Judge Bill Gibron found this delightfully deranged combination of Western horror and Eastern cinema to be a splendidly spicy, if slightly surreal, experience.
Please do not offer my God a peanut.
Purana Mandir ("The Old Temple"—1984):
Bandh Darwaza ("The Closed Door"—1990):
In the wide, weird world of horror, nothing comes close to the certifiable insanity of the Bollywood genre pic. It is here where an aesthetic criteria is applied, one that states unequivocally that consistency of tone and continuity of plot really don't matter, that cinematic categories like melodrama, fear, comedy, and action can successfully exist within a single story, and everything goes better with frequent interludes of song and dance. More or less a celebration of everything that makes movies magic, usually within a single two-hour-and-30-minute extravaganza, the typical Bollywood effort focuses on family, tradition, and folklore, with some occasional social commentary and cornball goofiness thrown in for good measure. Like the MGM spectacles of the Depression era, India's unique approach to film features a breathless knowledge of the art form's history while maintaining a clear commercial conceit. If a certain type of movie succeeds, the copycats flow forth at an alarming rate. Once a genre starts to slip at the box office, however, producers steer clear of the style, resorting to the trends that continue to rake in the rupees. Thus was the fate of fright in the Far East. Thanks to the efforts of the Ramsay brothers and their surprisingly successful 1984 film Purana Mandir, terror became a marketable commodity in Indian films. Oddly enough, the guys would more or less kill the genre with their 1990 send-off Bandh Darwaza.
Though the results may argue otherwise, Bollywood does not live in a vacuum. Constantly influenced by films from the West, the early '80s made a mark on Indian film when A Nightmare on Elm Street and The Evil Dead found their way to the territories. Either in censored big-screen versions, bootleg video tapes, and/or specially obtained prints for producers, the impact of these memorable monster movies on the nation's filmmakers was immediate. The fans fixated on the iconic Freddy Krueger while filmmakers focused on the cinematic invention inherit in Sam Raimi's demonic classic. Soon, such signature elements were turning up in all manner of Bollywood fare, with the Ramsays' Purana Mandir becoming the first Bollywood genre classic. Telling a familiar story (a cursed family suffers at the hands of a vengeful demon) and decked out in all manner of mind-bending ancillary subplots, this preposterous ghost story makes it easy to see why it's a success. Dealing with the age-old problem of parental disapproval and young love, the narrative jumps between sincerity and slapstick, the mildest of shivers, and the most strident of strictures. Honor, love, devotion, faith, heritage, humor, and a slight touch of spiritualism make for a movie that never ceases to amaze as it equally avoids making a damn bit of scary-movie sense.
As a beast, this version of Saamri is a hairy, hippie version of the smooth, cool cad we'll eventually see in Bandh Darwaza six years later. His crimes are laughably creative (loving and leaving young maidens, eating corpses to build his strength, etc.), but really play perfectly into the Indian concepts of superstition and belief. The contemporary material also balances the notion of city slickers vs. country bumpkins very well, including a tribal clan who appears to be unstuck in time and constantly struggling with the scars left after Saamri applied his curse. The young people at the center of the saga—the doomed couple and their more-or-less platonic friends—offer amusing variations on the theme of youth. Our hero, Sanjay, is a determined boy of minor means. His love, Suman, is a spoiled little rich girl who's good at screaming and acting incompetent. Sanjay's beefy buddy Anand is the kind of cartoon cad who spends available booty time doing push-ups, while his repressed gal pal practically throws herself at him in every suggestive way (up and to the limits of Indian censorship, that is). In addition, we meet a slutty native girl who basically flaunts her torso at Sanjay in a constant cleavage-thrusting manner as well as a kooky criminal whose main crime is constantly "raping" a more-than-willing 70-year-old matron.
From a pure filmmaking standpoint, Purana Mandir is all over the map. Tone shifts are so sudden that one can get a kind of metaphysical whiplash from the seismic shocks. The songs are absolutely priceless, an arcane amalgamation of traditional Indian musical cues and silly '80s synth pop. One particular highlight has an angry mob singing about the soon-to-be-completed ritual of human sacrifice. Most of the ballads are bland and syrupy, but the upbeat numbers classically feature fascinating choreography that propels the lyrics along magnificently. The acting here is excellent and, even though he's given little to do except glower and stomp around, Ajay Agarwal makes an impressive-looking demon. Eyes encased in uncomfortable red contacts and face a permanent grimace of fanged fury, he can be incredibly effective—and equally foolish—at any given moment. One thing's for certain, Bollywood believes in the kitchen sink approach to entertainment. If there are elements or ideas in Purana Mandir that bother or bore you, don't worry; another approach to the story is coming right around the corner.
It's odd then that, with its equally amusing attributes, Bandh Darwaza would lead to the end of the Bollywood horror genre. There is not much difference between the storyline here and the one presented in Purana. Saamri is back again, this time dooming an infertile woman and her female child to eternity as his slaves. The narrative again shifts in time, dealing with family heritage and doomed love as a kind of dramatic given. The whole concept of Black Mountain, its localized evil, and the wickedness that can be drawn into everyday life is intriguing, since it gives the story a wonderfully ethereal quality. Again, the music is mind-blowing. All action will simply stop dead so that a lover can pine away for her man or a couple can curse the day that fate brought them together. One of Darwaza's more disturbing elements is a servant named Gupi who is so horny he spends the first half of the film peeping and groping every gal he sees. His Benny Hill/Chesperito level of facial mugging and nonstop sexual chatter is perhaps the most repugnant aspect of this otherwise genial effort.
Again, the horror here is more atmospheric than dire dread reckoning. We are never really frightened by Saamri, his death mask façade constantly exposing those elongated incisors. Instead, the menacing mood the Ramsays create is wonderful, and the sets have the feeling of actual ancient temples and forbidden crypts (this is especially true of the castle location of Purana). On the downside, there is a lot of repetition to the storytelling. Saamri attacks, wins a minor battle or two, is temporarily defeated, and things reset, only to start all over again. The finale is also a little forced, a conclusion coming out of the clear blue when a member of the demon's gang gives away the secret to his immortality (Oops!). The ending does go on a little too long, and the lack of any oddball musical moments (like Purana's prayer to Shiva that signals the start of the concluding confrontation) means it's strictly standard action throughout. Still, the two-and-a-half-hour running time passes by quickly, and the level of invention and affection for the material is palpable. The Ramsays were obviously enamored with Western horror and simply filtered it through their own unique sensibilities. The results are monster movies unlike any you've ever seen before. Simultaneously strange, sinister, silly, and sumptuous, the pair of features that make up The Bollywood Horror Collection: Volume 1 argue for India as a clear creative competitor in the international race for fear frontrunner.
World cinema mavens Mondo Macabro need to be celebrated for bringing these totally bizarre fright flicks to English-speaking audiences. Each movie is battered, beaten, and delivered in a worn-out and defect-filled 1.33:1 full-screen transfer. Since Indian cinema is in the market to make money, not preserving its own legacy, such crappy prints are understandable, and with the company's clever title cards explaining the scenic situation to DVD aficionados, the lack of pristine images is acceptable. On the sound side of things, the Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo presentation is really just a middling Mono mix spread out over two channels. Dialogue is clearly understood, and the translations are uniformly excellent. Sadly, the musical numbers are flat and tinny with very little of the digital dynamics we've come to expect from the medium. As for extras, Mondo Macabro provides a couple of text-based looks at the Ramsays and Bollywood horror, as well as a documentary (taken from a truncated TV show) on Indian/Pakistani film and the legend of Saamri in the country's genre history. All the added content is excellent, giving us insight and explanations into how horror became a profitable form of filmmaking and, more importantly, how oversaturation more or less killed it.
As an initial sampling of what one Eastern nation thought was the height of terror, The Bollywood Horror Collection: Volume 1 is tremendous fun. While you might not find the hairs on the back of your neck rising in red-hot fear, you will definitely discover enough enjoyment to tickle your ribs and tempt your entertainment tendencies.
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Scales of Justice, Purana Mandir
Perp Profile, Purana Mandir
Studio: Mondo Macabro
Distinguishing Marks, Purana Mandir
Scales of Justice, Bandh Darwaza
Perp Profile, Bandh Darwaza
Studio: Mondo Macabro
Distinguishing Marks, Bandh Darwaza
• Documentary on South Asian Horror
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