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Raj Kumar Kohli and the big-budget supernatural thriller

Today, the supernatural thriller, almost a lost genre, lacks the awe-inspiring or wacky ideas which made it a dominant genre in the 1980s and 1990s. Rajkumar Kohli was one of the rare filmmakers who tackled this genre consistently. On the anniversary (14 September) of the release of his infamous Jaani Dushman: Ek Anokhi Kahaani, we look at the filmmaker's penchant for big-budget, multi-starrer supernatural thrillers.

Shriram Iyengar

The success of the Raaz series is an anomaly in Hindi cinema today. The film series, based on supernatural plots, has succeeeded in reviving a genre that was often regarded as inferior to mainstream cinema. This branding often left horror films without any prominent stars to power them at the theatres. Films by the Ramsay Brothers — Purana Mandir (1984), Bandh Darwaza (1990) — are examples of good horror stories that lacked star power. One man who tried to change this discrimination was producer-director Raj Kumar Kohli.

For a filmmaker whose career spanned from the 1960s to the early 2000s, Kohli was known mostly for his supernatural tales. Even his earliest productions, Lootera (1965) and Aik Tha Alibaba (1963), starring Dara Singh, dealt in the fables of sea pirates and the legend of Alibaba.

That is not to say that Kohli never sought out real stories. His directorial debut Kahani Hum Subb Ki (1973), starring Vinod Mehra and Mala Sinha, was a tale of infidelity in marriage. The film sank without a trace. His next film, however, etched Kohli's name alongside the more celebrated cult figures of Ramsay and Kanti Shah.

Nagin (1976) had a cast that was celebrated, awarded and talented. Jeetendra, Sunil Dutt, Feroz Khan, Vinod Mehra, Kabir Bedi, Rekha, Mumtaz and Reena Roy made up the main cast. It couldn't have been more mainstream and commercial than this.

In many ways, Kohli started the trend of the ensemble 'horror' genre. In writer and critic Jai Arjun Singh's words, "Raj Kumar Kohli was a master at the forgotten art of gathering a number of heavyweights/has-beens together, giving them the money that might otherwise have been wasted on a script."

The plot of the film revolved around an icchadhaari naag (Jeetendra) who is killed by a group of friends (Dutt, Khan, Bedi), and his love (Reena Roy) who seeks revenge for his murder. The film, though riddled with cliched plots and scenes, is a cult classic. Playing on the very Indian theme of immortal snakes and their revenge, Kohli created a sub-genre that found fame with Sridevi in Nagina (1986) and Nigahen (1989). Both films borrowed on Kohli's plot, although simplifying elements in the cast and story. 

The supernatural thriller was a favourite choice of the director. In 1979, he directed Jaani Dushman, expanding on the size and scale of his previous films. Jaani Dushman, a terrible failure at the box office, still found fame on television circuits. Starring Sanjeev Kumar, Feroz Khan, Shatrughan Sinha, Jeetendra, Sunil Dutt, Vinod Mehra, Rekha and Reena Roy, the film starred some of the most popular stars of that age. Like Nagin, its theme borrowed the local folklores of demons who stole young virgin brides.

In many ways, Jaani Dushman was India's first big-budget horror movie, a genre that is often branded as 'B-grade' cinema. The arrival of these stars, for whichever reason, encouraged filmmakers to look to these stories. The following rise of Ramsay blockbusters like Purana Mandir (1984) and Veerana (1988) can be attributed to the success, or massive failure, of Kohli's films. 

The director continued with films that combined supernatural plots (with badly done special effects) with A-list star casts. Bees Saal Baad (1989) was another example of Kohli's eccentricity. A film about rebirth and unrequited love, it starred Mithun Chakraborty, at the height of his Dance Dance fame, Meenakshi Sheshadri and Dimple Kapadia.

In the same year, Kapadia starred in the superhit Ram Lakhan (1989), while Meenakshi starred in the cult classic Shahenshah (1988). Kohli's film sped on a trajectory opposite to these films. However, it followed the familiar theme of supernatural revenge with an Indian twist. The use of tantriks and women in white saris would become a trope that would regularly be used in horror movies in the 1980s and 1990s. 

Contentious as these films were, they would never rank alongside what is arguably India's worst film ever. In 2002, Kohli sought to rebuild his legacy, and his son Armaan Kohli's stalled acting career, with Jaani Dushman: Ek Anokhi Kahani. Built on the same premise of an icchadhaari naagin seeking revenge, the film went farther than its predecessor.

Along with his own career, Kohli was trying to ressurrect the career of his son, which had stagnated since his debut in Virodhi (1990). What it lacked in plot, acting, or even filmmaking skills, Jaani Dushman: Ek Anokhi Kahaani made up for with mind-boggling special effects. From The Matrix to The Terminator, the film borrowed heavily from Hollywood, and forced them into a plot that hardly required any effects.

The presence of a star cast boasting of Akshay Kumar, Suniel Shetty, Sunny Deol, Manisha Koirala, Aftab Shivdasani and Sonu Nigam did not help the film's performance at the box office a whit. Over the years, however, the film has acquired a certain fascination among curators of the late 1990s pop culture with its effects being called 'tributes' to the best films of the day. Though the director and many of the film's cast might flinch, it continues to be a popular source for memes on the internet. 

Horror, particularly big-budget horror, continues to be a tricky genre in Hindi cinema. The focus on special effects often plays down the theme and the horror in the plots. With Vikram Bhatt's Raaz Reboot adding to the list of big-budget horror films, Raj Kumar Kohli might be looked upon as a pioneer of the genre. His films might have lacked the panache, skill and perhaps the effects of recent Hindi horror movies, but the idea was the same.