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Halloween special: 9 essential Indian horror films


From haunted houses to women in white saris, here are some of Hindi cinema's best for a night in.

Sonal Pandya

The horror genre in India was a bit of a misnomer until the 1980s, when Hindi cinema graduated beyond red herrings and possible ghosts and got down to really embracing the mystery of the unexplained. We present nine films below as proof.

1. Mahal (1949)

Produced by Bombay Talkies, director Kamal Amrohi's film debut is widely considered to be India's first attempt at the horror genre as well as the theme of reincarnation which would go on to influence later Hindi films.

Madhubala played the ethereal 'lady in white' who torments Ashok Kumar as the new homeowner Shankar. The storyis based on the long-lost love-in-previous life trope.

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2. Bees Saal Baad (1962)

Inspired by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's novel titled The Hound of Baskerville, the film was an extremely successful execution of a suspense-thriller ghost story. Thirteen years after the success of Mahal, former art director Biren Nag decided to pursue a revenge tale with a supernatural twist in his directorial debut.

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The film was accentuated by the haunting number sung by Lata Mangeshkar 'Kahin Deep Jale Kahin Dil' for which she won her second Filmfare Award as the Best Playback Singer. The hit music was composed by producer Hemant Kumar who also sang two songs in the film — 'Beqarar Karke Humein Yu Na Jaiye' and 'Zara Nazron Se Kehdo Ji'. The lead actor Biswajeet found early success with his first Hindi film, as Bees Saal Baad became the highest grosser at the Indian box office in 1962.

3. Woh Kaun Thi? (1964)

Directed by Raj Khosla and inspired by the British play The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, Woh Kaun Thi? was a musical success. Music composer Madan Mohan and singer Lata Mangeshkar partnership for the 'Lag Ja Gale' song still remains one of the evergreen hits from that era.

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Sadhana replaced actress Nimmi who turned down this film to make Mere Mehboob (1963) instead. In her first Filmfare nomination for Best Actress, Sadhana took on the role of the mysterious Sandhya who baffles Dr Anand (Manoj Kumar), by appearing — and disappearing — from various places.

Khosla created an ominous mood of confusion and slight danger as Dr Anand wonders if he's losing his mind with this ghostly vision in white. Sadhana, who was mostly known for her fashion style in films, got a chance to stand out in this 'double' performance.

4. Nagin (1976)

Director Raj Kumar Kohli borrowed from old Indian folklore and its myth of the Ichchadhari Nag and Nagin (snakes who can change their form) along with a few elements from Cornell Woolrich's novel Waltz Into Darkness for this film. Supported by all-star cast of who's who in Hindi cinema, Nagin was dubbed a super-hit at the box office.

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Reena Roy played the titular Nagin in human form who vows to take revenge on all who have contributed to the death of her partner, the Nag, played by Jeetendra. She then proceeds to trick her targets by morphing into people they know before poisoning them with her snake venom.

The music by Laxmikant-Pyarelal was also a big hit especially the 'Tere Sang Pyar Main Nahin Todna' song which even resurfaced as background music in Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004).

5. Gehrayee (1980)

With the tremendous success of The Exorcist (1973) worldwide, India produced its own version with Gehrayee. Co-scripted with playwright Vijay Tendulkar, husband and wife directing duo Aruna Raje and Vikas Desai peppered this remake with Indian touches – superstitions and black magic.

The film begins with the following caption: For those who believe, no explanation is necessary – for those who don't, no explanation is possible! A teenaged Padmini Kohlapure plays Uma who gets possessed by a deceased woman's spirit. The reason behind her possession almost tears Uma's family apart. Unlike previous hits in this genre, Gehrayee featured only a single melancholy song sung by Kishore Kumar.

6. Purana Mandir (1984)

The 1970s and 1980s belonged to the Ramsay brothers and their special brand of low budget horror. The woman-in-white was gone and instead, replaced by monsters, vampires and the occasional zombie.

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The second biggest hit of 1984, Purana Mandir stood toe-to-toe with its competition. Made in around Rs2.5 lakhs, it went on to gross Rs2.5 crores at the box office.

One of the earliest creature horror films, it introduced the super demon Saamri who eats young children and corpses. Amongst Saamri's other crimes, he rapes and disembowels new brides and has a tendency to suck the life out of you through your eyeballs. A complete in-house family production, Purana Mandir was directed by Tulsi and Shyam Ramsay while their other brothers wrote the screenplay, handled the sound and production duties.

The film even featured a scene parodying Sholay with the comic actor Jagdeep standing in for Gabbar Singh. In 1985, a sequel, Saamri, was released.

7. Raat (1992)

Now known for his lackluster horror sequels, initially filmmaker Ram Gopal Varma revitalized horror genre in India with this spine-chillingly feature. The film hinged on actress Revathi's fine performance as a young girl possessed by a vengeful spirit when her family moves into their new home. The fear of what's coming next is drawn out very well in Raat.

Revathi's character Mini goes through many moods – hostile, scared, highly emotional and tearful, all as her family and friends figure out what has caused this drastic change in her. The opening dream sequence was shot entirely on a Steadicam (the camera operators received special credit in the film) giving the viewers the perspective of the protagonist.

Produced by Boney Kapoor, the film didn't feature amongst the year's top hits but managed to find its audience nevertheless.

8. Raaz (2002)

Vishesh Films ruled the genre by launching with their own brand of horror franchises that still continue this day. Influenced by Hollywood film, What Lies Beneath (2000), starring Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer, Raaz starred former models Bipasha Basu and Dino Morea.

However, it was newcomer Malini Sharma who stole the film from the lead actors. It became the only film she acted in as she retired from films after the release of Raaz.

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The film was amongst the top earners of Hind cinema that year. Raaz, along with films like Bhoot (2003) and Darna Mana Hai (2003), marked a shift in Indian horror of borrowing from popular scarefests in Hollywood and northeast Asia.

The latest film in the Raaz franchise, Raaz 3 (2012) was released in 3D, keeping with today's technology and a fourth title, Raaz: The Hidden Secret, is supposed to be under production and rumoured to be a remake of the English hit The Omen (1976).

9. Ragini MMS (2011)

The Blair Witch Project (1999) resurrected the 'found footage' formula back in the mainstream, this pseudo-documentary format with voyeuristic undertones hasn't been fully explored in the Hindi horror genre.

Yet the two films that tested these waters found considerable success with both the audience and the box office.

One was Dibakar Banerjee's LSD: Love, Sex Aur Dhokha (2011), the other Pawan Kripalani's Ragini MMS. The sole common denominator between the two films was actor Rajkummar Rao (formerly known as Raj Kumar Yadav).

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Like Paranormal Activity (2007), the film is presented entirely on captured camera, detailing the romantic rendezvous of a couple at a haunted farmhouse. Ragini MMS depicts their terror in real time. The film claimed to be based on a true story, possibly hoping to add to the appeal of the film. While Ragini MMS was a bona fide hit, its non-threatening and sometimes comedic sequel, Ragini MMS 2 (2014) starring Sunny Leone was a super-hit.