Photo: Rajanish Kakade/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
It’s a tried-and-tested formula: a woman is harassed by powerful men and becomes a dacoit to exact revenge on each of them. Here’s another one: Spirits in a haunted home want the most sensuous woman in the house and, that too, only when she’s in the shower. Add to that charismatic vampires who like to bite and fuck, random visuals of couples going at it in the forest, and you just might have a Hindi pulp film to contend with.
The world of Indian pulp cinema that ruled the box office for the better part of the 1990s and the early 2000s promised its viewers many dreams. On the most basic level, it was escapism at its finest. The tickets were affordable and nothing could beat the experience of watching almost softcore sex scenes on the big screen in a film replete with colourful rhyming dialogues, gang wars, and sudden deaths. You always got more than you had bargained for. They were disparagingly referred to as “B-grade” and “C-grade” films for catering to the masses with their out-of-context sex scenes, gravity-defying action sequences, and subpar acting.
But something along the way went terribly, terribly wrong. It’s not that the cash-rich producers, directors, and distributors didn’t see it coming — they just couldn’t have imagined that things would so quickly flip. VICE Studios and Amazon Prime Video have come together with a docuseries Cinema Marte Dum Tak that takes us inside the world of pulp cinema right from its glory days to its downfall. Streaming on Prime Video since January 17, the series brings together four acclaimed directors of pulp cinema: Dilip Gulati, J. Neelam, Vinod Talwar, and Kishan Shah. Each of them gets back in the director’s chair to recreate the magic with a short film of their choice. The show takes us behind the scenes as these directors craft new stories and reflect on their legacy, including what went wrong along the way, and how they have managed to sustain themselves since.
The docuseries also features the superstars of pulp cinema such as Sapna Sappu, influential distributors like Hyder Gola, veteran actors like Raza Murad, technicians, and theatre owners who all share their stories of shaping the dream and myth of pulp cinema.
Through the series, we discover that pulp cinema thrived because of a well-oiled network between the directors and the distributors. The distributors had a huge say in the making of these films, right from deciding on the plot and title of the films to the choice of single-screen theatres where these movies would play. “The return on investment was always gold, but there was no romanticisation of single-screen theatres or pulp cinema in reality,” said Vasan Bala, one of the executive producers and creators of the show, along with Samira Kanwar and Niharika Kotwal. “For everyone in the industry it was survival because, given a chance, everyone wanted to be a Salman or a Shah Rukh Khan.”
The magic of the movies
According to Aseem Chandaver – the assistant researcher on the series who is also an avid collector of pulp films – pulp cinema was born from tacking together discarded scenes from existing movies. Apart from the typical fare of social dramas, action films, and love stories, new stories needed to be told from what was already working, leading to the genesis of pulp cinema. “There were producers who wanted to make more money and that’s when the wave of public safety announcement (PSA) films came in,” Chandaver explained. “These films were packaged as informative films about medical and educational subjects but had sexually explicit scenes slipped in. Even the father of film critic and trade analyst Taran Adarsh made such films. In these films, you could show whatever you wanted because they had the stamp of being technically educational.”
The Ramsay brothers, who crafted widely successful horror movies with a dash of erotica in the 1980s, leveraged the popularity of these PSA films. Towards the late 1980s, the Ramsay formula of ghosts harassing and haunting women in the shower was dwindling and audiences wanted more – more fights, more blood, more sex. This paved the way for an entirely new generation of pulp filmmakers including its poster boy Kanti Shah of Gunda, Loha and Kanti Shah Ke Angoor fame. “These movies worked because they had things that you could only imagine in your dreams, it was the ‘upside-down’ of Bollywood because there was more blood and sex than any mainstream Bollywood movie could promise,” Chandaver said. “The men were losers and the women did not resemble models but looked closer to how women actually looked.” In Kanti Shah’s 1998 hit Maut (Death), the character of Sapna Sappu has sex with a transvestite ghost. Sappu has acted in more than 250 films in a career spanning over three decades. In other films, women have sex with aliens. In the 1999 film Sar Kati Laash (The Headless Corpse) directed by Teerat Singh, who also features in the series, a headless corpse possesses a woman and has sex with the house help. Later the woman dances for this ghost, too. Singh confesses in the show: “We derived no joy from these films. We had to do them because they worked. There was no real creativity there.”
And yet at the time there was nothing technically illegal, as the films were approved by the censor board. As director Kanti Shah puts it in the show: “You gave me the censors and I showed you how to entertain the audience within the boundaries of the censors.” In other words, people could jerk off in theatres to censor-approved films but, as one theatre owner shares in the series, it was a nightmare cleaning up after a screening, as the floor was strewn with cum-stained hankies. The box office openings for some of these films were anticipated to be so strong that even mainstream Hindi cinema filmmakers, including Subash Ghai, would postpone the release of their films, so as not to lose out on profits. A few films did even better than movies starring superstars like Amitabh Bachchan.
The factors that contributed to ending the dream run of pulp cinema were many. One of the primary ones was the liberties certain filmmakers took with inserting “bits” – sexually explicit scenes that were not shown to the censor board but were illegally slipped into the film by the theatre projectionist on the directions of the distributor. These were added to attract audiences who would go to the theatres only to watch these scenes. These “bits” had no connection to the storyline and were randomly inserted into the films.
Not even megastars were spared from having “bits” inserted into their films. Dharmendra, one of the first superstars of Hindi cinema, did many films in the pulp cinema world. According to a story published by India Today in 2000, at the peak of the success of such films, he starred in these films because mainstream Bollywood had no roles to offer him at the time. Often, he’d charge Rs 1 lakh ($1,220) a day for a nine-hour shift.
As we find out in the series, Kanti Shah allegedly patched sequences of Dharmendra riding a horse with a woman having sex — the two scenes were stitched together to depict Dharmendra as the person having sex with the woman. According to Bala, this business of adding “bits” led to the eventual undoing of pulp cinema as we know it. He cautioned however that this was not a one-sided story of an oppressor and the oppressed, and that the rise of multiplexes and the moral police in the form of the Indian government had little to do with its downfall. “It was actually everyone just painfully crossing the line because after a point many of these movies had absolutely no semblance of a story,” explained Bala. “They actually started showing legit porn in the films, jumping the censors – showing a different film to the censors and a different one in the theatres. A lot of these films were playing illegally in theatres.”
As opposed to just teasing audiences as they had in the 1990s, some filmmakers crossed the boundary and moved over the edge. Put simply, these films had stopped being films. Even audiences figured out the illegality and irrelevance of it all. These theatres were raided by law enforcement officials, and the squeeze just wasn’t worth the juice, so to speak. Within a span of a few years and by the early 2000s, pretty much every stakeholder involved in pulp cinema was out of work. To this day, pulp cinema hasn’t been revived. The rules have become all the more strict, and most of these single-screen theatres have been shut. Eerie visuals of these dilapidated and run-down theatres are peppered throughout Cinema Marte Dum Tak. The fairytale had ended. Follow Arman on Twitter and Instagram.