Why do horrex heroines in Bollywood rarely get to take charge when it comes to ghostbusting? What should really scare them is a creature that walks on two legs.
On August 11, 2013, Bombay Times published a small article on its front page, whose headline read: “Sunny Leone wishes Eid Mubarak from LA.” The piece informed the readers that Leone’s next film, Ragini MMS-2, was scheduled to release in two month’s time, over the Dussehra weekend. The only quote in the story came from the film’s producer, Ekta Kapoor, who said straight-faced: “As Ragini MMS-2 is a hardcore Horrex (a fusion of horror and sex), it doesn’t get more auspicious than flagging off its promotion on Eid!”
Ragini MMS-2 didn’t release over the mentioned weekend; the film came out more than five months later. That article didn’t get the film’s release date right, but it did achieve something else – labeling that sub-genre of horror films we were familiar with, but didn’t have a name for: horrex. Before August 11, 2013, the word had not made its way to Indian broadsheets or tabloids. But the efforts to sell a film based on the already bankable sub-genre had begun. On March 16, 2014, Bombay Times published another piece, which carried the headline: “Sunny to take a break from ‘horrex’.” The article, much like its predecessor, began with the meaning of horrex, and concluded with the film’s release date, the only difference being this time, it got the date right.
How does one accurately define horrex? Especially since the neologism was introduced to us with mercenary motives. “It’s very simple: horror and sex combined make it horrex,” says Bhushan Patel, director of Ragini MMS-2 and Alone (2015). “There’s nothing deep-rooted about it.”
What truly makes a horror film horrex is the context of sex scenes: do they propel the narrative? Can the film still stand if you remove sex – or the heroine’s sex appeal – from it? By this “I’ll know it when I see it” definition, Vikram Bhatt’s 2008 film, 1920, where the heroine’s sexuality is neither underscored nor critical to the plot, and where there’s only one scene that alludes to a minor character seducing the antagonist to get her way, cannot be called a horrex film. The same holds true for its sequel, 1920: Evil Returns (2012). Creature-3D (2014), similarly, belongs to the genre of creature horror, not horrex, while Raaz: The Mystery Continues (2009) is a supernatural horror film, and Aatma (2013) belongs to the genre of psychological horror.
Kartik Nair, a doctoral candidate in Cinema Studies at New York University, says, “In a way, the term is redundant since most horror films (certainly the 70s-80s Ramsay fare) were ‘horrex’ films i.e. audiences were aware that sex and horror were a big part of what they were going to watch. Even today, the genre label ‘horror’ implies a willingness to exploit and/or be candid about taboo sexualities and bodies. So I believe it’s mostly a branding term rather than a descriptor of something new.” Nair adds, “Also, the level and quality of ‘explicit’ sex have been amplified – tracking the overall amplification of these elements even outside horror cinema. And this has opened out avenues for niche stardom, especially for women, though this is also not new (for instance, scream queens of the 1980s like Aarti Gupta). So, yes, not much has changed in that these women are haunted for their sexuality or have to be rescued by men or have to strip for the camera (and certainly this is not limited to horror films), but it’s also a rare Bollywood genre that gives actresses front-and-center roles on which the films are constructed.”
This certainly seems true. Bipasha Basu had more screen time than Emraan Hashmi and Karan Singh Grover in Raaz 3 (2012) and Alone; she also spearheaded these films’ promotions – theatrical trailers, movie posters and media interviews.Alone saw Basu in a double role, which has, much like other promising roles, mostly been the domain of male actors. All the posters of Ragini MMS-2featured just one character from the film: Sunny Leone. This kind of adulation, generally reserved for male stars, is slowly reaching the female leads of horrex films. While promoting Ragini MMS-2 on different TV shows – Comedy Nights with Kapil, CEO’s Got Talent and the serial Pavitra Rishta – Leone either appeared alone or was accompanied by Ekta Kapoor. Does that mean that this sub-genre, which initially began as a cottage industry in the early 70s, has gradually started rectifying Bollywood’s long-standing gender imbalance?
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On March 21, 2014, Leone, gracing the posters of Ragini MMS-2 in a pink bikini, invited the audience to watch her latest Bollywood offering: her third film as a lead, and the first where she was playing herself – a porn star. Leone’s audience didn’t disappoint her. Made for about Rs 20 crore, Ragini MMS-2 grossed around Rs 46 crore. The box office success of the film, much like the success of recent horrex films such as Haunted-3D (2011), Raaz 3, and Ragini MMS (2011), made a significant point: horrex sells. But this sub-genre, of which Ragini MMS-2 had become a new flag bearer, arrived more than four decades ago. Before Vikram Bhatt (Raaz (2002), Raaz 3, Haunted-3D) and Bhushan Patel (Ragini MMS-2, Alone), Shyam, Tulsi and Keshu Ramsay had ruled this territory; before Leone and Bipasha Basu, Aarti Surendranath (née Gupta), Kunika Lall and Jasmin were masters of seduction, scream and scare.
That said, horror has never done as well as it’s doing now in Bollywood. Bollywood’s first talkie, Alam Ara, released in 1931; the first horror film, arguably, came 18 years later: Kamal Amrohi’s Mahal.Horror’s also been a genre that has often been marginalized. “You never had so-called A-listers doing horror films because they were always seeking stardom or respectability for the longest amount of time. When horror did come into its own in the Hindi film industry, it came with the Ramsay brothers, who were making B-grade films (in terms of production values). And even though their films made money, they never got the respectability because they never got theatres. There’s a lovely line that one of the Ramsey brothers said, ‘Jahaan pe train bhi nahin rukti hain na, wahaan business hota tha humara [Our business thrived in places where even the trains didn’t stop]’,” says Suparn Verma, the director of the 2013 horror film Aatma. “In fact, no horror film has made Rs 100 crore yet because it’s a limited market – the TV rights diminish; families stay away, so stars who always chase numbers tend not to veer towards these films.”
But in the last decade or so, horror films have begun hitting our screens more often, and in the last few years, its offshoot, horrex movies, have also followed suit. After the release of Raaz and Hawa(2003) – the first two horrex films of the noughties – the next mainstream horrex releases were sporadic: Ram Gopal Varma’s Darling released in 2007, followed by Haunted-3D,which came four years later. In the last three years, however, this sub-genre has given us more than half a dozen films – Haunted-3D, Ragini MMS, Raaz 3, Neighbours (2014), Ragini MMS-2, Alone and Khamoshiyan(2015). Alone and Khamoshiyan bothreleased last month, their release dates seperated by just one Friday.
For a sub-genre whose peripheral elements have gradually evolved – from latex-clad ghouls to invisible poltergeists; trident-flashing psychics to solemn psychologists; abandoned havelis to ordinary homes – it’s only natural that one wonders how much its central element, the heroine, has changed over time.
Why does horrex need a heroine? Here is one kind of answer to the question. “A man indistress doesn’t evoke anything in you. A shrieking, shouting man, with quivering lips would appear like a – chutiya – moron,” says Verma. “You feel protective of a vulnerable woman. You don’t feel protective of a man.”
Another kind of answer to the question, just like most old-fashioned answers, can be found at the end of the story: in the film’s climax. American film scholar Carol J Clover in her 1992 book, Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, coined the term Final Girl, a trope common to Hollywood horror, thriller and slasher films (particularly notable and frequent in the slasher genre), which refers to the last woman alive in the film to confront and vanquish the killer (or the ghost), one who’s survived to tell the tale, and who also happens to be virginal and virtuous – avoiding the hedonistic lifestyle of other victims. The ‘Final Girl’ was once ubiquitous in Hollywood horror films.
“It all comes from the Christian morality. Abroad, the horror genre was used to peddle the basic ideas of virtues – the concept of chastity,” says Verma. “The virgin will survive; the slut will die. And promiscuity will be punished.”
Bollywood horrex films blithely borrow elements from Hollywood horror flicks, but the Final Girl, in essence, signifies something that has been missing from our films, especially horrex ones, for long: a female actor with gumption and resolve, who confronts danger. Jamie Lee Curtis, for instance, is the Final Girl in Halloween (1978) who stabs the ‘bogeyman’ with his own knife; Heather Langenkamp eventually defeats her nemesis in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1980) by laying booby traps and setting him on fire; Adrienne King obliterates the antagonist in Friday the 13th(1980) by killing her with a machete. The Ramsays’ horrex films rarely, if ever, featured independent female leads – and even though their heroines did survive at the end, they were passive cogs, invariably rescued by cops or kin. The Ramsays’ era faded in the early 90s, and so did the sub-genre in that decade, but its brief resurgence in 2002-03 saw the emergence of a concept (or its essence) hitherto unknown to Bollywood horrex films: our own Final Girl.
Nearly every horrex film to have come out of Bollywood has projected its heroine as sexually attractive. But the films of the 70s and 80s featured actors whose sex appeal either deprived them of choice or made them victims. Consider the 1988 film Veerana’s Jasmin (Jasmin) who, when possessed by the witch’s evil spirit, is forced to become a seductress and murderer, or the 1989 film Purani Haveli’s Anita (Amita Nangia), who, while changing clothes near a lake, is ogled at and attacked by a guy who’s been unsuccessful in wooing her so far, or Bandh Darwaza’s Kamia (Kunika Lall) who, after being bitten and hypnotized by a dormant vampire, harbouring a gratuitous obsession for young women’s blood, becomes the perverse monster’s slave.
These plot points, and scenes, reveal something critical: A woman is courting danger by being sexy. For long, Bollywood horrex films have told their heroines that being desirable is not empowering, but debilitating, that their sex appeal can only be servile, not self-serving.
The sexual victimization of a horrex film heroine has continued in the films of the 21st century too: the plots of Hawa and Haunted-3D are centered on women rendered helpless and devastated by licentious ghosts. In Ragini MMS, too, Ragini (Kainaz Motivala) finds herself in a haunted mansion because she agreed on a getaway with her boyfriend who slyly wanted to make a sex tape with her. Here’s one significant difference in the horrex trendlet of a decade ago from the full-fledged trend that we are in now. In Bhatt’s Raaz, Basu’s Sanjana, a neglected housewife who goes to Ooty with her husband to revive her marriage, is the film’s Final Girl, exhibiting mental acuity and physical resilience to vanquish the evil spirit by summoning it and later setting it on fire in the film’s climax. In Hawa, Tabu’s Sanjana, to begin with, plays the victim with a capital V, perpetually helpless and hapless, but by the film’s climax, her character, as well, morphs into someone who eventually stands up for herself.
Meraj Ahmed Mubarki, Assistant Professor (Department of Mass Communication and Journalism), at Maulana Azad National Urdu University, says, “I look at the climax of these films as an exorcism of female sexuality. You are not just throwing out the ghost; you are throwing out the desire of the woman. If you look at all these films, the minute she is exorcised, she comes back to her staid sexuality. The moment she’s possessed, she becomes hyper-sexual. It’s a highly misogynist, patriarchal kind of cinema because ultimately, in the end, the domesticated woman wins, and the sexualized woman loses.”
I’m too sexy for this haunt
The sex appeal of horrex heroines is vital to the plot; take that away from them, and these films won’t have a convincing reason to exist. The female lead in a horrex film has been nubile, seductive, and vulnerable for many decades. A scene in Ragini MMS-2 is indicative of a more intriguing change in the horrex heroine.
Leone, playing an actor in the film, is struggling with her line in a scene. The scene has gone through 15 takes. She wants to take a break for five minutes. While she’s gone, the director Rocky (Pravin Dabbas) grumbles about her incompetence to his crew. Hearing this, Maddy, Leone’s co-star in the film within the film, who has acted in TV serials before, says, “True acting comes from experience.”
“She’s experienced too,” says Rocky. “But only in blue films, sir,” says Maddy, who imitates a pornstar experiencing an orgasm, and says, “Yeh sab karne se na acting nahin aa jaati [Doing all these things doesn’t make you an actor].” When Maddy turns around, he’s surprised to see Leone standing behind him. She walks towards him. “Imagine there’s no one here, Maddy,” she says. “No cameras. You are alone. And what you have been trying all along [to seduce Leone], finally happens. I come close to you, and take off my clothes. Then I take off your clothes, pull your hair, and kiss you. What will you do now? Now do that with feeling. I will give you the cues.”
Leone walks a few steps towards the bedpost, begins caressing herself and moaning, “Oh, yeah! Oh, yeah! Maddy!” People on the set find it difficult to not react – the cameraman averts his gaze from the camera lens to look at her; Rocky slowly gets up from his seat; Maddy can do nothing but stand and stare, his mouth shot open. He’s forgotten he was supposed to react to her cues. “Oh, Maddy! Oh, yeah! Harder!” continues Leone. And then she suddenly stops, and faces him. “What happened?” she asks. “I agree the oooh-aaah of blue films doesn’t make you an actor. But you couldn’t even do that much.” Leone walks towards Maddy, and stops when she’s close to him. She lowers her gaze for a quick glance at his crotch, smiles, and looks him in the eye: “When the blood rushes back to your brain, then answer me.”
The scene ends. It’s an updated, not entirely successful version of the fake orgasm sequence fromWhen Harry Met Sally, but Leone’s said what she wanted to. Now, take Raaz 3’s pivotal scene, where Basu’s Shanaya, determined to destroy an upcoming female actor, seduces and guilt trips her boyfriend so he can poison her competition, once again a Sanjana (Esha Gupta). He is initially disgusted by the idea, but cannot help yielding to her sexual hold. In Basu’s latest horrex film, Alone, Anjana (Basu), a malevolent spirit, possesses her twin sister, inevitably a Sanjana, to have sex (and get back) with Kabir (Karan Singh Grover), Sanjana’s husband – the man she loved when she was alive. Anjana’s ‘soul’ uses her sister’s body to satiate her carnal desires.
A horrex film heroine has, for decades, almost always found herself in danger. In the recent horrex films, however, the heroine isn’t always battling – or running away from – life-threatening situations, but also orchestrating them. In films such as Raaz 3 and Alone, she’s not only pretty, but also petty, not just dominant but also malicious.
These changes are distinct because for long, a vicious female (heroine or otherwise) in a horrex film has invariably been one of the two: a straight-laced girl who becomes evil after being possessed by a ghost, or a witch – the monster’s sidekick, who simply follows his orders; someone who is more obedient, less evil. But the villainesses of Raaz 3 and Alone don’t conform to any of the aforementioned stereotypes. In Raaz 3, Shanaya’s insecurities and delusions make her devil-like. Her being evil isn’t related to anything – or anyone – else but herself. Alone takes the concept of villainy a little further – it features an unreliable protagonist (so the harried girl, who first appears virtuous to us, and to her husband, finally turns out to be the villain because she’s lied to and manipulated him for years), and a seemingly diabolical spirit (also played by Basu) who, in the climactic twist, is revealed as the hero’s original love interest who won’t do him any harm.
These new female characters don’t derive their capacity for bad behavior from any recognizable horrex film trope and, more importantly, despite their villainy, they have the film’s central role.
Ashish Rajadhyaksha, faculty member at Centre for the Study of Culture and Societyand co-author ofEncyclopedia of Indian Cinema, says, “These plot points [women being sexy/evil for their own sake] are necessary for the moral framing of the film. They are giving these women a peculiar form of agency. Having said that, it’s curious to ask ourselves how many of them really have the agency? Now, there’s a particular kind of popular feminism, which says now women are hugely empowered. You have Rani Mukerji playing these characters in Mardaani or No One Killed Jessica, but these horrex films are different. They are dark, genuinely horrifying, and I think [these films propagate that] the idea of a rampant female sexuality – untrammelled, uncontrolled – is a scary thought. It needs to be feared, which is linked to a particular tradition of horror. So I am not sure if there’s anything hugely new in that idiom. But I think that there are some changes – like the restaging of the moral pivot. Now the films are able to manipulate or negotiate the moral framing. So that doesn’t need to be anymore what it used to be.”
Who will save me?
In nearly all recent horrex films released post-2010, the female leads have depended on their heroes to rescue them. The plots of Raaz and Hawa, no matter how borrowed and tainted with mediocre writing, made sense because they allowed their heroines to take center stage, which gave these films a convincing finality – the Damsel in Distress was saddled with a problem; the Damsel in Distress solved the problem. It’s how anyone fundamentally defines a protagonist. But the Final Girls of Raaz and Hawa are no longer around.
The Final Girl trope is by no means a gold standard to evalute the heroine’s worth in a film. In fact, some construe it as regressive writing because it unfairly expects heroines to be chaste, but if you look beyond its needless sanctimony, this trope also expects heroines to be their own women. Most Bollywood horrex films have denied them that right.
“The female lead has come to represent the essence of these films, which gives us something to mull over, because we don’t see that a lot in Bollywood films,” says Santosh Desai, a columnist at The Times of India. “In that sense, she has grown in stature, but what I am interested in knowing, and what I don’t know wholly, is whether she prevails in the film’s climax. And if she doesn’t, that would be interesting, because it would mean that despite being the lead draw of these films, she still doesn’t get to carry the narrative.”
Suhani Kanwar, Ragini MMS-2’s screenwriter, offers a practical answer. “We don’t have a lot of Final Girls in the conventional sense because we have made them into a Final Couple, and there’s a reason for that because these horror films are also love stories,” she says. “So we need the couple to fall in love, and for them, and their love, to come up against the odds in the end.”
The horrex film heroine has changed in many ways, but has she, in ways less favorable, also remained the same? To find out the answer to that, we have to, quite ironically, turn to the heroes, who have typically received little attention in these films.
At some point in nearly every horrex film, the poltergeist slowly begins to make its presence felt: both via sound – creaking doors, desperate wails, persistent sighs – and sight – quivering chandeliers, flickering lamps, levitating objects. The heroine usually notices these changes first. She is also the one who feels threatened. In the recent horrex films, the following happens to the heroine after she’s in acute distress: a) she is possessed by a ghost and becomes menacing (Alone, Ragini MMS-2); b) she’s rendered helpless and harried, finds the hero, who feels protective of her, and they fall in love (Raaz 3, Haunted-3D); c) she finds herself stuck in a particularly dangerous situation alone (Ragini MMS); d) she gets out of a tricky situation only to be embroiled in a bigger problem soon (Khamoshiyan). Barring Alone, which concludes via a baffling Deus Ex Machina, and Ragini MMS, the only film in the list to not end on a cheerful note, here’s how the other four films end: the hero rescues the heroine.
The horrex sub-genre, which appeared to have been slowly pushing the scope of female leads, still insists that its films end the way most Bollywood films do, with the heroine depending on the hero. But more than the climax, which appears curiously banal, it’s in the film’s second act – where these films firstacknowledge the ghost – that we understand the heroine better, and the choice she holds in the narrative. Around this point in many horrex films, she fundamentally changes. She doesn’t own her body; the ghastly spirit does.
“In Bollywood anything is possible so, if a woman wants to act in a horrex film, I have learned from my experience that she can make her character anything she wants,” says Leonein an email interview. But with the sole exception of Ram Gopal Varma’s Darling (2007), where Esha Deol’s Geeta becomesa vengeful ghost to take revenge on her boyfriend (and manages to win in the end), the heroine triumphing – or taking charge – in a Bollywood horrex film doesn’t seem as easy as Leone makes it sound.
In Alone, Basu’s Sanjana becomes sexually assertive after she is possessed, and so does Leone’s Sunny in Ragini MMS-2. In fact, had it not been for her being possesed, Leone wouldn’t have been a wily seductress in the film at all.So even Ragini MMS-2, whose heroine plays an unabashed porn star, will allow its lead to be in control for only so long. “We need to stop a little and think what is really happening – are these films really progressive? Even though women in these films are ostensibly enjoying sex, there’s a very distinct body-soul disconnect. So while her body is enjoying sex, her soul is not. We need that thing in order to be okay with this character,” says Kanwar. “And these films, even though they seem progressive and ‘feminist’, primarily cater to the male gaze. There’s no doubt about that. Therefore, the Man has to rescue the Damsel in Distress.”
Unlike Basu and Leone, the heroines of Raaz 3 (Gupta) and Haunted-3D (Twinkle Bajpai) aren’t possessed by the ghost, and yet they have no agency in the film – their character arcs are mostly dictated by either heroes or spirits. These heroines, in sharp contrast to the Final Girls of Raaz and Hawa, show absolutely no interest in battling life-threateningsituations, let alone doingsomething – anything – about them. Sapna Pabbi’s Meera in Khamoshiyan is even more baffling: she’s introduced to us as someone who’s strong-willed and, by that account, the hero’s equal. However, by the film’s climax, she’s suddenly become as agency deprived as the heroines of Raaz 3 and Haunted-3D. More frustratingly, we don’t get a reason why these heroines should follow and depend so helplessly on their heroes, who are not shown to be particularly skilled in anything that would help them vanquish the ghost, barring for the fact that they are, well, Men.
Unsurprisingly, Bhushan Patel disagrees. “It depends on the story and the film; you can’t just generalize,” he says. “It depends on the protagonist and the antagonist – who needs to be killed; who needs to be saved.” True, films are not obligated to follow a dictum or be politically correct. But most horrex films are marred by hackneyed storylines that don’t quite define the relationship between the hero and the heroine. So when the hero turns out to be the saviour in the end, that plot point feels contrived and, hence, irksome. Khamoshiyan, for instance, does play around with the genre’s confines in the film’s first half – the hero gets scared in the beginning, while the heroine’s in control. She’s also discerning and clever. So the hero becoming the heroine’s saviour in the climax, where she’s suddenly transformed into a scream queen who can do nothing for herself, appears abrupt, even forced.
None of these are questions for consideration for Patel who is following what he clearly thinks of as the rules of nature. “In India [Bollywood], the hero is supposed to be the ‘hero’ [heroic], which is why he’s called the hero,” he says. “If you want a happy ending, you need to have a hero, which is why you rather have him [be the saviour] in the film. Even in my Ragini MMS-2, I could have killed Satya [Leone’s love interest], if I wanted to, in the end. But then that would have defeated the purpose of a hero trying to save the girl. So if I wanted a sad ending, I could have had one.” And that’s why most horrex films are mediocre – because the filmmaker is thinking in terms of a ‘happy’ or ‘sad’ ending, instead of a convincing climax, which suits the film and the characters.
“If you have a hero who is getting scared by the ghost then he looks like a wimp. He’s not supposed to get scared of the ghost,” says Patel. But why? “In that case he isn’t a hero. You need to have the hero who comes and saves the heroine.”
The main problem with the horrex films’ heroines is not tied to our definitions of a heroine, but of a hero. “The reason you are seeing this more is because as the stakes rise, as the films become bigger, the producers can’t afford to take that risk where it’s not the man, but the woman, who is the ultimate vanquisher,” says Kanwar. “So they are playing it safe. If you emasculate the hero by not giving him the final agency, I know it becomes a problem for producers, storytellers, everyone.”
Tulsi Ramsay last directed a film in 1993. His brother Shyam returned to direction last year with the horrex film Neighbours. That one tanked. Tulsi hasn’t returned to direction yet, but he still seeks out new horror films that hit the theaters. The recent ones, however, have left him disappointed. He likes the photography, acting, and location in these films, but not the writing. He recently saw Alone and Khamoshiyan; he didn’t particularly enjoy them. “These films don’t have compelling stories,” says Tulsi. “Most stories are the same – revolving around a girl, and a spirit who, we get to know in the film’s climax, was tortured when alive.”
Tulsi talks with fondness about some of the horror films he’s liked from the world over. And they all worked because of their scripts – films such as Psycho, The Omen, or Sixth Sense. “Today anything different will click,” he says. So, for instance, could improving upon a heroine’s character – something that hasn’t happened for long – make these films work? “But how can one change that?” He wonders. “Hero hero hota hai; heroine heroine hoti hai. She’s the one who mostly gets scared. She can’t become bold. She can do something [more] but that won’t make a lot of difference. If she becomes bold, then what will the hero do? She will become the hero then.”
And there you have the answer to what is really haunting not just the careers of our horrex heroines, but all the women of Bollywood.