Review By: David Austin
The Ramsay Brothers are the undisputed kings of Bolly-horror. For a period of some 10-20 years during the 80s and early 90s, this family enterprise churned out dozens of sleazy movies filled with things that go bump in the dark. Certain elements are de rigeur. You need a) one group of young attractive friends with a reason to be out in the countryside, b) one hideous monster to stalk and kill the group, c) an element of supernatural curse or connection between the monster and the some or all members of the cast, d) a bad comedy subplot. Now, that’s not to say that the Ramsays could never do anything different. 1981‘s Ghunghroo Ki Awaaz is actually a rather well-crafted take on Les Diaboliques and Vertigo that relies more on atmosphere, character and subtle chills than gore and latex. However, the beating heart of the Ramsay’s filmography lies in footage of rubber-faced monsters pursuing buxom starlets through creepy mansions.
Pete Tombs pointed out in his essential guide, Mondo Macabro, that the Ramsay brand of horror is also extremely disreputable, and that requests for their work, even at packed Indian video stores, are met with a cold shoulder. Having tried for myself, I can confirm this to be the case. Aside from the late period horror film Dhund: The Fog, released in 2003, no Ramsay films are for sale in my usual haunts, and only a few horror movies are available, period. Therefore, this DVD set is especially welcome. Finally, western audiences can revel in the seamy pleasures of Purana Mandir and Bandh Darwaza, two excellent examples of the Ramsay style.
The two films on display are effectively bookends to the era of the Ramsays. Purana Mandir was an enormous success and started their dominance, while the technically superior Bandh Darwaza came at the tail end of the horror boom. (See Jeff’s review of Hotel here for a Ramsay film that predates the popularity of Purana Mandir.)
AKA: The Old Temple
Purana Mandir is the original, the ur-Ramsay horror film, the one that kicked off the 80s horror boom. The pattern set in this film, a blockbuster hit, is the pattern that both the Ramsays and their imitators would follow in dozens (if not more) subsequent movies.
Purana Mandir kicks off with what amounts to a fairly grand flashback, considering the extremely limited budget. Set in the past, the prologue shows us how the Moghul Sultan of Bijapur captured and executed a fiend called Saamri. Saamri was eventually defeated through the power of the Trishul (a significant Hindu religious symbol in the form of a trident, associated with the god Shiva). Ignoring the local guru’s eminently reasonable suggestion that Saamri be burned, the Sultan instead chose to permanently separate Saamri’s head from his body. In return, Saamri declaimed a terrible curse – as long as his head and body are separate all of the Sultan’s female heirs will die in childbirth, and when the two are reunited, the Sultan’s line will end.
Flash forward 200 years and we find ourselves in the mid-80s (though Indian cinema fashion being what it is, the 70s are still alive). The Sultan’s great-great-great-(etc.)-grand-daughter Suman (played by perky Aarti Gupta) is in love with Sanjay (Mohnish Baal), but her father, plagued by visions of Saamri, cannot bear to see her wed, knowing it means her death. When he reveals his reasons, Suman, Sanjay, Sanjay’s friend Anand (Puneet Issar), and Anand’s girlfriend Sapna, head out to the country to solve the curse. There, staying in the Sultan’s ancient palace, they encounter caretaker Durjan and his mute mother. What they don’t know is that Durjan is conspiring to find treasure in the palace, and that his efforts will disturb the homicidal Saamri.
Purana Mandir is possibly the sleaziest Indian film I’ve ever seen, aside from Babbar Subhash’s Tarzan (that said, I haven’t delved into the sordid world of Indian erotic film, nor do I intend to). Though it adheres to the basic ground-rules of Indian film – no kissing, no nudity – and though I have certainly seen many Indian films and musical numbers that were genuinely sexier (Sridevi in Mr. India or Bipasha Basu in Omkara just to name a few examples), Purana Mandir is imbued with a grimy salaciousness that just does not quit. We’re treated to many scenes of Gupta in her bathing suit, and a lengthy shower scene (in said bathing suit of course). The camera spends so much time zooming right up on female anatomy that you’d think you were watching a Japanese game show. Sanjay is introduced snapping sexy shots of Suman, and Sapna fantasizes about Anand in a scene that is just shy of crossing the line. The plot also tends to wander, in fairly typical Indian fashion. There is a comic relief subplot, a subplot involving local tribespeople, and Saamri is not even revived until well into the film’s running time.
Despite and, in part, because of its trashier elements, Purana Mandir is tons of fun. Aarti Gupta is extremely attractive and Sanjay makes for an adequate leading man. Puneet Issar, who looks oddly similar to Freddie Mercury, was clearly cast for his martial arts abilities, which are genuinely head and shoulders above those of most Indian action stars of the era (not that he would make it in Hong Kong). Action is plentiful and well-staged, and the film generally moves along at a good clip when comic relief Jagdeep is not around to bog things down.
Most importantly, Saamri, as played by Ajay Agarwal, makes a great villain. Saamri does not spend that much time on screen but when he does, he hits like a ton of bricks. Agarwal’s Saamri is like a hairy force of nature, storming out of the forest to brutally attack the unlucky. The Ramsays make excellent use of their creation, shrouding him in darkness and fog. While much of Purana Mandir has taken on a comical air over the intervening years, Saamri remains an effective and diabolical creation.
The strangest thing about Purana Mandir is the comic relief. The film features the incredibly annoying and unfunny Jagdeep, who has tortured me with his comedy stylings on a number of occasions. However, instead of the usual stupid slapstick and wordplay, the Ramsays built in an entire unmistakable parody of Sholay, perhaps India’s most popular film ever, complete with an armless Thakur preparing his studded shoes. Jagdeep plays the role of dacoit (bandit) Gabbar Singh, the most famous villain in Bollywood history, pursuing a now-70 year old Basanti. All this is further complicated by the fact that Jagdeep actually played the comic relief in Sholay itself, where he parodied Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. I’m not saying it’s funny, because it’s most definitely not, but at least the Sholay elements add a “what the !*%?” flavor to Jagdeep’s usual tiresome routines.
AKA: The Closed Door
Bandh Darwaza finds the Ramsays at the height of their filmmaking power, and paradoxically the ebb of their box office success. In most respects (other than Saamri and Aarti Gupta), Bandh Darwaza is a superior film. It may well be the umpteen millionth vampire story, but the filmmakers avoid tedious repetition by never explicitly referring to their monster as a vampire (despite the teeth, and the burning sunlight, and all that) and by throwing out all the Dracula mythos in favor of a traditional Ramsay plot. Frankly, I’m happier that way - I’ve seen more than enough Goth revisionist vampire films. Most importantly, Bandh Darwaza makes up for its lack of originality with plain old fun.
The plot, like that of Purana Mandir, starts with a prologue. The wife of the Thakur (local nobility and landlords) is unable to have a child, so she visits Black Mountain, where an evil cult worships a dark master (Ajay Agarwal). The Master impregnates her himself, with the caveat that a female child must be rendered up to him. When a female child is born and the mother refuses to give her up, the cult poisons the mother, leading the Thakur to visit a terrible vengeance on the cult and on the Master.
Sometime later, the daughter, Kaamya, has grown up into an oversexed brat who is obsessed with hairy Kumar, the local stud. Unfortunately for her, Kumar is in love with Sapna, and even her attempts at sweaty spandex and waterfall seductions fail to bring him around (which I can understand, because while she may not have hit every branch, Kaamya’s at least on close terms with the ugly tree). Sapna, on the other hand, is upset with Kaamya’s constant interference in her relationship, and the frustrations of the love triangle eventually send Kaamya into the arms of her father’s cult. Soon the Master is revived and stalking the countryside with his gang of cultists, and it’s up to Kumar and his friends to stop him.
It is interesting to see how the Ramsays had refined their formula in just a few short years. First, Bandh Darwaza is much less of a masala movie - a cooking term for a multiple spices that is applied to films combining elements of comedy, music, action and so forth. Musical numbers are still present but in reduced numbers, comic relief is largely absent, and the plot stays on a fairly steady track from start to finish instead of meandering from tangent to tangent. Stylistically, the Ramsays did not really apply any new tricks – they still rely largely on atmospheric fog and lighting, gothic sets, and canted camera angles – and the special effects are not a marked improvement over Purana Mandir (unless you count swiping the soundtrack from Friday the 13th as a special effect).
The cast is not quite as strong as in Purana Mandir, but they do a serviceable job. Sapna is very cute and no shrinking violet – she does not hesitate to kick a little butt when required. Ajay Agarwal shines again as the creepy Master, his enormous veined head and red eyes evoke Christopher Lee in Horror of Dracula, but take the vampire in an entirely more hideous direction. Kumar, unfortunately, is the textbook definition of a lunkhead – it’s not too far a stretch for the actor when he has to play a hypnotized patsy. This may be a first, but I’m even going to say something nice about comedian Johnny Lever. His role in the film only lasts about 4-5 minutes total. Thank you, Johnny, for performing with such … alacrity.
Overall, Bandh Darwaza is textbook Ramsay horror, applying all of their strengths to create a tremendously fun little horror film. Even at its not inconsiderable length, it never ceases to entertain.
Recommended? Absolutely, both as a curiosity and because these movies are flat-out fun. It’s a perfect starter set into the genre.
If you like this, you might like: Hotel, Ghunghroo Ki Awaaz, Raat, Nagin, Zinda Laash, Mystics of Bali, The Seventh Curse, Devi Maa, Nagina
DVD Production Company: Mondo Macabro (www. mondomacabrodvd.com)
The Region 1 DVD is presented in the original 1.33:1 fullscreen ratio, with the original Hindi soundtrack and English subtitles. To be frank, the pictures look pretty beat up. That said, Mondo Macabro had the courtesy to put in a disclaimer explaining that they worked with the best elements possible. Speaking from personal experience, it could be much worse. The previous version of Bandh Darwaza I saw truly makes Mondo Macabro’s look impressive by comparison. As with MM’s release of Tarkan, the picture may not be pretty but it’s a quantum leap above what was available before. You’re not likely to see these films in better condition any time soon, if ever.
Mondo Macabro has assembled an excellent selection of extras that help to put these films in their proper context. Most useful is a 13 minute featurette entitled “Freddy, Jason and … Saamri” featuring Pakistani internet critic Omar Khan (his website, The Hot Spot Online is an invaluable resource for Bollywood and Lollywood cinema buffs) who discusses the cultural relevance of Purana Mandir and Bandh Darwaza. Next up is a repeat presentation of the fun Mondo Macabro documentary on South Asian cinema. This 25 minute feature focuses on Hindi horror of the 1980s, Pakistani action films of the 1990s, and the recent boom in CGI-enhanced mythological devotional films of Southern India (I personally recommend Naag Shakti and Devi Maa, which features a giant skeleton that emits the classic Godzilla roar). Finally, there are two essays from Pete Tombs, one discussing the history of the Ramsay family and another detailing Indian film conventions and discussing the Sholay connection.
© David Austin
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