Ram Gopal Varma on pressing the scare button in his recent horror films
Director Roman Polanski’s Apartment trilogy—which included the movies Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant—exploited man’s fear of the unknown. Repulsion is about a shy girl left alone in an apartment when her sister takes off for a vacation, who feeds on her own out-of-control paranoia; Rosemary’s Baby brings in witchcraft, Satan worship and the fear of others conspiring against one; and The Tenant makes the protagonist question his own sanity. Polanski nailed the psychological thriller/horror genre, and while none of his movies had traditional ‘ghosts’, characters were always fighting their own.
Though in no way comparable, director Ram Gopal Varma’s horror stint has focused on much the same formula. As he lounges in his office in Lokhandwala before the release of his latest, Bhoot Returns 3D, he says, “There are some things we remain scared of—what may be under the bed, what’s waiting for you in the wardrobe, or who may be sitting on the backseat of your car. These are the fears I work on.” He started with 1992’s Raat, starring Revathi, which was about possession of a human by a ghost, but his masterpiece was Kaun, which deals with a young woman (Urmila Matondkar) in a house who gets paranoid after hearing that a killer is on the loose. His next, Bhoot, dealt with a couple shifting to an apartment where a woman had committed suicide after killing her son. And then came Phoonk, which dealt with black magic, and Agyaat (inspired by The Blair Witch Project), where a film unit is killed by an unseen force in a forest. Bhoot Returns 3D brings a family of four to a bungalow that has a horrible secret. And the protagonist is the couple’s daughter. What sets Varma’s style apart could be his camera angles, often giving an unusual view of a scene, and thus evoking dread. It could also be that his stories are often set in seemingly normal surroundings, like apartments in the middle of a crowded city, making the scenario just a bit too real. “The angles are to make sure we don’t see anything that’s level with the human eye. It makes you feel that whoever is watching is not human,” he says.
The director says his passion for horror took form when he watched the Ramsay Brothers’ Do Gaz Zameen Ke Neeche as a child. It was also The Exorcist, which he can still watch at any given time, that gave impetus to his fascination with the supernatural. “Horror is also very emotional and dramatic, and that draws me to it. Psychological horror is even more effective when the person who you are scared of could also be the person you love. Where do you run then?” In the case of Bhoot Returns, a little girl (Alayana Sharma) is the one the ghost seems interested in. The trouble starts after she finds a doll and starts playing with an imaginary friend. “Aren’t women and little kids the most scary? I feel that’s because you don’t expect anything bad of these people. There is an unexpected fear—imagine opening the door at 3 am and seeing a little girl or a beautiful woman smiling. That would scare you.” He makes a good point. He was amazed at how the little girl he cast knew exactly what to do. “I actually felt that some ghosts were helping me as I made this movie. The little girl reacted perfectly. And when you are shooting a horror film, everything starts coming alive. Even the house we shot in seemed alive. The little girl actually asked her father why Manisha aunty [Koirala who plays the little girl’s mother] was so scared of her. It was all very real.”