorphosis. A similar amount of cash and attention was spent on evil idols, frequently the monsters’ power source, often destroyed in a fiery finale seemingly at odds with Ramsay frugality. “Of course. Where would we keep them? In our houses?” said Shyam.3
The low overhead and niche audience protected them from shifts that laid the establishment low—their biggest hit, Purana Mandir (Ancient Temple) (1984), came at the nadir of an industry reeling from home video, piracy, and bloat, despite its theatrical run being briefly interrupted by the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The film, about a demonic magician’s curse dooming a family’s women to die horribly during childbirth, seems an on-the-nose metaphor for modernity fears in the wake of Gandhi’s Emergency, a 21-month period from 1975-77, where civil liberties were suspended to consolidate her political power and human rights violations, including forced male sterilization, were reported.
Speaking of modernity fears, state censorship came down unevenly once popularity raised the Ramsays’ profile, and especially hard on Veerana (1988), coincidentally the only Ramsay film with a female monster, a churel, who lures men sexually before slaying them. For movies accused of scandalous sexuality, Gangu’s camera certainly lingers on its female leads, but they also shower with bathing suits on. The horny teens of American slashers can’t exist in India—youths are constantly going to, living with, and are surrounded by, their extended family. In another convention confusing to Americans, the emotional focus in Ramsay (and many Bollywood) films isn’t on the individual per se, but the family, and that is what monsters threaten—family potential for continued growth and happiness. When lovers finally unite, it’s usually at the altar, with a proud papa or uncle hovering nearby to sanction it.
Films like 1978’s Darwaza (The Door), about a family attacked by a lame-looking ghoul born of a vengeful villager’s curse, never aimed at art, even if individual brothers took pride in their work. Tulsi judged each film’s success on whether he or his brothers could buy a car or house with the film’s money; if not, failure. This, combined with all profits pooled and handed out via F.U., is what led brother Keshu to strike out on his own around 1985. To establish himself as a moderately successful action/suspense producer, he had to drop the Ramsay name.
Towards the mid-90s, the Ramsays’ film success slowed. Sensing the changing winds (and widespread popularity of satellite TV), they successfully jumped to television with Zee Horror, a weekly show running for nine years. It was later recycled and rebranded as Anhonee, terrorizing a whole new audience.
The next generation of Ramsays are also deeply involved in film, with daughters and sons acting, producing, writing, and directing. Tulsi’s son Deepak took the initiative to collect negatives and digitize the family’s films. He also made profitable deals with YouTube and other sites for streaming rights, and, realizing the cult cash potential, reached out to Canada’s Mondo Macabro for further distribution. With easy Ramsay accessibility just a search bar away, it’s time to re-disturb the dead and tune in.