SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Suspend disbelief

CINEMA

Repackaged haunted haveli ... "Bhoot".

Repackaged haunted haveli ... "Bhoot".  

REMEMBER 1994? It was the year of "Hum Aapke Hain Kaun", the film that launched a thousand wedding musicals. Romancing the Alps was "in", eloping was "out" and parental approval was the new aphrodisiac. Bollywood was definitely manic. The depression was yet to come.

But something was rotting in the state of Nature. Floods, earthquakes, communal riots and the cataclysmic events of 9/11 brought tumbling down the feel-good edifice of four-lettered family capers that soon became flops. Audiences, already vulnerable, took to more fatalistic plots in films, where forces beyond human control attempted to re-write man's destiny. So, when producers, desperate for a hit, lured audiences with a deluge of occult themes, they hit the jackpot. The sole hit of 2002 was the thriller, "Raaz".

The arrival of Bollywood's terror truck brings to mind the Romantics and how they came to embrace the supernatural. Not unlike Bollywood's own "chiffon romances", pre-Romantic literary eras too had their dalliance with social intrigue, morality and other frivolities. There were 18th Century novels like Moll Flanders, Pamela and Clarissa, while Restoration comedies such as Way of the World and Marriage a la Mode satirised the calculated approach to finding a "good" husband. And then there was the 19th Century's very own Jane Austen whose formidable mammas kept a watch out for grooms with purses (over personality), giving the Bollywood ma a run for her money.

Suspend disbelief

But a la 9/11, the French Revolution of 1789 proved a watershed that in a way fuelled the Romantic Imagination. Disillusioned with the Revolution's aftermath and the collapse of ideals, Wordsworth found refuge in Nature worship: the Lyrical Ballads were born and we had a first glimpse of the preternatural.

Bollywood and the Romantics, both reinvented the wheel — reviving the supernatural from traditional folklore. The former revisited the "Bhoot Bangla" myth, once the tacky archetype of Ramsay Productions while the Romantics returned to the Middle Ages for supernatural themes and quasi-religious allegories as seen in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner".

But each adopted outer-world phenomena in a way that was distinct. The haunted haveli died a natural death in Bollywood. Instead a repackaged version by Ram Gopal Varma gave us 2003's slick urban ghost story, "Bhoot". "Darna Mana Hai", "Saaya" and "Hawa" followed. The Romantic poets however brought back the Supernatural theme along with its quaint medieval feudal setting. The result: "Christabel", "Eve of St. Agnes" and "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" all revoke the world of witches, knights, manors and virginal maidens. Exotic settings also stayed intact in Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" and Shelley's "Ozymandias", unlike the stylish high-rises of Mumbai's ghost-nouveau movement.

Thematically, Bollywood has adopted certain stock supernatural ingredients. After-life communication for instance is common to both "Saaya" and medieval elegies as "Pearl". And the Romantic conflict between intellect and intuition is equally evident in "Bhoot" (doctor vs. tantric, split personality vs. possession by a spirit). But character stands neglected in Bollywood's fear brigade. The Romantics did better. Take Shelley's "Prometheus", Mary Shelley's Frankenstein or the infamous Heathcliff, the archetypal Romantic anti-hero — brooding, possessed and intense. His is an edginess that even Nature couldn't tame, evoking the more turbulent elements — heath and cliff in the Gothic novel, Wuthering Heights.

All said and done, the supernatural has scored over saccharine, where formulas go, acquiring style, finesse and originality. Ghosts and spirits apart, films like "Koi Mil Gaya" have even brought us India's very own "ET". Can "Signs" or a "Sixth Sense" be far behind? Isn't it time we believed in the world's largest film industry?

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