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Haunting Bollywood

Haunting Bollywood
Gender, Genre, and the Supernatural in Hindi Commercial Cinema

The first wide-ranging look at horror and the supernatural in Bollywood films made since 1949, this interdisciplinary study examines how gender and genre intersect in cinematic tales of unproductive love, abominable creatures, and unspeakable appetites.

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March 2017
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264 pages | 6 x 9 | Hardcover has a printed case, no dust jacket | 30 b&w photos |

Haunting Bollywood is a pioneering, interdisciplinary inquiry into the supernatural in Hindi cinema that draws from literary criticism, postcolonial studies, queer theory, history, and cultural studies. Hindi commercial cinema has been invested in the supernatural since its earliest days, but only a small segment of these films have been adequately explored in scholarly work; this book addresses this gap by focusing on some of Hindi cinema’s least explored genres.

From Gothic ghost films of the 1950s to snake films of the 1970s and 1980s to today’s globally influenced zombie and vampire films, Meheli Sen delves into what the supernatural is and the varied modalities through which it raises questions of film form, history, modernity, and gender in South Asian public cultures. Arguing that the supernatural is dispersed among multiple genres and constantly in conversation with global cinematic forms, she demonstrates that it is an especially malleable impulse that routinely pushes Hindi film into new formal and stylistic territories. Sen also argues that gender is a particularly accommodating stage on which the supernatural rehearses its most basic compulsions; thus, the interface between gender and genre provides an exceptionally productive lens into Hindi cinema’s negotiation of the modern and the global. Haunting Bollywood reveals that the supernatural’s unruly energies continually resist containment, even as they partake of and sometimes subvert Hindi cinema’s most enduring pleasures, from songs and stars to myth and melodrama.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • 1. Haunted Havelis and Hapless Heroes: Gender, Genre, and the Hindi Gothic Film
  • 2. The Ramsay Rampage: Horror as Emergency Cinema
  • 3. Ravishing Reptiles: Magic, Masala, and the Hindi “Snake Film”
  • 4. Present Imperfect: Bollywood and the Ghosts of Neoliberalism
  • 5. The Planetary Paranormal: Millennial Mythos and the Disassembly of the “Hindi Film”
  • Epilogue
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Piscataway, New Jersey

Sen is an assistant professor in the Department of African, Middle Eastern, and South Asian Languages and Literatures (AMESALL) and the Cinema Studies Program at Rutgers University. She is the coeditor of Figurations in Indian Film.



In the Summer of 1989, a Childhood friend invited me to watch a film at her home in a small campus-town in West Bengal. This was during our summer vacation, when school was out and parents were away at work. My friend’s family owned a VCR—a thrilling luxury in the pre-liberalization years—and she had managed to obtain a video copy of the Ramsay brothers’ horror film Veerana (1988), a film that, in those days, could only be watched in secret. As a bunch of us gathered around the television set to watch our first A, or adult-certified, film, the air was thick with a heady sense of transgression. Someone had to keep a watchful eye on the door for returning parents, because getting caught watching this particular film would have had fairly serious consequences. Its reputation for being “sexy” was already common knowledge among sheltered, middle-class teens like us, and my intrepid friend risked a fair bit in initiating us into the joys of forbidden images. The other particulars of that viewing experience are hazy now, but I clearly recall being utterly dazzled by the combination of horror effects and sex scenes that littered the film, pleasures that could never be owned up to. My love of supernatural films was born in that synergy of breathless excitement and mounting dread at the thought of being “discovered,” an affective state not uncommon to the reception of many of the films and genres I engage with in Haunting Bollywood.

This book delves into what the supernatural is and what it reveals in and about the Hindi film since the late 1940s. In the chapters that follow, I argue that the supernatural invites us to consider questions of film form, history, modernity, and gender in South Asia in especially pointed ways. Dispersed along multiple genres, and constantly in conversation with global cinematic forms, the supernatural is a labile and plastic impetus, and one that has routinely pushed the Hindi film into new formal and stylistic territories. And yet Hindi cinema’s most enduring pleasures—from songs and stars to myth and melodrama—continue to inflect, infect, and undergird the supernatural: this is a story of mutual hauntings, and it traverses multiple sites of contact, contagion, and promiscuity. Crowded with abominable creatures, unproductive love stories, and unspeakable appetites, Haunting Bollywood demonstrates that the sheer heterogeneity of figures, styles, ideologies, and genres that the supernatural enfolds demands new modes of inquiry. While the bulk of my engagement situates the films/ genres within their historical and political contexts, I also track the unintended pathways along which these films continue to travel, make meaning, and affect new audiences in the era of the Internet and new media. Historical and ideological scaffoldings provide some explanation for the continuing popularity of these genres, but many of these assumptions are reconfigured by the complexities of new media ecologies. For the most part, the films and genres I consider are B products—made on modest budgets and lurking in the margins of the mainstream industry; others, however, have enjoyed brief spurts of respectability. Some genres and their monstrous figures have even infiltrated single-mindedly bourgeois living rooms and elite multiplexes. In other words, the story of the supernatural is far from predictable and continuously emergent; Haunting Bollywood shows that its unruly energies do not capitulate to neat and singular methodological grids, and my analyses, likewise, resist the temptation of neatness and closure.

Hindi commercial cinema—often simply “Bollywood”—has received an enviable amount of scholarly attention in recent years. While this undoubtedly suggests a less Euro-American focus in film studies globally, it should not be taken to mean that all kinds of non-Western cinema have been enjoying their day in the sun. This book is about Hindi films that have not been discussed very often, or are only beginning to be engaged with in more “revisionist” histories of the form. Although scholars of Hindi film routinely interrogate this cinematic formation’s disregard for realism and its penchant for the irrational and the fantastic, analyses of the supernatural in Indian cinema have largely been limited to the incursions of divine beings such as gods/goddesses or saints in, for example, the mythological or devotional genres. Orientalist, fantasy, and magical films that were staples of the silent era, and which provide some of the iconographic tropes for the genres I discuss here, have been explored with care and attention. However, other forms of supernatural entities—ghosts, vampires, animal shape-shifters, monsters, malevolent spirits, and the like—have remained curiously absent in this literature, until recently. The oversight remains especially noteworthy because South Asia’s rich narrative and performative traditions—oral and written, religious and secular—have routinely invoked such figures to entertain, educate, and enthrall their audiences. Haunting Bollywood addresses this lacuna in Indian cinema studies by exploring some of Hindi cinema’s least studied genres: ghost films, snake/ animal films, horror, and so on.

The relative obscurity of the supernatural in scholarly inquiries of Hindi film (in spite of the vast number of films and cycles that belong in the category) can be partially explained by the marginal status of many of these films in relation to the commercial mainstream: as mentioned above, with few notable exceptions, the supernatural impetus has tended to lurk in the B and C categories of cinematic fare. Alphabetical tags not only correspond to industrial matters such as budgets or stars but, as I demonstrate in the chapters that follow, simultaneously signify putative audiences and gesture toward notions of taste and vectors of social identity. In the journalistic parlance that gathers around Hindi cinema, supernatural films have historically been made for “the masses”—working-class and often non-metropolitan audiences that, in Ashis Nandy’s words, account for Hindi film’s “slum’s-eye” view of all things. Whereas the contours of an academic field are often drawn by various determinants that have little to do with these broader considerations, it is difficult to deny that most of these films were simply not considered to be worthy objects of scholarly inquiry until now.

Haunting Bollywood traces some of the ways in which the supernatural film has mutated in Hindi cinema since the late 1940s. However, this is also a story of striking continuities; the supernatural congeals as a set of specific formal and narrative preoccupations in the Hindi commercial film, and though historical breaks exert certain pressures on these clusters, their overall resilience is remarkable. In other words, while the modalities of haunting sometimes shift and transform—creatures who haunt, for example, come in an array of forms and guises—how Hindi film allows itself to be haunted is a telling instance of its most enduring characteristics. Notwithstanding that specters have been flitting through Hindi film for a very long time, their presence in the humanities and social sciences received a new fillip in the 1990s.

Hauntings in the Humanities

The publication of Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx (1993) infused new life into the specter as a figure, revitalizing the idea of haunting in the humanities and spawning “a minor academic industry.”6 Derrida’s ghost is, above all, a deconstructive trope, aligned to broader poststructuralist imperatives: “[H]auntology supplants its near-homonym ontology, replacing the priority of being and presence with the figure of the ghost as that which is neither present nor absent, neither dead nor alive.” This ability of the specter to unsettle binary modes of thought “and the linearity of historical chronology” accounts for much of its extraordinary fertility in literary and cultural studies. For my purposes here, the ghost’s ability to narrate/articulate (embody and make manifest) forgotten, repressed, and disavowed histories remains key: “[T]he ghost is that which interrupts the presentness of the present, and its haunting indicates that, beneath the surface of received history, there lurks another narrative, an untold story that calls into question the veracity of the authorized version of events.” In other words, the ghost’s presence gestures toward concealed archives of events and memories that could not be unearthed, except by taking recourse to a figure that is revelatory: “[T]he ghost ceases to be seen as obscurantist and becomes, instead, a figure of clarification with a specifically ethical and political potential.” Whether literal or metaphoric, real or projected, the ghost exposes fissures and cracks in history, ontology, and text with an urgency that no other figure harnesses.

Ghosts in dominant narratives, histories, and chronologies do not necessarily reveal themselves easily; often they have to be carefully looked for or listened to. But their presence remains foundational to modern technologies like the telegraph, radio, television, and cinema, making these hauntological media par excellence. In Ken McMullen’s 1983 film Ghost Dance, Derrida (playing himself) notes with customary prescience, “The cinema is an art of ghosts, a battle of phantoms. . . . It’s the art of allowing ghosts to come back. . . . I believe that modern developments in technology and telecommunication, instead of diminishing the realm of ghosts . . . enhances the power of ghosts and their ability to haunt us.” More recently, Jeffrey Sconce has shown how the entire history of telecommunications has been haunted by the sense that something uncanny, some sentient “presence” lurks in our familiar, everyday machines: “Sound and image without material substance, the electronically mediated worlds of telecommunications often evoke the supernatural by creating virtual beings that appear to have no physical form.” Sconce goes on to elaborate how media technologies can themselves “take on the appearance of a haunted apparatus . . . telephones, radios, and computers have been similarly ‘possessed’ by such ‘ghosts in the machine,’ the technologies serving as either uncanny electronic agents or as gateways to electronic otherworlds.” A critical insight of Sconce’s work—and one that remains important to my own inquiry here—is the historical mutability of the idea of haunting: in other words, how certain technologies are perceived to be haunted or to harbor “invisible entities” is historically contingent, and constitutive of various strains of contemporary discourse. However, as Derrida cautions, the relationship of haunting and history is far from simple and may unsettle the notion of telos and progress altogether, because “haunting is historical, to be sure, but it is not dated, it is never docilely given a date in the chain of presents, day after day, according to the instituted order of a calendar.” Unpredictable, unruly, and sometimes profoundly anachronistic, ghosts and hauntings force us to reckon with time, history, chronology, linearity, and the contemporary in fundamental ways.

As an iconic product of modern technology, the cinema comes to be embedded in this complex terrain in specific ways. Cinema’s allegiance to the magical and the fantastic—harnessed by the wonder of the moving image in its earliest days, for instance—imbues it with a certain kind of richness in this context: cinema is simultaneously rational and magical, utterly modern yet capable of generating persistent enchantments. Tom Gunning has demonstrated how “the convergence between phantoms and photography may prove more than fortuitous.” Through a masterfully detailed consideration of “Spirit Photographs,” scientific discoveries of optical tools that enabled different modes of perception and visuality, and philosophical tenets in the modern era, Gunning shows that modern media are foundationally imbued with hauntological possibilities: “[P]hotography was the first great breakthrough—a way of possessing material objects in a strangely decorporealized yet also supernaturally vivid form. But still more bizarre forms of spectral representation have appeared in the twentieth century—the moving pictures of cinematography and television, and recently, the eerie, three dimensional phantasmata of holography and virtual reality.”

This complex body of work on ghosts and specters informs Haunting Bollywood as a whole, but I also examine how Hindi cinema remains haunted in other and more specific ways. Playback singing, for example, overlays a prerecorded music track atop the image track and imbues the form with an added layer of spectrality; not only do ghostly forms flicker via the apparatus, but ghostly voices of absent others (and shards of times past) accompany them in the present of the projected moment. Hindi cinema’s phantoms are, thus, both literal—ghosts, spirits, and other supernatural creatures when they appear as diegetic entities—and also symbolic, as they speak to and for other narratives, beyond the ones they inhabit. The dovetailing of real and metaphoric registers of ghostliness are typically highlighted through the formal particularities of Hindi film. The emphasis on hauntings may imply that supernatural beings are exclusively spectral and insubstantial in Hindi cinema, but this is not the case. Indeed, most of these films invoke the materiality of the body in a foundational manner. Supernatural entities in this setting remain stubbornly corporeal,16 often eliciting correspondingly visceral responses in the audiences as well.

Embodiment: Horror, Affect, and Queerness

Since the 1990s, film theory has overcome its long-standing reluctance to address questions of bodies and embodiment; in fact, some of the most exciting theoretical breakthroughs since then have directly engaged bodies—both on and off screen. Linda Williams observes that one of the shared characteristics among excessive “body genres” is that they tend to display (especially female) bodies in the throes of extreme sensations: “[T]he body spectacle is featured most sensationally in pornography’s portrayal of orgasm, in horror’s portrayal of violence and terror, and in melodrama’s portrayal of weeping. . . . Visually, each of these ecstatic excesses could be said to share a quality of uncontrollable convulsion or spasm—of the body ‘beside itself ’ with sexual pleasure, fear and terror, or overpowering sadness.” Building on Carol Clover’s work on horror, Williams goes on to argue that the binaries of male/female, active/passive, sadism/masochism are complex and fluid when it comes to questions of fantasy, identification with bodies on screen, and gendered notions of film spectatorship. Williams’s insights remain especially valuable for this book, because first, horror is one of the most important sites for the elaboration of the supernatural in Hindi film, and second, because most of the genres I look at are melodramatic at their core and deploy bodies accordingly, and finally, some teeter precipitously on the brink of pornographic titillation, especially when presenting the female body as spectacle.

Alongside Barbara Creed, Clover, and Williams, Jack Halberstam has opened up particularly productive ways of thinking about unruly, queer, posthuman, and monstrous bodies in horror and beyond. In considering Gothic horror, Halberstam has shown how certain notions of deviance and monstrosity are constitutively gendered, corporeal, and infinitely fecund when it comes to generating meanings. In Skin Shows, Halberstam writes,

Gothic novels are technologies that produce the monster as a remarkably mobile, permeable, and infinitely interpretable body. The monster’s body, indeed, is a machine that, in its Gothic mode, produces meaning and can represent any horrible trait that the reader feeds into the narrative. The monster functions as a monster, in other words, when it is able to condense as many fear-producing traits into one body. . . . Monsters are meaning machines.

Although the figures I interrogate here are by no means uniformly monstrous, Halberstam’s insights continue to be useful when looking at the multiplicity of meanings that supernatural entities effortlessly embody in given cinematic constellations. The attention to historical context—the fact that what gets designated as deviant, monstrous, or terrifying shifts across time, “that fear and monstrosity are historically specific forms, rather than psychological universals”—is a key aspect of Halberstam’s work that informs Haunting Bollywood as a whole.

While this excavation of the body vis-à-vis specific representational terrains began within feminist film scholarship still grounded in psychoanalytic theory, it has since moved farther afield, following the resurgence of interest in Gilles Deleuze’s work. Steven Shaviro remains one of the most important voices in shifting the critical conversation to what has been called the “affective turn” in cultural theory. Marshaling his cinephiliac desire against the distanced and disembodied ruminations of psychoanalytic film theory, Shaviro writes, “In film viewing, there is pleasure and more than pleasure: a rising scale of seduction, delirium, fascination, and utter absorption in the image. The pleasures, the unpleasant constraints, the consuming obsessions of writing theory . . . cannot be separated from the bodily agitations, the movements of fascination, the reactions of attraction and repulsion, of which they are the extension and elaboration.” Arguing for a radical reconsideration of bodily sensations invoked by the cinema, Shaviro suggests that images affect the body viscerally and without mediation; that we initially encounter films as pure sensation, “before having the leisure to read or interpret them as symbols.” Unsurprisingly, many of Shaviro’s favored texts for affective interpretation and reading come from the horror genre—from George A. Romero’s “blank, terrifying and ludicrous” postmodern zombies to David Cronenberg’s horrifyingly mutant bodies, which make his films “violently, literally visceral.” Indeed, of all the “body genres” identified by Williams, horror has possibly benefited the most from the critical turn to affect, because—as Larrie Dudenhoeffer pithily notes—in a certain sense, “all horror is body horror.”

While this large corpus of interdisciplinary scholarship on embodiment, corporeality, affect, monstrosity, and queerness informs Haunting Bollywood in productive and constitutive ways, it is also crucial to note that Western cultural theory can only have limited purchase when discussing such formations as the Hindi popular film. A considerable degree of retooling and repurposing is required in order to do justice to the contextual valences of the films in question. For example, supernatural bodies do not quite function like human bodies in this context; in Hindi cinema, the body of the ghost, shape-shifting animal, or monstrous creature is often shot through with mythic and sacral intensities. Questions of ontology, corporeality, and subjectivity, therefore, have to be calibrated in accordance with the figurative energies that the supernatural entities harness in their bodies. Some of these bodies are quasi-divine, demanding our awe as well as fear; some others invite our desire and repugnance in equal measure. The mobilization of sensation or emotion in South Asian performative traditions is further complicated by, for example, the notion of rasa or “mood,” a term that is derived from Sanskrit dramaturgy and one that is often deployed to address the manner in which Indian cinema inscribes emotions in depersonalized terms. The notion of “queerness,” likewise, permeates this book but means something very specific in this context: it ranges from the thanatic passivity of the Gothic hero who literally wants to “waste away” for the ghostly beloved in Chapter 1, to the unspeakable appetites implied by the human-snake romance in Chapter 3, to the more familiar sexual excesses and deviances of the Ramsay monsters that I explore in Chapter 2. Thus, although Western theory inflects my readings in important ways, I have remained attentive to the specific textual and historical terrains that tether these genres, even as they travel through the diffused and ghostly pathways of electronic and digital media in recent times.

The spectral and the corporeal, the affective and the psychological are held in productive tension in many of the genres I discuss in Haunting Bollywood. And the theoretical insights from affect (and gender) theory come to be enormously productive precisely at moments when ideological or historical analysis alone leads to critical impasses. Throughout this book, I move between various methods, using tools that the heterogeneity of my material demands. The manner in which bodies in films and the films themselves circulate through media economies and ecologies have much to do with the generic and formal peculiarities of the Hindi film.

Genre, Form, and the Supernatural

Hindi commercial cinema’s most universally recognized aspect is its formal assemblage, the heterogeneity of its narrative structure, or its masala form. Any study of the form has to reckon with its “attractional” format—song and dance, action, melodrama, romance, all strung together— and most scholarly inquiries tend to frame it as sui generis, which mutates only under extreme pressures that attend to the political economy, such as transformations in the state form. While some historical phases have engendered a more integrative form—for example, the Social film in the 1940s through the 1960s, which often included themes of social importance—others have witnessed its progressive unraveling into a tentatively held-together system of spectacles, such as the overwrought masala film of the 1970s, whose impulse toward the frontal solicitation of the spectator remains remarkably consistent. Either way, until very recently, the Hindi commercial film’s unruly energies—both in terms of industrial organization and textual proclivities, which overlap with each other—could hardly be corralled into neat generic categories of the kind that scholars of Hollywood cinema can easily mobilize. For example, in his seminal work on Hollywood genres, Rick Altman describes film genre as a “complex concept with multiple meanings,” which include the following:

  • genre as blueprint, as a formula that precedes, programs, and patterns industry production;

  • genre as structure, as the formal framework on which individual films are founded;

  • genre as label, as the name of a category central to the decisions and communications of distributors and exhibitors;

  • genre as contract, as the viewing position required by each genre film of its audience. 

Altman’s fascinating study—which also complicates the unities sketched above—gives us a template for examining Bollywood’s more recent, millennial restructuring; however, it remains inadequate, or simply inappropriate, for understanding the commercial cinema’s industrial structuring, historical forms, and trajectories. Having said that, in Haunting Bollywood, I am calling for a recalibration of the portmanteau terms—“Social,” “masala,” and so on—in order to see how fledgling generic impulses operate within these more capacious categories. In other words, I will use generic labels as a heuristic approach, despite their eventual absorption into the larger umbrella categories; here, I argue that attending to these “generic” preoccupations reveals something that remains occluded via the more general optics. What I shall call the “genres of the supernatural” include Gothic films (at the time, often advertised or consumed as thrillers), snake films (labeled and marketed as folklore or some variation thereof, and which I designate as a historically circumscribed cycle), horror films (unmistakably so, but qualified as equally masala), and recently, more generically consolidated novelties such as zombie films or creature-features. In Haunting Bollywood, I argue that the supernatural congeals as a specific set of lateral impulses in given historical junctures, and the concept of genre— traditionally defined—can enable us to uncover social as well as textual meanings that remain otherwise obfuscated.

The optic of genre—even if most of these films did not traverse through the production-distribution-exhibition triad of nodes and contracts that Western genre films typically do—is also productive in terms of the hybrid allegiances of the supernatural in Hindi commercial cinema. The generic clusters and cycles I look at in this book remain haunted on multiple registers: first, I argue that contrary to the commonplace notion that this cinema remains embedded within local narrative idioms, the supernatural genres, in fact, integrate international genre-film conventions into the local textual idiom, creating foundationally hybrid and unabashedly promiscuous formal modes: “It is not . . . a ‘primitive’ but rather a ‘heterogenous’ form that selectively (and whimsically) imports Hollywood norms even while remaining embedded in its historical and cultural milieu.” Second, and for my purposes quite pivotal, is the question of generic continuities in the commercial form: my readings demonstrate that certain conventions come to be recursive in distinct generic formations and the commercial cinema redeploys these in new guises in specific historical moments. For example, the figure of the singing ghost—the spectral siren who lures the hero away from a predetermined telos—appears in arguably distinct genres like the Gothic, the “snake film,” the “reincarnation film,” and the overblown horror film from the 1980s. In other words, here I trace generic “tropes” through both synchronic and diachronic axes. In this sense, the filmic iteration of the supernatural comes to be doubly haunted—bearing traces of the “uncanny foreign” as well as inscribing signs and traces of its own textual forbears.

A few concrete examples would sharpen this point further, and the reincarnation film—which I do not discuss in any detail, but which shares significant traits with the Gothic and several other genres that I do in-vestigate—provides an excellent template for tracking the motility and plasticity of supernatural tropes. Two key motifs that constitute generic propensities of the reincarnation film include the thematic of sexual violence and a patterned use of the song sequence. The foundational act of rape (real or potential), which often sets these narratives in motion, features in films ranging from Madhumati (1958) to Kudrat (1981) to Dangerous Ishq (2012). While the blockbuster Om Shanti Om (2007) does not incorporate rape, the chastity of the dead Shanti (Deepika Padukone) is indeed compromised by the villain Mukesh (Arjun Rampal) and must be avenged at closure. OSO famously pays homage to both Karz (1980) and Madhumati, and to the many pasts and genres of Hindi cinema, but even less reflexive reincarnation films repurpose the generic tropes in specific ways. The song sequence—in this case, the love song that the rebirth saga hinges on—is similarly deployed across films. If Madhumati features Lata Mangeshkar’s haunting rendition of “Aaja Re” (“Come to Me”), then Kudrat mobilizes “Humein Tumse Pyaar Kitna” (“How Much I Love You”) (sung by Kishore Kumar and Parveen Sultana) and Mehbooba (1976) incorporates “Mere Naina Saawan Bhado” (“My Eyes Rain Tears”) in very similar ways, to jolt the reincarnated protagonists into an uncanny recognition of their previous lives/selves. Additionally, in many of these films, these particular songs are repeated, indicating the cyclical nature of death and rebirth in accordance with specifically Hindu belief systems. And, as I argue in the chapters that follow, the genres of the supernatural are especially prone to these recursive gestures; the history I map in Haunting Bollywood turns on the fulcrum of (re)iteration/accommodation, as generic clusters innovate and repeat certain formal and narrative preoccupations over time.

The advent of the supernatural in Hindi cinema dovetails closely with formal particularities; across genres, the supernatural impulse in Hindi film finds elaboration through what we can loosely call the “performance sequence.” The most obvious modality of performance in the Hindi film is, of course, the song-and-dance sequence, “a deep structure of this tradition and crucial to the way it is described by both insiders and outsiders.” The song-and-dance sequence, as many scholars of Indian cinema have pointed out, not only attests to Hindi cinema’s heterogenous mode of manufacture—often shot and edited autonomously from the rest of the film—but it also remains a key commercial aspect of this cinema, used in advertising and marketing of films prior to their release on multiple platforms, on CDs, television trailers and programs, and now via the Internet. The song sequence—easily decoupled from the rest of the film—also speedily travels across the globe in diasporic and other locations worldwide; indeed, the films as a whole often piggyback on the success of their music albums, and songs have been known to propel mediocre cinematic fare into box-office successes. Narratively, the song sequence performs multiple functions in the Hindi film, ranging from consolidating the romantic couple to “serving as the kernel that contains the film’s message and conveys the ‘director’s true intentions.’”

In Haunting Bollywood, I argue that the song-and-dance sequence—a critical affective tool for Hindi film—also allows for the supernatural to be potentiated and elaborated; in fact, the supernatural subjects the formal grammar of Hindi cinema to extremes of the attractional format, as evidenced, for example, in the Ramsay horror film of the 1980s. But more broadly, the notion of performance is of key importance in this context; so, for example, other types of spectacular set pieces stand in for song-anddance sequences in the more recent Bollywood films that eschew the traditional portmanteau format. When the nature of the performance sequence is transformed—as in the new “songless” film, for instance—the supernatural comes to contort the formal domain in other ways, transforming generic modalities decisively. For example, in the recent Go Goa Gone (2013), extensive, spectacularly staged zombie attacks punctuate the narrative in lieu of more typical attractions. Throughout this book, the manner in which the supernatural imbricates formal aspects of the commercial film remains a central problematic.

The relationship between the supernatural and the performance sequence brings us to yet another key optic through which I read these genres—gender and sexuality. In Haunting Bollywood, I argue that gender is a particularly fecund terrain on which the supernatural rehearses its most basic compulsions. I suggest that the interface between gender and genre provides an especially productive lens for viewing the commercial form’s negotiation of the supernatural in at least two ways: first, because generic particularities often congeal along certain kinds of gendered and sexualized representational modes, and second, because these films often address a specifically gendered spectator. The question of viewership—both the imaginary spectator addressed by the films and the fluctuating patronage of putative audiences—remains a critical component of my analyses; although this is not an audience study in the ethnographic sense, the discursive materials surrounding these genres—reviews, articles, interviews, and so on—give us a sense of who their intended audiences were.

Genres of the supernatural have always attempted to speak to specific audience segments: from the Ramsays to Ram Gopal Varma, filmmakers and production outfits alike pitch the supernatural to specific types of viewers. In this sense, barring a few exceptions like the more inclusive films from the 1960s, the address of the supernatural film remains narrower than most genres. This, too, is a matter of historical contingency, and I show how the supernatural films’ audiences have shifted across time. The digital explosion and media convergence over the last decade or so have also garnered new audiences for these genres; in several chapters that follow, I demonstrate how new sites of reception have reanimated the genres that had become moribund in the intervening decades since their theatrical release and circulation. Ghosts, snakes, monsters, and other supernatural entities have been paradoxically infused with new life, as digital domains continue to host their untimely afterlives in perpetuity.

Modernity, Temporality, and the Supernatural

So far, I have only gestured toward one other theoretical scaffolding that undergirds Haunting Bollywood as a whole: the question of modernity and its many unpredictable habitats and trajectories in South Asia. Before tracking some of the complexities that constellate around the figuration of the modern in Bollywood film, it is worthwhile to recall that modernity has itself been described as an uncanny realm of experiences and representations; Jo Collins and John Jervis, for instance, have posited that “the uncanny may be a fundamental, constitutive aspect of our experience of the modern . . . the uncanny testifies to a distinctive sensibility, a fusion of feeling and reflection, hence to a distinctive aesthetics of modernity, along with the wider psychological and cultural consequences of this.”40 Sigmund Freud’s famous 1919 essay on the uncanny is only a piece of the historical puzzle that demonstrates that a certain “uncertainty, at the heart of our ontology, our sense of time, place, and history, both personal and cultural”41 has haunted the imaginaries of modernity since at least the nineteenth century. In his work on European modernist writers ranging from Arthur Rimbaud to Stéphane Mallarmé, Samuel Beckett, Paul Verlaine, T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, and others, Jean-Michel Rabaté similarly maps the “dim contours of a haunted modernity . . . a modernity that is by definition never contemporaneous with itself, since it constantly projects, anticipates, and returns to mythical origins, but that also teaches us more about the ‘present,’ which it historicizes.”

In India, of course, the hauntological imperatives of modernity are further complicated by the history of colonialism and Empire. One of the most important interventions in the humanities and social sciences—in disciplines ranging from history and literature to anthropology and sociology—in the last several decades has been the challenging of the universalist claims that the Enlightenment and Western modernity have been the engines for the propulsion of all histories. The basic thrust of this influential body of work—variously called “alternative modernities,” and “multiple” or “other modernities”—has been to trace a “more complex genealogy of the modern,” wherein the West and the rest are not bound in a relationship of delay (what Dipesh Chakrabarty evocatively calls being consigned to the “imaginary waiting room of history”). The idea is, rather, to engage with modernity as an emergent global phenomenon, wherein the non-West functions as the “constitutive outside” to the universalist European narrative. In this critical terrain, heterogeneous forms of social organization, identity formation, and modes of belonging and representation become essential components of that larger story. As Timothy Mitchell writes, “[E]very performance of the modern is the production of . . . difference, and each such difference represents the possibility of some shift, displacement, or contamination. If modernity is defined by its claim to universality, this always remains an impossible universal. . . . Modernity then becomes the unsuitable yet unavoidable name for these discrepant histories.”

For my purposes here, two themes that run through this vast body of scholarship remain especially critical: first, that the project of modernity continues to unfold and emerge, its various “posts” notwithstanding, and second, that arguably “non-modern” elements come to be constitutive of a certain kind of “modernity.” Both of these insights remain important for understanding India, where the imbrication of colonialism and capitalism has bequeathed a fitful modernity, one that remains foundationally troubled by the feudal/non-modern. Cinema—especially Hindi commercial cinema—comes to be entangled in this thicket of questions in specific ways. The heterogeneous mode of manufacture, which until very recently accounted for Hindi cinema’s formal assemblage, remains something of a contamination of capitalism’s neat, vertically integrated assembly lines; the industrial and technological and stylistic imperatives of the commercial film make it appear as “a-not-yet cinema, a bastard institution in which the mere ghost of a technology is employed for purposes inimical to its historic essence.”

From a formal mélange that constitutively flouts bourgeois modernity’s most cherished mode of expression (realism, broadly understood), to narrative and ideological alignments that constantly seem to espouse some version of “tradition,” “[t]his binary . . . figures centrally, both thematically and as an organizing device, in popular film narratives." In the supernatural film, any traction that realism may have exerted in other formations—tentative at best in Hindi popular cinema—disappears entirely, generating fantastic thematic and formal terrains that push the binary to its limit. In Haunting Bollywood, I argue that the excessive, profligate energies of the supernatural genres throw down the gauntlet against modernity in a special way; in other words, this book demonstrates that the supernatural allows us an especially fecund, and so far underexplored, point of entry into the continuously emergent story of Hindi cinema’s romance with modernity and its others. Most often, I use the term “feudal” to refer to the ethos and dispensation that occupies the other side of the binary axis. “Feudal,” here, is a heuristic device to investigate an array of elements, starting from non-modern economic and social arrangements that these films include as content (the various thakurs [lords] in their havelis [mansions]) to the more latent ideological propensities where the feudal appears in transformed garbs and guises. As I demonstrate in Chapters 4 and 5, the supernatural’s retreat from the rural haveli to the urban high-rise has not necessarily signaled a disabling of feudalism in this larger sense. Although modernity is certainly at large in post-liberalization avatars of the supernatural, it continues to be haunted by energies that remain inimical to its more familiar ontologies. If the narrative of South Asian modernity remains constitutively unsettled, forces of globalization have further complicated the scenario. Finally, I argue that far from becoming disenchanted under the aegis of late capitalism, Bombay cinema has incubated new habitats for the supernatural, in the era of its planetary dispersal. Put differently, the genres of the supernatural—perhaps more efficaciously than many others—demonstrate that the feudal/modern, past/present, myth/ history binaries that remain so beloved to Hindi cinema, in fact, crystallize as mutually haunted categories. Time—the very notion of temporality— therefore, remains an important analytical vector for me. Recalcitrant shards of the past rupture and unsettle the present in the genres I discuss here. These genres offer a fractured, nonlinear version of history, wherein disjointed times and spaces jostle together to create meaning; under the auspices of the supernatural, Walter Benjamin’s famous “messianic” and “empty” temporalities can almost seamlessly blend into each other, or, at the very least, exist in tandem. Ghosts, as Bliss Cua Lim reminds us, provoke, precisely because they “call our calendars into question.”49 Her work remains foundationally important to Haunting Bollywood also because she recognizes the supernatural as the most apposite site for the elaboration of a certain kind of temporal critique: “The supernatural is often rationalized as a figure for history or disparaged as an anachronistic vestige of primitive, superstitious thought. But from an alternate perspective it discloses the limits of historical time, the frisson of secular historiography’s encounter with temporalities emphatically at odds with and not fully miscible to itself.” The Hindi film’s constitutive capaciousness and plasticity makes it less resistant to alternate and non-secular temporalities; nonetheless, what Lim calls “immiscible times—multiple times that never quite dissolve into the code of modern time consciousness, discrete temporalities incapable of attaining homogeneity with or full incorporation into a uniform chronological present”—offers a valuable framework for investigating the formation’s predilection for invoking more enchanted chronologies. But time is important also because the supernatural film labors with equal ferocity to make manifest its contemporary moorings—from music to fashion and formal contortions, the supernatural genres are very much products of their immediate historical contexts as well.

The Structure of This Book

Haunting Bollywood maps the trajectory of supernatural genres from 1949 (the year Mahal was released) to the present. Although Mahal may have drawn on earlier formations—like Oriental and fantasy films from earlier eras—it nonetheless remains a watershed film that created a specific template for both the Gothic and the reincarnation genres in Hindi film. Mapping the supernatural chronologically also enables me to signpost certain key shifts that attended to the industry and social and political imaginaries over this sixty-five-year period. While the moniker “Bollywood” in the title is a convenient shorthand that allows me to gesture toward the entire corpus of Hindi cinema of this period, I use it more sparingly in the chapters themselves. For the sake of clarity, I—like many other commentators—use “Bollywood” to designate the slew of transformations that followed in the wake of economic liberalization in the early 1990s. For the rest of the book, “Hindi commercial film,” “Bombay film,” or some variant thereof refers to the products of the industry located in Bombay. In a somewhat contradictory move, I use “Bombay” and not “Mumbai” to designate the home of the film industry, because this book begins at a time when the capital city of Maharashtra still wore its anglicized—and considerably more cosmopolitan—name.

In terms of research material, films, obviously, constitute the bulk of my primary texts. However, whenever possible, I have juxtaposed these alongside reviews, interviews, and other elements from the popular press, whose coverage of the film industry is both prodigious and often acutely incisive. Often, these discursive materials allow us to glimpse how specific films, stars, or genres were received in their historical moment, and they remain crucial to my understanding of the larger context within which these formations were embedded. Haunting Bollywood is an interdisciplinary inquiry into the supernatural in Hindi cinema, and beyond the tools offered by film studies, I have drawn liberally from literary criticism, postcolonial studies, queer theory, history, cultural studies, and anthropology to frame my discussions of films and genres.

Chapter 1 looks at the emergence of the Gothic as a specific set of formal and thematic preoccupations in the late 1940s. Made at a time when the studio system was on the verge of collapse and the film industry was transitioning into a different sort of political economy, Mahal, as intimated above, is a foundational text in many ways. I argue that this particular film—and others such as the later Bees Saal Baad (1962) and Woh Kaun Thi? (1964)—lays bare some of the basic struggles that the popular form underwent in performing its role in the overarching national cultural sphere.

The Social—the dominant generic form that comes to be consolidated at this time—was often seen by industry insiders and outsiders as the prime textual site in which a “modern popular” could be made manifest. Alongside themes of social importance—Raj Kapoor’s films of urban poverty and corruption, Guru Dutt’s melodramas, the noirs from Navketan Films, and so on, were all Socials in industrial parlance—the Social sometimes incubated tendencies that ran counter to its larger ideological functions. The Gothic is one such remarkable genre that jostled against the basic reformist/pedagogic imperatives of the Social. In allowing the rational hero of the Five Year Plan (FYP) to veer away from his predestined telos and become dangerously besotted by female ghosts, the Gothic strained the very form that it was inhabiting; the postcolonial male citizen and the discourses of a disenchanted rational modernity were rendered perilously unstable within the Gothic as a generic formation, an instability that, I argue, had to be finally contained. The recuperative gesture that the Social finally mobilizes—suppressing Gothic femininities and the associated risks of decadence—is equally revealing of larger ideological imperatives of the time. In this chapter, I demonstrate that the Social had to perform an arduous but unavoidable task vis-à-vis the Gothic: in rescuing a rapidly unraveling modernity, the Social re-gendered the formation as the investigative thriller, a form far more appropriate for narrating the nation.

Although the supernatural was inevitably gendered feminine and could rarely be allowed to congeal in any real sense in the 1950s and 1960s, both the film industry and larger political terrain in India underwent massive shifts in the 1970s. Chapters 2 and 3, on Ramsay horror and snake films respectively, focus on the turbulent decades of the 1970s and 1980s, and the generic mutations of the supernatural that they engendered. These were monstrous times indeed, and the cinematic creatures they spawned remain testament to some of the horrors of this era. The 1970s witnessed the gradual dismantling of the Nehruvian imperatives that had characterized the years following national independence in 1947. The turbulent climax of this process of disassembly would come to be the declaration of the national Emergency: a twenty-one-month period beginning in 1975 when an increasingly authoritarian Indira Gandhi, then prime minister, suspended all civil liberties and centralized power in Delhi. In Chapter 2, I look at the emergence of the horror genre proper as a symptom of this larger process of disintegration of particular nationalist narratives that had run their course. As the integrated Social cracked under industrial and other pressures and mutated into the centrifugally organized, attractional masala, the stage was set for the inauguration of excessive horror. During this time, via the clever juggling of basic generic elements in the hands of the Ramsay brothers, horror both consolidated as a recognizable generic formation and enjoyed an unprecedented popularity with certain audience segments. The screen became awash with lurid fake blood, and plots began to include esoteric rituals and became inhabited by a series of bizarrely monstrous creatures—amorous witches, predatory werewolves, and lustful male and female vampires. The divorce between horror and a certain idea of “respectability” thus becomes firmly entrenched at this time; the fact that the middle classes shunned movie theaters in favor of watching films on video in the relative comfort of their living rooms is a matter of considerable importance when we interrogate the general contours of the horror genre of this era.

In Chapter 2, I argue that the supernatural takes on specific guises in this cinema that have as much to do with local political upheaval as with the international genre film conventions that the Ramsays unembarrassedly appropriated. Deep schisms in social relations and dramatic transformations in cultural imaginaries and public spheres inform the figuration of the supernatural in B and “exploitation” horror. Most important for my purposes, the horror genre continues the Gothic tradition of staging a confrontation with the feudal: these films enact a reckoning of sorts with what has come before and will not be easily left behind, or rest easily in the dungeons and grottoes of the feudal haveli. However, I also demonstrate that the story of Ramsay horror is far from simple: breaking these films down into their constitutive segments allows me to pay closer attention to those elements of the genre that remain recalcitrant to this familiar narrative of lowbrow exploitation; the Ramsays’ successful penetration of urban living rooms via television shows further complicates bourgeois notions of taste and respectability. The Ramsay horror film, I argue, is not only very much a product of its unruly times but also a formation that lends itself well to cult veneration in the era of new media and convergence cultures.

Similar to the Ramsay film in some ways, but imbued with somewhat distinct energies, the snake film is one of Bollywood’s most curious attractions. In Chapter 3, I look at the snake film as a specifically charged iteration of the supernatural in Hindi cinema. The life of the snake film as a prestigious cycle was relatively short-lived in Bollywood, but in its heyday, such remarkable films as Nagin (1976), Nagina (1986), and Nache Nagin Gali Gali (1989) provided its basic formal and narrative contours. While drawing on the robust body of myths and folklore that are based on magical, shape-shifting, semi-divine serpents in the subcontinent, these films also generated and assembled a vast array of filmic myths: tethered to the generic energies of the older mythological and fantasy films that have been made since cinema’s earliest years, the snake film is an astonishing instance of the enduring power of enchanted traditions in Hindi cinema. In this chapter, I argue that despite the “ahistorical” nature of the materials incorporated and reassembled by the snake film, the formation remains aligned to the 1970s and 1980s in important ways, not least because its formal preoccupations are closely aligned to the masala idiom that dominated in this era. I also demonstrate how the genre is transformed by the muscularity of Hindu nationalism over the late 1980s, as a more inflexible religiosity supplanted the little traditions and folksiness of the earlier films. Much of the snake film’s supernatural energy is constitutively enabled by cinematic technology—miraculous transformations that manifested on screen were typically accomplished by mobilizing the most basic of special-effects tools. However, through an analysis of the commercially unsuccessful Bollywood-Hollywood co-production Hisss (2010), I argue that the snake film resists a digital makeover in a fundamental way—its basic idioms cannot be meaningfully uncoupled from its generic and historical moorings. But just like the lowbrow Ramsay horror film, the snake film continues to enjoy a digital afterlife in a different sense: via numerous blogs, websites, online forums, and social media platforms, the magical female snake continues to seduce and enchant new populations of willing devotees.

The advent of economic liberalization in the early 1990s transformed the film industry as well as its products in fundamental ways. As the Bombay film morphed into what we understand as Bollywood proper,52 the supernatural, too, underwent fairly decisive shifts. With the industry shifting its focus more toward middle-class audiences that returned to watch films in the reconstituted spaces of the urban multiplex, horror jettisoned its nonbourgeois trappings and excesses and became “mainstream” in the most literal sense. As scholars such as Sangita Gopal and Tejaswini Ganti have noted,53 the multiplex phenomenon has not only changed the political economy of the industry but has also enabled generic differentiation in critical ways; the recent horror “boom” dovetails with these larger transformations. Successful horror films of this period would include Raaz (2002), Bhoot (2003), Vaastu Shastra (2004), Phoonk (2008), 1920 (2008), and Haunted 3D (2011), among many others. As I suggest in earlier chapters, these larger changes are often registered by the supernatural in formal terms; in knotty negotiations with genre conventions, some filmmakers such as Ram Gopal Varma have done away with song sequences, a gesture that brings these films in line with international horror, whereas others such as Vikram Bhatt continue to use songs in fairly traditional ways.

In Chapter 4, I argue that the potentially transgressive content of earlier decades has come to be diluted or lost in horror’s rehabilitation to “A” status; a return to middle-class sensibilities has shorn the formation of the unruly energies that it harnessed in earlier iterations. I further argue that what characterizes this recent spate of horror films are fears and anxieties that involve the impact of globalization on the family—women entering the workplace, increased abortion rates, premarital sex, male unemployment, divorce, adultery, and the disintegration of the extended family. While a number of scholars have suggested that this new iteration of the genre endorses the current phase of consumer capitalism in no uncertain terms,54 my own readings of the films focus on their deep ambivalence toward modernity at large. In fact, I suggest that the conjugal couple and the nuclear family—two of the most iconic symbols of the modern— emerge in this later avatar of the genre as the most beleaguered institutions of all.

Chapter 5 of this book looks at the generic novelties the new millennium has spawned within the terrain of the supernatural. Undoubtedly, the mammoth global popularity of franchises such as Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and the Twilight series has imbued the fantastic with new energy in the last fifteen years. In the current industrial dispensation that has been called New Bollywood, the streamlining, corporatization, and vertical integration that began post-liberalization in the 1990s has acquired a definite and more organized shape. Hollywood entities such as Viacom, Fox, and Disney now partner with local production houses to make and distribute films in India, and products and fans are simultaneously wired into multiple digital media platforms and social networks. In other words, how movies are made, distributed, and consumed has transformed dramatically in the era of the digital and new media. I coin the phrase “planetary paranormal” in this chapter to gesture to the multiple shifts that characterize the genres of the supernatural in this contemporary moment. New Bollywood’s global aspirations have sharpened in the last decade or so and now include a definite tendency to align in generic terms with internationally legible cinematic products. I argue that this desire for products that remain largely “undifferentiated” from other cinemas has contorted the Hindi film form almost beyond recognition. This disassembly of the Hindi film—the enduring portmanteau formula that has remained stable at least since the 1940s, as Social, masala, or some other variation—manifests itself in two somewhat related fashions: first, the industry is churning out generic novelties like creature features or found-footage films as such; in other words, the formation of the generic system in Rick Altman’s sense is now finally applicable to the Bollywood industry. Products are advertised with generic clear labels, and audience expectations and consumption patterns fall in place accordingly. Second, a vast number of recent products take it upon themselves to self-consciously perform the dismantling of the popular form. So, for example, although many recent horror films such as Ragini MMS (2011) do not include songs in the traditional sense, Go Goa Gone (2013), Bollywood’s first “zom com,” includes a sequence that parodies the archaic “song-and-dance” romantic moment in telling ways. I finally argue that the irony, humor, reflexivity, and cinephilia that inform the planetary paranormal remain curiously disemboweled of the political in any recognizable way: New Bollywood’s supernatural simply occupies an endless planetary feedback loop of winsomely packaged media commodities that remain, with few exceptions, curiously unmoored from their immediate context. When the political does return to the supernatural—as it does, I suggest, in Ragini MMS—it imbricates itself foundationally with questions of form.

The overarching narrative I chart in Haunting Bollywood is one of discursive and historical disjunctions, as well as generic and formal continuities. Fractious and recalcitrant, these films have propelled the Hindi film into new formal terrains, even as they continued to make room for its most enduring pleasures. The genres of the supernatural register and amplify Hindi cinema’s undertow of enchantment in specific ways; certain types of irrationalities are thrown into sharp relief in forms that do not fully endorse the rational to begin with. Beyond the interrogation of specific generic constellations, this book demonstrates that the supernatural is considerably labile in Indian popular film, which enables it to incubate questions of social significance—such as history, modernity, and the contemporary—in particularly suggestive ways.


Haunting Bollywood is an insightful volume that makes several important contributions to Indian cinema scholarship, including the consolidation of seemingly disparate bodies of films. . . . [It] is a welcome addition to scholarship on Indian cinema and an essential read for its students.”
Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television

“Grounded in excellent scholarship and analysis, this book is beautifully written, interesting, and full of stimulating and surprising insights. It will stand out in the field as one of the more imaginative and rigorous interventions of recent years.”
Rosie Thomas, University of Westminster, author of Bombay Before Bollywood: Film City Fantasies

“A very rich and rigorously informed study that will have a wide readership. The historical arc of Sen’s concerns is impressive and convincingly important.”
Amit S. Rai, Queen Mary, University of London, author of Untimely Bollywood: Globalization and India’s New Media Assemblage


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