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Rebirth of horror comedies in Indian film industry and its shift from unidimensional ‘spirits’

Ahead of the release of Bhoot Police, taking a look at how the genre has developed over the years, especially how the South Indian film industries have contributed to it becoming the phenomenon that it is.

Shreya Paul
Sep 03, 2021
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Horror, as a genre, has worked wonders in the Indian setup for centuries. What began with the legacy of the Ramsay brothers soon merged into a sub-genre of horror-comedy. With audiences laughing out louder and getting more petrified by the same film, the horror-comedy space has suddenly attracted producers across industries in India. The “double whammy” so to speak is the apt ploy to bring in willing audiences and make the big numbers.

Horror comedies subverted the tropes of the horror genre and stepped away from the unidimensional antagonist in the ghost that can cause disruption. The binary between good versus evil and human versus non-humans took a hit with the introduction of something like a Go Goa Gone or the recent Stree. Such films like 2018’s Tumbbad (though not a comedy) or even Tamil film Nenjam Marappathillai changed the narrative of storytelling to include social challenges crippling human existence. While Tumbbad focused on human greed and the carnal need to hoard, Nenjam Marappathillai focused on child abuse and isolation.

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Horror comedies redefined a genre known for jump scares and racy heartbeats into something that made audiences sit and ruminate. By reflecting on human nightmares and subconscious vulnerabilities, films created a macrocosm that brought in social issues along with personal issues that the viewers already dealt with. For example, Pretham utilised horror tropes to develop a narrative based on a true incident where a girl was forced to die by suicide after her nude clip was exposed and went viral.

Similarly, Akashaganga 2 focused on the concepts of atheism and how superstitions manoeuvre our judgements in daily life.

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Moreover, films like Roohi, Bhediya, Stree focused on local folklores that spoke about deep-seated socio-political aberrations that needed immediate attention. Whether it was the Telugu folklore of Nale Ba (in Karnataka) and O Stree Repu Ra (in Telangana) or the more clichéd werewolf-and-moon combination of Bhediya, the films chose to expose these ludicrous beliefs and the flawed concepts that gave rise to it.

Some films like Kinavalli, Pretham and In Ghost House Inn worked better because they were focused on being buddy comedies, with some horror elements. Had the horror been subtracted from their narratives, the films would have worked just the same.

Prema Katha Chitram was what heralded the subgenre in the Telugu film industry. Being a niche section, horror drew only select audiences. But with titles like Anando Brahma, the Raju Gari Gadhi franchise, Geethanjali and the like it seemed clear that the seamless inclusion of comedy in plots lay at the crux of the Telegu film industry's success in the sub-genre.

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Even though most films end up following formulaic templates of a haunted mansion, a motive of revenge based on unsatiated desires, paranormal activities (and sometimes exorcism), the films attract masses based on their sharp-as-a-whip wit and humour.

This subgenre is often considered a safe bet in the Tamil film industry. The number of horror comedies being churned out by them alone is arguably the highest as compared to other regional set-ups. The Muni series, helmed by Raghava Lawrence is still on the go with four instalments already bringing in big numbers at the box office. With Kanchana 2, Lawrence brought forth the tropes of childish humour and the added attraction of playing multiple spirits, all involved in a comedy of errors. And much like Kanchana, which highlighted the perils of the transgender community, the sequel chooses to bring physical disability as its focus area through Nithya Menen’s character.

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But unlike Hollywood, which has time and again involved itself in a self-indulgent streak of dolling out spoofs of popular horror franchises, the Indian horror genre has depended on original stories and remakes. Shaun of the Dead, Scary Movie, Evil Dead 2, Tucker and Dale vs. Evil or even the popular series What We Do in the Shadows were massy entertainers for audiences to enjoy, with some even going on to become franchises of their own.

As far as the Indian milieu is concerned, most filmmakers are still placing their bets on tried and tested film tropes, but also inculcating relevant social issues within its narrative to make it more multidimensional.

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