Debutant director Milind Rao talks to Bhakti Mehta about his first foray in tinsel town with The House Next Door and his love for the world of horror
The critics liked it, horror buffs appreciated it but the rest of the audience didn’t seem convinced enough to make it to cinemas to watch it. Reflecting on these mixed reactions to his directorial debut, The House Next Door, is Milind Rao. “I think the horror genre doesn’t have any barriers. The movie got fantastic reviews from all the critics, in the newspapers and elsewhere, who went to watch it in cinemas,” he says.
Rao says that movie-goers who did make it to cinemas absolutely loved the film. “The reaction has been extreme, in that nobody just liked it or said that it was a ‘decent movie’; everyone who made it to the cinemas absolutely loved the film. Responses like these and positive reviews from the Hindi film industry should reflect in the movie’s performance,” he avers.
So what tripped up the film and its collections? Rao says the impasse between distributors and exhibitors regarding the release window – airing the film on satellite just eight weeks after its release – worked against the film. “This is making things a little difficult these days. Shows are slotted for 9 am, which nobody goes to watch. There were many such factors that went against the film and that’s why it faltered a little.”
Lack of adequate promotions may have also contributed to the movie’s low-key collections, Rao believes. “I wouldn’t blame the entire thing on the promotions. But the good thing is that the film is growing every day, thanks to word-of-mouth and exhibitors have asked for extra screens. So that’s a good sign. Since this is a genre-based film, loyalists of the genre will keep coming back to watch it as long as it’s in the theatres.”
Horror has never been hugely popular among the Hindi audience, and this put a further dampener on the movie. Says Rao, “The Indian audience is prejudiced in the case of Hollywood horror films versus Indian horror and they are not wrong. Given the content they have been served in the last few years, they cannot be blamed. And I’m not just talking about Bollywood horror because they don’t make great horror films down South either. The problem is that we don’t take this genre seriously. We add sex or comedy to these films, which dilutes the experience.”
The filmmaker points out that with the variety of content available on the Internet via streaming platforms such as Netflix and Amazon, the audience is quick to reject a sub-standard product. “It’s not just good Hollywood horror movies but the audience can also access Korean and Japanese films in the same genre. If they have access to great movies at the click of a button, why would they not reject a horror film that is diluted or a joke? It is not surprising that their taste for Hindi horror has soured.”
The House Next Door, he claims, was an attempt to change all that. “Both Siddharth and I were trying to be true to the genre because we are very passionate about it. We wanted to make something that would become a benchmark for horror films in the industry. We gave it our all and tried to take away the prejudice as much as we could.”
On his association with his long-time friend and now actor, producer as well as co-writer, Siddharth, Rao remarks, “Both of us go way back to the time when we were working for Mr Mani Ratnam. We love the genre and we have discussed cinema and what we want to do, for over 16 years now. We have worked separately on several projects but have always stayed in touch regarding this. It was great that we could finally collaborate.”
When it came to this film, in particular, Rao reveals, “We were very clear about what we wanted to do, there was no conflict of vision. As a director, it was easier for me to pitch this film in three languages because he was a pan-India star, which got me the markets. And as a co-writer, my actor was on board for everything that was on script (Laughs). We have gone through the entire journey together… production, post-production, marketing, etc, as friends, and this kept everything in sync and made it so much easier. That doesn’t mean we didn’t have any disagreements during the writing process, but that made it so much more fun! It made us think even harder and that is visible in the film that you see today.”
Asked which version of the movie has been the most profitable for him, the director says, “It’s hard to say as the film released in the Telugu markets as recently as November 17. The other versions came out a week earlier but I can tell you that the Tamil one has been stronger than the Hindi one. But I don’t think region had anything to do with that; it was the showcasing, logistical difficulties and promotional lags that took place here vis-à-vis the South.”
The House Next Door has the potential of an even scarier sequel. “Those who have watched the film will realise that it ends on a note that gives way to a sequel automatically. The possibility of a sequel is right there; there is a universe that can be expanded just like The Conjuring universe did with sequels, prequels and spin-offs.”
Obviously, Rao is passionate about horror but what about exploring other genres? “The thing is I have been passionate about horror right from the beginning. Also, people are saying that Siddharth and I have created a benchmark in our first film as collaborators, so it is quite exciting for us. This genre is a lot of fun, you can explore possibilities and watching the audience gasp, jump out of their seats, to see popcorn flying… it’s really fun to watch when that happens. But, yes, I would like to experiment with other genres.”