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Horror Upgrade On Hold?

What makes the film business so exhilarating (and simultaneously terrifying) is its sheer unpredictability. In the last few weeks alone, just as we felt the euphoria of Sonu Ke Titu Ki Sweety’s fabulous run at the box office that has exceeded all expectations, we were also disappointed by the not disastrous, but still underwhelming performance of Pari, contrary to the big numbers predicted on the back of its eye-catching (and heart-stopping!) teasers.

Obviously, as a trade publication dedicated to the Indian film ecosystem, we always hope for the best for all films and their respective investors. But we were keeping a special lookout for Pari because, had it gone on to score big, it could well have ushered in something that is long overdue – an upgrade for the horror genre in our country.

Surprisingly, though horror has been a consistently bankable genre, at least relative to the dismal success ratios of most genres in the Hindi film industry, it has always been subject to a somewhat second-class treatment by our makers – from abysmally shoddy productions that are strictly for the C and D centres to slightly more passable products that bank on a generous dose of titillation to arouse (pun unintended!) the largely male-centric audience’s interest.

What makes Pari a rarity in the Hindi horror filmography is the fact that it had a bona fide A-List star, Anushka Sharma, top-lining the film. Off the top of one’s head, one can recall just a handful of instances of star-driven horror films, like the 1979 multi-starrer Jaani Dushman that featured Sunil Dutt, Sanjeev Kumar, Shatrughan Sinha, Jeetendra, Reena Roy, Vinod Mehra, Rekha, Neetu Singh and Amrish Puri; and Bhoot starring Ajay Devgn, Urmila Matondkar, Nana Patekar and Rekha.

No doubt, we have had a far greater number of high-profile horror comedies – the Bhoothnath franchise, Bhool Bhulaiyaa, Chamatkar, Go Goa Gone and last Diwali’s smash hit, Golmaal Again!!! et al. But the emphasis in these films has been heavily tilted towards comedy rather than unadulterated horror, which is the subject matter of the note.

Contrast that with Hollywood, where horror is very much a mainstream genre, and a lucrative one at that. 2017 saw IT, Get Out and Annabelle: Creation storming the box office both domestically in North America as also globally, and Insidious: The Last Key following suit this year.

Not surprisingly, then, the roster of Hollywood films with major stars is far more substantial than ours – The Omen (Gregory Peck), The Shining (Jack Nicholson), The Nightcomers (Marlon Brando), I Am Legend (Will Smith), World War Z (Brad Pitt), Interview With The Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles (Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Antonio Banderas, Kirsten Dunst), Sleepy Hollow (Johnny Depp), Devil’s Advocate (Al Pacino, Keanu Reeves, Charlize Theron),  Angel Heart (Robert De Niro, Mickey Rourke), The Others (Nicole Kidman), The Haunting (Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Owen Wilson), Constantine (Keanu Reeves), Hollow Man (Kevin Bacon, Elisabeth Shue, Josh Brolin) 1408 (John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson) and so many more.

However, before we totally write off horror as doomed to remain a perennial B-grade genre in our industry, we would do well to remember that, despite the impressive star-studded list just cited, there was a time when mainstream Hollywood too looked down upon scary movies. Case in point, one of the greats of horror (and indeed of cinema, period), Alfred Hitchcock, never won a Best Director Oscar.

It all changed in 1968, when Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby wowed the box office and critics alike, and went on to bag two Oscar nominations the following year. Strike two – and a massive one – followed in 1973, when The Exorcist smashed collections records and notched a stupendous 10 Oscar nominations, including ‘Best Picture’ – the first horror film to do so.

Since then, the genre has only gained further steam in Hollywood – be it in terms of the talent it attracts, the number of tickets it sells and the critical acclaim and accolades it garners. Indeed, the recently concluded Oscar Awards had last year’s sleeper hit, Get Out, nominated for four of the most prestigious Oscars – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay – with director-writer Jordan Peele taking home the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

In short, whether it is Los Angeles or Lower Andheri, nothing succeeds like success in the filmmaking business! Less than a decade ago, our industry shied away from biopics, sports-based films, women-centric films and the so-called ‘high-concept’ film, simply because their potential hadn’t been categorically demonstrated at the most relevant barometer of them all – the box office.

So, while it is unfortunate that Pari failed to play the role of that catalyst, it is only a matter of time before the genre finds its Khosla Ka Ghosla, Kahaani or Bhaag Milkha Bhaag that catapults horror films to the mainstream of Hindi cinema and in the to-do lists of our leading stars.

And for an industry in which most films end up with P&L statements that are more blood-curdling and spine-chilling than anything Stephen King can throw at us, anything that leads to the widening of our audience base and the broadening of our narrative options is most welcome indeed.

Byline: Nitin Tej Ahuja

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