Dasgupta, author of Don't Disturb The Dead: The Story Of The Ramsay Brothers, spoke in an exclusive interview with Cinestaan.com about his fascination with the story of the Ramsay family, their filmmaking technique, and the reason for the slow decline of the horror genre in Indian cinema.
Ramsay Brothers spotted market for horror films and went all out: Author Shamya Dasgupta
02 Aug 2017 12:15 IST
Updated : 13:30 IST
While Indian cinema has always been a family business, the Ramsays stand out for their ability to keep the entire production within their homes. From directing, producing, writing, to cooking and maintaining the sets, the entire Ramsay family of seven brothers, their wives and children worked as a single army involved in film production. Their contribution paved the way for a completely new genre to emerge in Indian cinema.
It is this canny business sense and family unity that drew author Shamya Dasgupta to the Ramsay story. Dasgupta’s book, Don’t Disturb The Dead: The Story of The Ramsay Brothers is an in-depth study of one of the most successful film families in Indian cinema. By any measure, the Ramsays were, and in many ways are, the first family of Indian horror. They ruled the 80’s decade with films like Veerana (1988), Purana Mandir (1984), Saamri (1985), creating a zone that was unknown to Indian cinema before. They paved the way for a generation of filmmakers like Raj Kumar Kohli and Mohan Bhakri, and later Ram Gopal Varma and Vikram Bhatt.
Speaking to Cinestaan.com, Dasgupta said, “Being a journalist, the defining thing about the Ramsays was that it was a really interesting story. I thought it was an interesting story without knowing much about it because the concept of seven brothers working together and making movies, that too in a genre that didn't exist in India was a fascinating story.”
The team of seven brothers, Gangu, Keshu, Kumar, Tulsi, Kiran, Shyam and Arjun Ramsay were sons of producer-director FU Ramsay. Having moved to Bombay after the partition, they set up an electronics store at Lamington road, before moving into film production. While FU Ramsay never found success with his films, it was his Ek Nannhi Munni Ladki Thi (1970), that really opened the family to the potential market of horror films in India.
The film had a scene where Prithviraj Kapoor, dressed as a monster, robs a bank. However, the keen Ramsays were taken by the audience's reaction to the monster. Dasgupta says, “Going by the audience reaction, they thought that horror had a market.”
In the book, Tulsi Ramsay says, “We saw that sequence every day and, each time, the audience would break out in claps.”
This reaction, as Dasgupta adds in our conversation, led to the metamorphosis. “They were a very strong Sindhi business family,” the author adds, “They spotted a wonderful business opportunity for a horror film, and just went hammer and tongs at it.”
The result was the first Ramsay family horror film, Do Gaz Zameen Ke Neeche (1972).
Interestingly, Dasgupta himself spent a career outside the influence of horror films, in sports journalism. Currently editor of the reputed cricketing journal, Wisden, he wrote books on cricket (Cricket Changed My Life: Stories of Hope and Despair from the IPL and Elsewhere), and boxing (Bhiwani Junction: The Untold Story of Boxing in India) before chancing upon the Ramsays.
He says, “I wanted to write a book on the Ramsay brothers 6-7 years back. But like we discussed, there was no starting point. It was just an interesting story in my head. As it turned out, I had met Amit Ramsay, who is Arjun Ramsay's son. We happened to be colleagues. He was in Bombay for entertainment, and I was in Delhi for sports. So I spoke to him, and told him I wanted to do this book. So he told me, 'Yeah, why not!' This was in 2010 or thereabouts.”
It wasn’t until 2016 that Dasgupta really started to work on Don’t Disturb the Dead. Launched earlier this month, the book is a rare, detailed study into the first family of Indian horror. Knowing the nature, and fame of Indian cinema, it is surprising that such an underdog story has not been chosen for a book before, or a film as the trend is these days.
The author says “This is the sort of book that you want, I mean Rajesh Khanna, Amitabh Bachchan, there is so much of it, there is nothing new there,” he says before adding a little skeptically, “Of course, those books will sell much better.”
Despite the lack of appreciation, there is a growing cult of followers that appreciate these films, and material on their makers. However, starting on it was not easy. “It wasn't very easy. I had access to the same material that you would, if you were to start searching now. I happened to have a few friends who teach and see cinema, so they helped dig up little bit from their library from the places they teach,” he added, “There were these academic writings. They were more pointers that didn't give me information.”
It took a lot of personal meetings, phone calls and repeat trips between Bangalore (where Dasgupta is based) and Mumbai to unearth the true story of the family.
As far as tropes went, the Ramsays excelled in them. Disfigured, malevolent beings, spirits clad in white, girls clad in robes, and secluded, palatial mansions were a staple of Ramsay productions. Yet, never have the Ramsays lost out on a profit. Dasgupta emphasises, “Almost all of them, forget the popular ones like Purana Mandir (1984) and Veerana (1988), even otherwise, all their films made some money. I don't think they meant for it (rural and semi-urban centres) to be the target audience, but it (the target audience) became the rural and semi-urban centres.”
It was Purana Mandir (1984) that gave birth to the Ramsay's most popular ghost, Saamri - an undead tantric seeking revenge. He would later go on to headline his own film, Saamri (1985).
Their methodology of filmmaking was unique as well. While they did work with major stars like Mohnish Behl, Sadashiv Amrapurkar (Purana Mandir, 1984), Parveen Babi (Telephone, 1985), Navin Nischol (Dahshat, 1981), the star of a Ramsay film was always its monster. As Dasgupta puts it, “They were treating it as a business and keeping the cost as low as possible. They wanted to spend on specific things, which, in their case was masks for the monsters, and music.”
But to sideline the Ramsays as amateur filmmakers is injustice. The author revealed an interesting strategy by the filmmakers to show little of their ‘monsters’ due to its bad make-up quality in their initial films. He says, “In fact, if you see the earlier films, the monsters, they would keep their face in the shadows more often. The movies from the early 80s, they didn't show the monsters much.”
The music also was an important player in Ramsay films. Bappi Lahiri was one of their favoured composers during the 80s, later Anu Malik would be a part of several Ramsay productions. In addition to this, Dasgupta revealed, statues used for their lavish set pieces and bungalows were the main expenditure on their production.
To cut down on costs, the Ramsays often worked with little known actors. Hemant Birje, Puneet Issar, often essayed the lead roles. In addition, the family would use only one camera for entire shoots. Dasgupta says, “Action sequences were the only ones where they used two cameras. They would make the people repeat the action in the same way. They put certain restrictions on themselves, which may be a Manmohan Desai did not.”
However, this success did not earn them appreciation from the film industry. They never received recognition from the critics or the elite group of filmmakers.
As Jai Arjun Singh, in the introduction to Dasgupta’s book says, “That the films are creaky, often laughably tacky, is almost a given. But it is also true that horror movies in this register….can have a special, visceral impact…”
Dasgupta agrees when he says to us about the opinion Ramsays held of the criticism they received, “They were happy as long as their business worked.” Surprisingly, the author agreed that some of their films were cringeworthy, pointing out to one in particular - Maut Ka Saya (1982).
Dasgupta says, “Maut Ka Saaya (1982) was loosely based on the concept of Steven Spielberg's Jaws (1975). As my friend, Jai Arjun Singh, who has written the introduction points out, 'The monster in the water looks like merman from the He Man cartoons'.”
Not that the Ramsays were the only ones with tacky budgets. Speaking on the production values of films in the 70s-80s, Dasgupta points out the action sequences in films like Dharam Veer (1977) and Ganga Jamunaa Saraswathi (1988) as examples of bad productions.
Incidentally, both Dharam Veer and Ganga Jamunaa Saraswathi were directed by Manmohan Desai, the ruling director of the industry in the 70’s. “If you compare, of course with Ramsay's films which were made on a lower budget, they were not much tackier films than much of the mainstream stuff that was happening at the time,” Dasgupta adds, “Obviously, horror brings in make-up and costume, and all these things in those days was not very great. Therefore, as CGI, graphics and all wasn't there, obviously their movies look worse or tackier than the others.”
Yet, there was a certain class and sophistication to the filmmaking style of the Ramsays. Dasgupta says, “They had their own brand of Indian horror themes, but as they say they watched as much Hollywood as they could. Even horror from other countries, they would watch to get ideas and then treat them to suit Indian tastes.”
Ashim Ahluwalia, whose National film award winning Miss Lovely (2012) was based on the sleaze and crime in B-grade cinema, emphasises this very point in the foreword to Dasgupta's Don't Disturb The Dead. “The Ramsay Brothers appear almost gothic in comparison. It is no surprise that the Ramsay films logo slate has an image of Bernini’s seventeenth century sculpture, “The Rape of Proserpina’," Ahluwalia says.
Yet, despite their quality and knowledge, the Ramsays were unable to escape the tag, and by the 90s, even succumbed to it. Dasgupta points out the rise of Hollywood as a reason, why people lost interest in the Ramsay style of filmmaking, and horror in general. He says, “if you take Deepak Ramsay's Aatma, which was made in 2000s, it is at par with a Ram Gopal Varma film or a Vikram Bhatt film in terms of effects. I say this not as an expert, but as someone who watches films, I think we haven't gone beyond what Hollywood offers. That was one of the reasons Ramsays were successful in the 70s and 80s because Hollywood wasn't coming here as easily as it does today.”
The rise of liberalisation, multiplexes, DVDs, and now, online video streaming, has ensured that a genre, once exclusive to rabid horror fans, and filmmakers, has opened up. Not only has this affected the Ramsays, but the horror genre in all. Apart from the rare Prawaal Raman, few filmmakers other than Vikram Bhatt or Ram Gopal Varma have attempted to tackle this genre in regularity. As Dasgupta says, “The Ramsays could use a Hollywood plot from ET, but I think we have continued to do that, which can't work. If you have a Paranormal Activity (2007) or a Conjuring (2013), you can't repeat (it). At the same time you see Ramgopal Varma's films which have really gone down. I think Raat (1992) was outstanding though. Or Vikram Bhatt, which really look so much like Hollywood.”
Another impeding factor is the genre itself. The author pointed out in our discussion that “ It is not a family film, like a Sooraj Barjatya or a Karan Johar stuff is...Within the horror (genre) itself, you strike out about 70-80% of the total audience. Within that, if you make something that can be seen on TV, or can be found on YouTube, then we have to do something about it.”
The rise of YouTube has also caused a lull in the reputation. The Ramsays, in view of economy, often shot on 16mm, blowing up to 35mm later. Dasgupta points out, “Also they shot on 16mm and blew them up to 35 mm, which obviously causes camera issues a lot. It didn't matter then, but it certainly matters now on video or YouTube or whatever. They look bizarre at times.”
Despite these flaws, the name and brand of The Ramsays stands out till date. Few filmmakers have achieved as much, with so little, in the industry. Speaking to us about the fascinating story, Don't Disturb The Dead, Dasgupta accurately describes their appeal by saying, “If these seven brothers had been making, like the Marx brothers, comedy films, that would have been interesting as well. But then, of course, the genre and the fantasy, and that they made these tacky, low budget films, and were still so successful and had a cult following, made it quite fascinating.”