Shamya Dasgupta is many things, but one of those is a writer. Not just any writer, he is a person who believes in magnifying and presenting stories that have been around and near us forever. Like the story of The Ramsay family, arguably the first family of Indian Horror. As he gears for the Mumbai launch of his book, ‘Don’t Disturb the Dead’, we got in touch with the man who brought the life of The Ramsays to paper. Here’s our exclusive interview:
What inspired you to write the book?
I’m not sure. I think the sequence would be this: An appreciation for the Ramsay films, a general interest in telling stories, especially little-known ones, meeting Amit Ramsay, Arjun Ramsay’s son and an entertainment journalist, thinking about the Ramsays and doing a bit of research, realising that the concept of a seven-brother family producing low-budget but very successful horror films was quite an incredible story, and then getting down to doing the interviews and putting it together. The idea of the Ramsays was inspiration enough.
How was the process of writing the book? How long did it take?
The process was quite the same as with any other book. The handicap was that there was little published material, existing information, on the Ramsays. So the entire story is from the many conversations I had with members of the Ramsay family and people connected to their movies and people who had thoughts about their movies.
The second problem was that with the Ramsays being such a massive family, with branches and off-shoots and all, I had to take a call on how many family members I wanted to interview. I would have liked to speak to more people, and they were available, but I kept it mainly to the brothers and a handful of their children. I had to draw the line somewhere. The writing part was easy once the interviews and research were done.
How long did it take? Not sure. From beginning to end, six-seven years. But from the time I started to do the interviews to the time it went to the publisher, maybe two years. Do remember that I have a full-time job too, so I wasn’t working on this all through. And watching and rewatching the films also took up a fair bit of time.
Any biography is controversial. As a writer, what made you decide on a biography?
I won’t call this a biography actually. I would rather call it … maybe ‘the story of the Ramsay brothers’, which is what the subtitle of the book is. A biography must necessarily be exhaustive. An individual’s biography might become a 500-600 or even a 1000-1200-page affair. To write the biography of a family with so many people would have been beyond me. It is their story, as told by them. There are gaps. Not major ones I hope. So it’s their story from a fan’s point of view. Not a biography.
How are the Ramsays as people? How was your interaction with them?
Lovely, absolutely lovely. Pretty much without exception. Not one of them refused me time despite not knowing me at all. I am not an entertainment/film journalist after all. Tulsi Ramsay is the only one who made me run around a bit, but at no point was he impolite. I know most people would have said this after working with a set of people – oh, they are wonderful people, but the Ramsays are genuinely nice people. Shyam, Tulsi, Gangu, Arjun, the four brothers I could speak with, their children who had all the time for me, and continue to … even people like Chander Ramsay and Dinesh Ramsay, Gangu and Keshu’s sons respectively, who I didn’t interview for the book; I have had occasion to speak to them since and both of them have been absolutely wonderful. Impeccable, honestly.
The Ramsays continued producing their own directorials till the 90s. Do you think the limited resources hampered their bringing horror to the screens?
Ummm, yes and no. Horror by nature needs high-quality production, graphics, etc. But in the 1980s, in mainstream Hindi films, the production standards were largely quite low. Think Jeetendra and Mithun Chakraborty, and Govinda later. Yes, the Ramsays worked on low budgets but I think they made it work. If you watch the films today, they haven’t aged well. And we are all used to post-liberalisation entertainment, whether Indian or American or whatever. So to judge the work of the Ramsays through that prism is probably not fair. I think they did a damn good job within their resources.
People who watched Darwaza and the other films in dingy 1980s single-screen theatres, even in urban centres, were likely scared out of their wits. If you watch it today, on YouTube or wherever, it won’t have the same effect. The monsters might even seem funny. But only as funny as the old sounds of ‘dhishoom, dhishoom’ during fights. Technically, our films were not particularly good in the 1980s.
The Ramsays films are supposed to be the Golden Age of Bollywood Horror. Yet, the younger generations treat them as ‘fun’ watches. Why do you think that’s happening?
I don’t think it was an age, because they were the only ones doing it for the longest time. Then some pretenders came into the picture, making movies with even lower budgets. These guys were serious about what they did. They were synonymous with the genre. They defined mainstream Hindi horror cinema.
But to answer your question – it’s the same thing I mentioned earlier: If you watch them today, in a multiplex or on TV or on YouTube, the effect will not be the same. Ajay Agarwal will look funny more than scary. That’s just how it is. We find the best actors from the earlier eras funny and mannered and theatrical … it wasn’t so then. But I am happy if people still watch Ramsay films – for fun or for fears.
There’s been talk of a couple of Ramsay films being remade. Do you think they should go the same ‘gaudy’ way of directing their films?
I’ve heard about Veerana, which Saasha Ramsay wants to remake. I don’t think what you call ‘gaudy’ will really make sense any more. It has to be slicker. There can’t be any plot holes, which were excused back in the day. The production has to be top notch, the graphics have to be up there … I don’t mind attempts to remake them at all, but they must be up with the times. Those movies are cult favourites. People who love them can watch the originals. Why remake them the same way?
According to you, if the Ramsays had turned to psychological horrors, at least in the 90s, would it have worked better for them?
I honestly have no opinion on this … Raat was released in 1992, and Ram Gopal Varma started making horror films around then. As did others soon afterwards. So, maybe, after liberalisation there was a change in what the audience wanted. But Zee Horror Show was extremely successful, wasn’t it? No, I think they were right in doing what they did. One thing you can’t blame the Ramsays for is not understanding and catering to the market. They did that very well. And then it stopped working. I think that’s it. They also got a bit tired.
Do you think there’s a market for horror books and horror films in India?
I hope so. Films certainly. Books too, I guess. But there will always be a market for horror, if done and told well. Stories of ghosts and witches and stuff are still told, aren’t they? Fear, the fear itself and the desire to feel scared, the thrill of it, are very basic in people. That can’t change.
As a writer, which genre do you think is the most saleable in India today?
Wow! I wouldn’t know, would I? Okay, the genre that sells best is the Chetan Bhagat genre. You know that. I have read a couple of his books and I totally get why he appeals to people, especially new readers, people who are reading an English book of fiction for probably the first time. The books are priced reasonably too. Bhagat isn’t the only one. There are others, who are equally successful. So yeah, that is obviously the genre that is the most saleable. I think there is a market for good non-fiction.
I have had the good fortune of reading quite a few outstanding books of non-fiction in recent years. Books about serious subjects, told well, engagingly. I know some of them have done well commercially too. Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India is a tour de force. And it’s sold well. I think fiction writers like Anees Salim sell well. Of course the Amitav Ghoshes and celebrated writers too. Anuja Chauhan, I think, sells well. So well told, engagingly told fiction has a market. Celebrity books do well, biographies of cricketers and movie stars.
No, we have such a massive population that, even if the readership of English books isn’t huge, even five per cent of the population should be enough to keep the publishing industry afloat. But they have to be done well, presented and marketed well. That’s a given in this day and age. I am only talking about English books, by the way.
Many writers are funding their own books, like the Ramsays did with their films. Do you think writers working on a tight budget makes sense in 2017?
Writers must work within a tight budget. Book sales aren’t fantastic in India, the profit margins are terribly low. I know some people who have chucked up lucrative careers to become full-time writers and I hope they have done the right thing. Because I still feel that barely one per cent of the English-language writers’ universe actually survive on their writing – books, I mean. It’s different in the regional languages, but with English, it’s not easy. If you have the money, like I believe Amish did to start with, then you can self-publish, but it’s not easy.
Finally, what is your one suggestion to writers looking to become authors?
Read. Read everything.
Don’t Disturb The Dead is a one of a kind book that isn’t just about a bunch of film-makers, but a group of people who kept the horror genre alive in India. Our Indian readers can buy the book that unravels their story via Amazon via this link:
Don’t Disturb the Dead: The Story of the Ramsay Brothers
And our American readers can buy this book via the Amazon.com link here:
Don’t Disturb the Dead: The Story of the Ramsay Brothers