The House of Ramsays has always had to live with its image. Mention the name, and an air of condescension descends upon cinegoers. A handful may pretend not to have heard the name. But most know that the Ramsays specialise in certain kinds of spooky films. Yet nobody, not even the film analysts, have made an effort at understanding the psyche, the logic, and the inspiration for these films; they are peremptorily dismissed as amateurish or half-baked attempts at evoking horror.
There has been no attempt to understand the economics of their cinema; how at the height of star-driven days the Ramsays managed to carve out a niche for themselves with no identifiable face at the box office; how they raked it rich even without memorable music scores; or how the group got together some out-of-work, keen-to-work artistes, and came up with films that went on to chart their own course, first in smaller towns, then in big cities. Nobody has given the Ramsays their due.
All this, until Valentina Vitali decided to make a study of their cinema, its correlation with economics, society, and polity of the day.
The essay is a part of the eminently readable book, Beyond the Boundaries of Bollywood, edited by Rachel Dwyer and Jerry Pinto. The book contains seven essays by the likes of Ravi Vasudevan and Anna Morcom, besides the editors Dwyer and Pinto.
Valentina Vitali's essay on the Ramsays stands out for the author's penchant for detail, apart from the subject matter itself. It would have been tempting to pick a Guru Dutt classic, a Kamal Amrohi masterpiece and wax eloquent. But Vitali gets rid of the snooty air to come up with a nuanced study that makes enlightening reading. The chapter titled “The Evil”, starts off with a scene from Shaitani Ilaka — one of the hits from the House of Ramsays that gave us such hair-raising fare as Purana Mandir, Hotel, Haveli, Veerana, and Saamri and inspired spin-offs of its own!
Vitali concentrates on the dynamics of their cinema — how the Ramsays borrowed happily from Indian mythology, fed off the fear of the unseen and juxtaposed that with their take on history. Of course, as pointed out by the author, history comes off as second best to lore, tradition and faith, the last one being depicted in the most grotesque colours to induce fear. The technology used, to put it politely, was elementary, the target audience was often brought up by those open to superstition and myth. Yet the films transcended easy classification; they were neither historicals nor complete mythologicals: that space was reserved for the likes of Taj Mahal or Jai Santoshi Maa. The Ramsays even brought in an air of immediacy and modernity to the narration. Vitali put together an essay that is informative for the uninitiated, and a delightful exercise for the knowledgeable.
In fact, there is another similar attempt by Morcom who blends irreverence with in-depth study in “Film Songs and Cultural Synergies of Bollywood.” While the eye is of a scholar, the language often steps beyond the rarefied environs of an academic debate.
With a fine juxtaposition of songs from Pakeezah, Sholay and later Maine Pyar Kiya, a nice coordination is struck between film songs of the reel and the real worlds. Now add insightful interviews with the likes of Jabbar Patel, Anurag Kashyap and Elahe Hiptoola and you get what Pinto (in notes on interviews) very helpfully calls “a multi-dimensional view of Hindi cinema and its relationships with other cinemas and other ways of seeing.” How true!