Making scary movies in India—more specifically, in Hindi—isn’t taken seriously. Or, at least, not as seriously as it should be. Far too often—and this is something that we’ve been historically guilty of—horror movies are merged with other genres, such as romance, and more recently, comedy.
But Chhorii, the new film on Amazon Prime Video, introduces yet another subgenre that we weren’t quite prepared for—the ‘message horror movie’. These are films in which cinematic devices such as symbolism and metaphor—which can both be used to convey serious themes—are replaced by someone literally spelling things out. In Chhorii, Nushrratt Bharuccha’s character Sakshi, pauses the movie at an especially crucial juncture to lecture the antagonists about female foeticide. She then says something about motherhood and walks away, convinced that she has won the argument.
It’s an entirely unnecessary addition to an otherwise solid film. But before it starts wagging a finger at you, as if you’ve actually murdered a few babies in your time, it relied heavily on atmosphere and tone, and pulled enthusiastically from classics such as Rosemary’s Baby. It was surprisingly unadulterated for a Hindi horror picture, with no musical sequences to disrupt the narrative, and no comic relief characters to undercut the tension.
To be clear, Hollywood makes movies with messages, too. Director Jordan Peele works exclusively in the genre; he calls his films ‘social thrillers’. But you can tell how Get Out and Us are different from, say, Bulbbul, right? The core themes are baked into the narrative, and Peele trusts his audience enough to not have one of his characters spell them out.
For decades, Hindi horror was associated with the B-movie buffoonery of the Ramsay Brothers. These movies were made on the cheap, poorly executed, and in all honesty, more funny than they were scary. This was an unfortunate trend, especially since it emerged after a particularly strong first wave of Hindi horror, whose crowning achievements Mahal and Madhumati remain hugely influential to this day.
Horror, and horror-adjacent genres such as fantasy and science-fiction, are often used as vessels through which filmmakers and storytellers can talk about certain realities without actually talking about them. Genre is used as a shroud, and also as armour. Filmmakers can communicate ideas via genre movies that they wouldn’t be able to in straightforward dramas—Godzilla isn’t about a giant lizard, it’s about nuclear holocaust; and District 9 isn’t about an alien invasion, it’s about the apartheid.
So why aren’t more Indian filmmakers leaning on this crutch to actually make meaningful cinema instead of whatever Dinesh Vijan is up to with films like Stree, Roohi and the upcoming Bhediya? Well, the short answer is that they are, but good horror is hard to find in mainstream Hindi cinema, besides, of course, the odd outliers such as Tumbbad and Pari. Instead, we get drivel like Durgamati and Laxmii—and this was our reward for surviving the Vishesh Films’ run in the 2000s.
Unsurprisingly, some of the best work in genre filmmaking is currently being done outside Bollywood, by directors such as Lijo Jose Pellissery (Jallikattu) and, most recently, Bhaskar Hazarika (Aamis). These movies are artistically rich, and thematically bold. They might not make much money, but at least they have a big enough audience to justify the modest financial investments that they require.
But what is happening to horror can be equated to what has happened in the Indian streaming industry—it has been overrun by mainstream stars looking to diversify and lure unsuspecting new audiences into their dens of mediocrity. Look at shows such as Betaal, or films like Bhoot Police—had it not been for the involvement of big names, neither of these projects would’ve gotten off the ground, and realistically, would’ve been stopped at the script stage.
The necessity for good genre filmmaking has become more pronounced in recent years, especially with what is going on around us. We need more Dibakar Banerjees and fewer Amar Kaushiks.