Since my initial foray into the world of modern no-budget Indian horror, I’ve applied myself enthusiastically to watching more and more movies of the same type. And while I am indeed assembling an impressive — some might say terrifying, others might say unfortunate — collection of such movies, information on them and the people making them remains elusive. But I’ve bellyached about that in the past, and at some point we’re all going to have to simply suck it up, deal with the fact that we’re going to be watching these movies half in the dark, and then get on with things. So it is that I decided if I can’t glean from the world a whole lot of information about Harinam Singh (though I live, still, in anticipation of the day he Googles his own name, finds my site, and gets in touch — hey, it worked with Bobby Suarez!), then I might as well just get to know the man better through his films. Stabbing blindly into the man’s filmography, the next delicacy I came up with was a little something called Gumnam Qatil.
Every time I sit down to muddle my way through another cheap Indian horror movie, I assume that I’m not going to have much new to say about it that wasn’t said in a previous review, that eventually they would start to look so much alike that I would pretty much use up all my ammo and have nothing else worth shooting at. But so far — and we’re still, frightening as this may be, at the very beginning of our journey — each new movie I watch ends up being weird and incompetent in a way that, while similar to previous films, is also completely unique, allowing me to latch onto some tiny branch and inflate it into a full review. I’m sure I’ll run out of steam eventually, but for now, the ride still manages to surprise me no matter how prepared I think I am ahead of time. Eventually, and in typically convoluted, non-linear fashion, we will weave together, as best we can, a loose history of the Indian horror movie and its common themes. Along the way, though, we’re going to watch a lot of movies featuring guys in store-bought gorilla suits.
Man, what is it with the directors of z-grade Indian horror films sharing names with yoga masters who have lots of information about themselves on the web? Don’t these yogis know that their online self-promotion makes it harder to find information about the director Harinam Singh, or in this case, Kishan Shah? And what is a yogi doing with a web presence anyway? Shouldn’t he be balancing on one leg in a cave somewhere in Rajasthan?
In 1948, French artist Jean Dubuffet coined the term art brut, a phrase which became “outsider art” in 1972 when critic Roger Cardinal imported it into the English language. It referred to works of art created outside the boundaries of general culture. Specifically, it was art created by someone like an inmate in an insane asylum. Over time, the term was applied to a broader audience, but the key element remains that the art is a reflection of a mental state beyond that of even the average crazy guy. This is not the same as an established art movement that is consciously seeking to do something “outside the mainstream.” An artist can’t rationally decide to make art brut. As Dubuffet himself describes it, art brut can’t be created by anyone who functions as part of regular society, even regular art society, and so this form of fierce and feverish creativity remains the sole purview of madmen and terrifying backwoods hillbillies who make sculpture out of cat skins, metal drums, and human skulls.
Dev was secured to the rotating chair and flanked on either side by bald goons wearing a tight t-shirt and flamboyantly colored scarf. The man standing behind the vast desk was wearing a silver Nehru jacket accented with ribbons and golden cords of a vaguely military style. Behind the desk was a Plexiglass window looking out into the deep blue of an aquarium filled with sharks, and on the desk was the oval shaped viewscreen the fiend sometimes used to randomly call up and taunt officials in Mumbai. Dev’s own lime green shirt with a playfully clashing tie that seemed to contain more colors than exist in the known universe was a splash of sharp contrast amid the austere modern decor of the room. The man behind the desk smiled at his captive.
I’ve got a weird fascination with superhero movies from places other than the USA. Since X-Men (2000) and particularly Spider-Man (2002) demonstrated the possibilities of adapting comic books with a previously unthinkable level of faithfulness to the source material, superheroes have become a staple of Hollywood’s output. And with cash tills ringing in spades for all manner of four-colour-inspired heroics (as I write, The Avengers is already the third-highest grossing film of all time and still in theatres), it’s no surprise that overseas producers began to wonder at the possibilities. Some looked to their local comic properties for inspiration, such as with Hong Kong’s ‘a bit like Batman but played by Michelle Yeoh’ effort Silver Hawk. Elsewhere, filmmakers just borrowed wholesale from American films, as with Russia’s ‘Spider-Man with a flying car’ Black Lightning, or Thailand’s ‘Spider-Man… actually just Spider-Man’ cash-in Mercury Man. And of course Bollywood, boasting the biggest film industry in the world, was hardly going to miss out.
I haven’t seen a whole lot of Bollywood films, but those I have seen, on the whole I’ve liked. I’ve seen just enough of them to act like a shocking poseur among my immediate circle of acquaintances and work colleagues. “Slumdog Millionaire? Very impressive, but really only a Western distillation of the vibrancy and colour of a real Bollywood film. Also, I got the Amitabh Bachchan reference so clearly I am better than you.” I’m not proud of such behaviour, but then it’s not difficult to feel intellectually superior to most of the people I encounter at work. Just having seen a theatre production without any songs in it is enough to mark me out as an ivory-tower elitist in my office.
Generally, it only takes a fella like me sticking his hand into the fire a few times to learn to stop sticking my hand in the fire. Sometimes, though, learning whatever lesson life, pain, and horrible blistering has to teach me just doesn’t happen, and laughing like a buffoon, I just keep sticking my hand into those warm, enticing flames. And few flames are as warm, enticing, and unbearably painful as the films of zero-budget Indian horror director Harinam Singh. His movies are made with a disjointed stream of consciousness that James Joyce would kill to accomplish, and many others would kill to not have to experience. He assembles his footage with an apparent total disregard — and perhaps even disdain — for the linear narrative, splicing together scenes in a random order, reusing the same scene multiple times, or spending some time with a scene that has nothing to do with the rest of the movie and may, in fact, have been stolen from another movie just to pad out the running time. His films fail miserably not just to be good films, but to be films at all.
Indian spy movies from the 60s tend to be delightful despite themselves. The typical Bollywood film’s emphasis on communal values and lack of irony made them ill suited for portraying the kind of smirky hedonism so often displayed in Western examples of the genre. As a result, big budget, mainstream espionage thrillers like Aankhen featured mother loving, teetotaling heroes who stood out against such decadent trappings as almost a kind of rebuke. Meanwhile, in the genre ghetto of India’s B movie industry, attempts were being made at churning out spy films that hued a little closer to the European model. Unfortunately for these films, while the attitude might have been there, the cash wasn’t. Given that, the end products were frequently films that tested the notion of just how sparely represented the basic tropes of the spy genre could be in a film without it falling short of being a spy film at all.
There is perhaps no other filmmaker who is as devoted in his opposition to subtlety as Indian director K.S.R. Doss. While I’ve fallen hard for Doss’s comic book world of kung fu cowgirls, thunder crash aided exposition, and careening camera angles over the past couple of years, it’s certainly not the place to visit if you’re looking for something that smacks of nuance or delicate shades of meaning. Doss (or “Das”, as it’s also written) hasn’t thus far received a lot of coverage from the English language blogs and sites dealing with Indian popular cinema. For one, his films, most of which were made in the 1970s, are just not that easy to come by. Unsubtitled VCDs or gray market DVD-Rs are about your only option in that regard, and even so, what’s available represents only a small fraction of his output. His obscurity is also in part due, I think, to him being more associated with the Telegu language cinema of Southern India than with the more widely recognized Mumbai-based Bollywood film industry.