There was a time when horror in Bollywood meant a dilapidated haunted mansion, mysterious women in white sarees, and monsters with bad prosthetics. And then there were the noughties, when a horror movie was only an excuse to make soft porn with a helping of misogyny on the side.
But with the rise of OTT platforms and a more discerning audience, horror has a new meaning – one that seeks to deliver genuine thrills over mere titillation, and incisive social commentary instead of melodrama.
So this Halloween, if you’ve made the wise choice to stay at home (it really is scary out there!) but still want to get your spook on, then grab a bowl of popcorn and curl up with these scary movies and mini-series.
Every year, the small town of Chanderi witnesses a strange phenomenon. In the days leading up to a religious festival, men are advised against venturing out alone after dark, for there’s a female spirit on the prowl, who abducts unwary men and leaves only their clothes behind. This mysterious ghost is given the name ‘Stree’ or woman in Hindi. And she becomes the archetype that underscores the treatment of women in a patriarchal society.
For their protection, the townspeople daub the message “O Stree, come tomorrow” on the walls of their homes. The panic is real: men move about in packs (because there’s safety in numbers), disguise themselves in women’s clothes (so Stree can’t identify them), and beg their wives to return quickly from running errands (because it’s scary to stay home alone).
When it hit the big screen in 2018, Stree was dubbed an experimental horror-comedy. However, I’d peg it as a mainstream entertainer with supernatural elements lightly woven into the story. For the movie is not about a bloodthirsty monster, but redemption – of the society that turned her into one. At the same time, it highlights women’s inalienable right to be treated with dignity and respect – something that women still have to fight for in many parts of the world.
The unexpected twist at the very end is a curveball that raises quite a few questions. Hopefully, the sequel Stree 2 (rumored to be in production hell) will address them.
Streaming on: Disney+ Hotstar, Netflix
Now, if you’re all about the knock-your-pants-off scary brand of movies, then Tumbbad is a must-watch for you. Described as a ‘period horror film’, Tumbbad draws heavily from Indian mythology and mingles it with a family drama unfolding across generations. Chills and thrills abound in this terrifying tale of curses, treasure, and blighted temples.
Set during the British Raj, the movie relies on immaculate art direction and visual flourishes to accentuate its historical and spooky aspects. It also has sophisticated CGI and VFX, be it the creepy shot of a tree sprawling out of an immortal human skeleton or the visuals of the blood-red demonic godling.
Vinayak, the central character, is a much different ilk of protagonist than those traditionally found in Indian horror films. He is Faustian in his ambition, daring, and thirst for material gain; but his persona is also inherently engaging.
The dark, eerie atmosphere, narrow escapes, and burgeoning rapacious impulses culminate in a breathless climax that will leave you petrified. Beautifully shot and steeped in myth though it may be, Tumbbad, at its heart, is a cautionary tale: Greed can turn men into monsters. And that is something to be afraid of.
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video
At three episodes, Ghoul is a bite-sized horror series which taps into the Arabic lore of ghul, a demonic being that feeds on human flesh. The story is set in the near future, in an unnamed country divided and destroyed by sectarianism. Those who oppose the state are whisked off to dark and dingy military detention centers. Things start to go awry when Ali Saeed, a ‘terrorist’, is brought in and interned in one such camp.
You’d think that the spooky and atmospheric visuals, great CGI, and jump scares make Ghoul standard horror fare. But it’s scary for a number of other reasons too. At the core of its narrative is a pointed commentary on the current political regime and its supposedly anti-Muslim policies. Through a dystopian setting, the show brings to the fore the fears and vices buried deep in the human psyche and paints a frightening picture of where we might be headed, unless…
A fascinating premise, spiraling action, and subliminal messaging, coupled with strong performances (Radhika Apte, you queen!) make Ghoul a great modern horror that delivers the thrills as well as a few timely reality checks.
Streaming on: Netflix
Do you believe in witches? Actually, it doesn’t matter whether or not you believe in them – witches have been around for centuries, immortalized in myths, folklore, and history across cultures. Witches – or the idea of them – have effortlessly aroused fear, paranoia, and hysteria among people. More often than not, the epithet of witch was hurled at a woman who did not conform to social norms, resulting in said woman being ostracized or killed. But what happens when the identity of witch, instead of symbolizing helplessness and persecution, becomes a source of power for women?
Bulbbul subverts the tropes of the witchcraft category of horror by taking a culturally and historically reviled figure and portraying her as a vengeful goddess who metes out justice to wrongdoers. Set in the 19th-century province of Bengal, the film is a powerfully feminist, revisionist tale of a woman wronged by the social customs and violence of the era she lived in. Bulbbul is an aristocratic woman married into a rich family, but she has no agency or freedom. When she finally takes matters into her own hands, she is unwittingly labeled a chudail (witch or she-devil) by the commoners, a charge she ironically accepts.
Richly gothic, with neo-classical aesthetics and a cinematography that blurs the line between the real and imaginary, Bulbbul is darkly pleasing to the senses without being overtly spooky. Yes, it is mysterious, the protagonist is enigmatic and there are moments that make the viewer deeply uncomfortable – yet it remains a riveting story of a woman’s suffering, till she breaks her shackles in stunning fashion and wreaks havoc on the system that subjugated her and many others like her.
Streaming on: Netflix
Kaali Khuhi (2020)
Caught up in our own contemporary, fast-paced lives, we often turn our backs on the inconvenient truths that do not fit in with our worldview. But Netflix’s Halloween offering is about to change that. Kaali Khuhi takes an unflinching look at the real-life horror of female infanticide through a supernatural lens.
Stemming from a preference for boys in a highly patriarchal society, this “age-old tradition” completely skewed the sex ratio in many north-Indian states (mainly Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan). At the center of Kaali Khuhi is the 10-year-old female protagonist, who moves back with her parents to their ancestral village. However, this seemingly simple trip back home triggers a chain of events that reawakens a ‘curse’ – a curse spawned by a terrible, shameful secret. Now, our pint-sized heroine “must save the village from the restless ghosts of its horrific past.”
The film, which also stars Shabana Azmi in an eerie avatar, dropped October 30th on Netflix.
Watch out for: Laxmmi Bomb (2020)
This Akshay Kumar-starrer is about a phasmophobic (fear of ghosts or the supernatural) man possessed by the spirit of a trans woman. Representation of the third gender is few and far between in Indian cinema, and to see a horror comedy put this politically charged subject front and centre should be interesting.
Laxmmi Bomb is based on the Tamil-language sleeper hit Muni 2: Kanchana which performed well at the box office in spite of mixed reviews from critics. The film was supposed to hit theatres on May 22 but due to the pandemic, it will now premiere on Disney+ Hotstar on November 9.