‘Silence is the Real Monster in a Horror Film’
 Illustration: Pratiksha Chauhan
VICE Horror Show

‘Silence is the Real Monster in a Horror Film’

Saasha Ramsay, the third-generation scion of the famous Ramsay brothers, takes forward the legacy of Indian horror on screen by redefining fear.
Pallavi Pundir
Delhi, IN
October 29, 2018, 10:12am

Saasha Ramsay’s childhood was anything but ordinary. As the daughter of Shyam Ramsay—one of the seven brothers who were the architects of horror in Indian cinema in the 1970s and ’80s—she chose her playground well. On the iconic sets of Ramsay films, she encountered her playmates: bhoots (ghosts), daayans (witches), chudails (witch/female ghost) , icchadari nagins (mythical shape-shifting cobras) , and other supernatural monsters worthy of the visceral, unforgettable visual landscape of a genre that was completely monopolised by the banner back then. In fact, her first—and last—bout of fear was at the age of 12, when she encountered Samri (played by Ajay Agarwal, also seen in Bandit Queen) on the sets of Purana Mandir at the 400-year-old Murud-Janjira Fort in Maharashtra. Fear overwhelmed her to such an extent that she fell sick. It wasn’t until her father sat her down and made her watch “Samri uncle” remove layers of makeup that she breathed a sigh of relief. “All the ghosts are daddy’s friends,” her father told her gently. “ Dekha, yeh wohi karte hain jo main bolta hu (See, he does what I tell him to do).”

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Today, as I talk to Saasha over the phone, her chuckle in the middle of her stories resonates with wistful nostalgia. She remembers sitting at home with props such as the dead hand from Guest House (1980), the witch’s clothes from Veerana (1988) and black fangs. On one occasion, her father mixed tomato ketchup and chocolate sauce for guests to sample, to give them a sense of their “dry blood”. “Dad has this thing that he didn't trust anyone, so he used to get all the props home,” she says. And so, her house was littered with inanimate pieces of (mostly) human anatomy, which eventually helped her set up elaborate pranks, reminiscent of her father’s sets. “This one time, one of my friend’s neighbours got into a little [squabble] with me, so I took the Guest House- wala hand and kept it outside their doorstep, rang the bell and ran away. I howled like a dog, and she looked down, and, my God, she was screaming on top of her voice!”

From being on set since she was nine, to now a few decades later, a lot has changed, and yet nothing much has. Visual horror is not just business, it runs in Saasha’s veins. It always has, adds the third-generation Ramsay scion who is carrying forward the legacy of the banner. She remembers cueing the spot- and set- dadas (spotboys) by screaming, “Fog, fog, fog!” when she 10. On other days, she would sit on the camera tripod to get the angle of the camera right. “I knew at 10 that I was meant to direct horror films,” she says. Those on set would ask her father to consider giving her an acting role. “I guess even he knew what I really wanted,” she says.

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Shyam (extreme left) and Saasha (extreme right) Ramsay on the sets of a Ramsay brothers production in Indonesia earlier this year. "I feel like I'm finally prepared to take forward the legacy," says Saasha.

Back To The Future

“I feel like I’m finally prepared to take forward the legacy,” says Saasha. For someone who’s always assisted on sets in almost every department, and then working as an associate director with her father on several projects (the most recent one was a tribute series with 101 India titled Phir Se Ramsay), Saasha’s true metamorphosis lies in original storytelling. “Writing a story and following somebody’s story are two different ball games altogether,” she says. “I’ve grown up here and worked with dad. And now that digital has become a great medium to work with, this is the right time to put something out there.”

There are a few projects lined up, awaiting that final sign-off from channels. For one, Zee Horror Show, one of the most memorable shows that ran between 1993 and 1997, is going to make a comeback. “In fact, Zee Horror Show wasn’t produced with the conventional idea of a TV show. It was well ahead of its time,” says Saasha, who’s worked on the entire season and is waiting for a go-ahead from the channel. We stop our chatter abruptly at this point, pausing to sing the theme track—the ghoulish weave of sounds and noises that’s been imprinted on every ’90s kid’s nightmare. Zee Horror Show wasn’t just a set of scary stories. Its plots were a delightful mix of nail-biting whodunnits and, of course, horror, where loose references were taken from Hollywood flicks such as Child’s Play and The Exorcist, and featured prominent faces such as Javed Khan, Pallavi Joshi and Archana Puran Singh. “Remember Archana’s head on the table? It was iconic!” she laughs.

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Next on the lineup is her remake of another legendary Ramsay title, Veerana, which, according to Shamya Dasgupta, the author of Don’t Disturb the Dead: The Story of the Ramsay Brothers, was the last of the Ramsay classics. “Unlike many of their earlier films, Veerana is quite slickly made; the fact that it’s the late '80s shows in the smoothness of the script, the quality of the acting, the ‘sets’, the songs and their picturisation, and, most of all, in their choice of the female, and overall, lead: Jasmin,” writes Dasgupta in his book. And so, it’s only natural that Saasha’s interpretation is a spin-off on the leading lady, Jasmin, who, she adds, has a very distinct and large fan following. “It’s my dream project. Wherever I would go, everybody would ask me, why don’t you make Veerana? So, more than from within, Veerana came from all the people who wanted it so much. I obviously grabbed the opportunity. I watched the film a couple of times, discussed it with dad, and now, it will be ready pretty soon,” she says.

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"My father was my harshest critic, and he still is, even now."

The Truth About Silence

Saasha’s education was more significant on set, than off. She worked on Zee Horror Show through school and college, which sharpened the rough edges of her ideas. “I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I never wanted to be a Zoya Akhtar. I was very clear in my head that I'm Shyam Ramsay's daughter,” she says. The shoot schedule for ZHS would run 28-29 days a month, which enabled her to slip into whichever role she had assigned herself with ease. “I didn't feel the need to study cinema. Even my dad never said that I should go somewhere to study it or do something else. Plus, it's not that I suddenly went to the sets and started rolling. My father started me off by making me mark [positions] with chalk, and bohot daant bhi padi mujhe (I was scolded a lot) . I used to cry saying, 'Aisa kyu karte hai papa (Why are you doing this papa)?' He never gave me things on a platter. He was my harshest critic, and he still is, even now.”

Horror, of course, has changed in front of her eyes. “I don’t think I’ve seen a horror film in a decade,” says the filmmaker who counts Mahesh Bhatt as one of her influences, “And I mean that I don’t consider them as horror. Maybe they’re doing good business. But there is no horror.” Prod further and she explains, “Most of the ‘horror’ films these days are experimental. They don’t spook you in any way. Jab tak daroge nahi, toh aap usko horror kaise bologe (If they don’t scare you, how can you call them horror)? By being experimental, they've killed the genre of horror. With horror, you have to enjoy. You go with the thought of getting scared and cuddling up and having fun. That’s not there anymore.”

As Saasha puts it, horror is not tough to crack or execute either. “I do think that its audience is very loyal. Horror has a lot of credibility because it completely depends on your creative gene. It's not based on everyday life. I think it's a super creative subject,” she says. While the Ramsay school of horror abides by the in-your-face blood, gore and terror, Saasha’s philosophy veers towards The Conjuring-esque brand of quiet horror. “I always say that silence is the loudest noise,” says Saasha. Even when it comes to her monsters of choice, it’s silence she chooses as the most frightening. “It’s something I haven’t seen. It scares me more because it eludes me. It gives me goosebumps. It could be at the back of my car or in an empty elevator. That’s the real monster,” she says.