Starring Om Puri, Revathi, Anant Naag, Rohini Hattangadi, Rohini Hattangadi, Akash Khurana, Jaya Mathur, Shantanu, Om Puri, Ananth Nag
Directed by Ram Gopal Varma
Music: Mani Sharma
EROS/B4U, English Subtitles, 137 minutes
I think I suffered from "Bollywood OD" somewhere around the time I watched MR. BECHAARA, which was also when I noticed I had very little money and very little to show for it except a bunch of DVDs. At the same time the free web server that was hosting our BollyBob website went belly-up, and I decided this was a sign and I'd had enough...I'd take up another hobby. I'd escape from the fantasy world of Bollywood by becoming a drag performer who lip-sync's "Mera Naam Chin Chin Chu" for huge groups of bored homosexuals. Things were fine until I realized that a crowd of culturally inept white men probably doesn't want to sit through all 8 minutes of "Hawa Hawaii" -- without costume changes, even -- and, what's more, the fantasy world of drag queens is much like the fantasy world of Bollywood anyway. My real breaking point came while I was watching a 400 pound man with hormonally-enhanced breasts smoke a cigarette wearing only a girdle and a sequinned cowboy hat. My new hobby was just as terrifying as Bollywood. It was time to come back for a while.
As if on cue I found out that one of my neglected co-horts in Bollywood, the illustrious BollyMike, had ordered an Indian DVD so evil it was threatening to burn a hole in his knapsack, and he needed to spray it with liquid nitrogen to keep it from killing people (in his words, "just like the monster in THE ENTITY!") I decided that I'd seen enough atrocities over the last few months to be able to handle the evillest of DVD's, so after a long time away from Bollywood movies BollyMike and I decided to treat ourselves to a film we've been waiting for since we'd first heard about it: RAAT, an all-out horror flick stylishly directed by Ram Gopal Varma. Everything we'd been told was intriguing: no songs! Genuinely scary! A remake of POLTERGEIST! Only 2 hours long! If nothing else, we hoped to see some early examples of Ram Gopal fumbling through a mixture of western and eastern styles, trying to find his own unique vision.
With baited breath we shook the ice crystals off the evil DVD and prepared ourselves to be terrified.
RAAT is the story of a family that moves into a haunted house, and the eventual possession of their daughter Minnie. Really, that's about it: I've summed it up. And in doing so I think I've outlined the single biggest flaw in RAAT, which is that damn well nothing ever happens. Sure, there's a lot of shots of people walking around looking worried, followed by long stretches of first-person subjective camera work, wrapped up with more shots of worried-looking people walking from one place to another. Otherwise there wasn't much to see.
I suspect that part of this can be blamed on a lack of budget, and Ram Gopal handles the budgetary problems well. He wisely avoids the temptation of grisly special effects, offering only some contact lenses, a bit of gore, and a melting-head scene that is one of the most sadly botched special effects sequences I've ever seen. Other than that, though, the film attempts to build suspense and create a feeling of unease, and this is another fatal flaw: classics of suspenseful horror don't ONLY rely on suspense, they ALSO have payoff moments. All Raat has for a payoff are the actors being surprised by a terrifying invisible offscreen presence (which probably has a fan instead of a head, since their hair flies all over the place when they see it). Another thing that Ram Gopal seemed to forget when he made RAAT was that a movie needs to be paced, ESPECIALLY a suspense thriller. The only pacing in RAAT is the kind of walking that bored people do when they're fidgeting in their room, watching a movie and waiting for something to happen. Never before has Seema -- my cat -- had so much fun playing with us during a film.
Now perhaps I'm being unfair. BollyMike and I are experienced horror film cynics and -- I suspect -- most Indian moviegoers (especially back in 1992) are not. Plot twists we could see from a mile away -- the resurrection of the cat, the woman buried in the basement, the possession of Minnie -- would probably come as a great shock to people not used to western horror movies. But western horror movies are certainly the inspiration for Raat, and Ram Gopal has borrowed a familiar grab-bag of ideas and stylistic touches from films that are near and dear to a western horror-buff's heart. Here are some obvious influences I picked out:
EVIL DEAD: The bad spirit is always presented in first-person perspective with the camera whizzing around the underbrush for what seems to be a very, very long time. Note also the possibly-Sam-Raimi-inspired melty-face special effect at the end of the movie, the production of which I suspect went something like this:
RAM GOPAL: Are you ready to film the scene where we melt that wax head?
SPECIAL EFFECTS GUY: Yes...this is going to be the best!
RAM GOPAL: Okay...melt it! Keep melting it! Melt, damn you, melt! Oh, no!
SPECIAL EFFECTS GUY: Darn.
RAM GOPAL: Well, that's it then.
SPECIAL EFFECTS GUY: That looked terrible. I never thought it would look that terrible.
RAM GOPAL: We can't film it again and we can't afford another wax head, so maybe the editor can do something with it.
EDITOR: Me?!? Why me! I can't do anything with this awful footage!
RAM GOPAL: I dunno, just...darken it up with filters and...do a lot of jump cuts...and...jeez, I don't care, do what you like. We'll add some sound effects or something.
SOUND EFFECTS GUY: Ha ha Ram Gopal, you know that I'm useless! Have you heard my foley work yet? All the characters in Raat sound like they have pancakes on their feet, and their beds are filled with leaves and papadum! But I'll do my best...I'll put in some slowed-down screams...and maybe Mani Sharma can add in some music.
MANI SHARMA: But I don't know how this synthesizer works yet. It makes high-pitched buzzing noises, and some low-pitched farty noises. Are those sounds scary?
RAM GOPAL: Oh, just do what you want.
Another big influence in RAAT is, I feel, the 60's cult classic CARNIVAL OF SOULS, though this may have more to do with a similar lack of budget and a desire for a creepy atmosphere than any direct imitation. Minnie keeps sort of slipping in and out of reality, and these are some of the most effective horror scenes, even if they aren't entirely scary. There's a bit of Dario Argento in the style and in the ending as well, especially when it comes to the discovery of a very strange and unexpected cave under the haunted house's basement. Much like the plot of the rest of the movie this tunnel is never explained. But that sort of nit-picking never stopped Argento.
Finally, I do feel that POLTERGEIST inspired an "everyday family caught in extraordinary circumstances" element of the movie, and this really is when RAAT works best. Ram Gopal always seems to have a good handle on how real families behave -- I love his movies most when the parents are playfully fighting with each other and their children -- and some of the greatest scenes in RAAT are when nothing scary is happening at all and the family is just relating to each other. Ram Gopal is an incredible naturalistic director.
The woman who plays Minnie is a passable actress. She's not very convincing as a screaming, terrified Evil-Dead-esque zombie, but as a normal kid and as a low-key, grinning demon-girl she does very well -- so well in fact that I think they should have thrown out their scary contact lenses and let her act without them. She has more than a little Sridevi in her features -- rounded face, tiny chin, big eyes -- which may have something to do with why she was chosen for the lead role. Her best friend Rashni is great, especially when she does a dead-on impersonation of her grandmother, and when she and Minnie throw pillows at each other while dancing to Michael Jackson's "Bad" under a poster for "Beverly Hills Cop 2." Like I said, the best moments in this film are interpersonal ones, not scary ones.
Minnie also has a boyfriend named Deepak who is nothing more than filler. He might be handsome standing around in his "New Kids On The Block" shirt, but the only purpose he seems to serve is endangering everybody's lives during the climax. I notice that men often play these throw-away roles in Bollywood movies.
There is something else about RAAT that I need to point out: it is always lit by enormously bright floodlights, so that even when it's night-time it looks like it's day. BollyMike and I were confused by this stylistic choice until the very end of the film, when Om Puri (the Sadhu-for-hire) makes a speech I will briefly paraphrase as "You don't usually find light mixed with dark and dark mixed with light," which seems a bit obvious when you think about it. So we feel that Ram Gopal had some high-minded stylistic reason for putting floodlights everywhere, which falls apart since the only connection it had to the movie was through Om Puri's brief speech at the end. Even this tenuous connection shatters into irrelevance when you realize that Om Puri's speech had nothing to do with anything else that happened in the film.
In short, Ram Gopal: the floodlights were a bad idea.
I must also point out that this DVD was probably the most horribly mastered DVD I've ever seen...it looks like they've reduced the number of scan-lines on the screen by half, then hired somebody's insane cousin to raise and lower the volume over time for no reason at all. In some scenes it was almost impossible to really see what was going on, thanks to the moire effects created by complex interactions between stairways and Deepak's ugly shirts.
RAAT stands as an interesting glimpse at the stylistic gropings of early Ram Gopal. It is also one of the few Indian attempts to really blend western horror with eastern filmmaking, and it even gives a few shivers to boot. But you'll be thanking your lucky stars when the movie finally ends, and you'll probably hope there isn't a director's cut or -- even worse -- a featurette where they show how they actually killed the cat that died during the movie. All-in-all, this movie was less difficult to watch than the 400-lb drag queen with the cowboy hat, but it was far less terrifying.