It is no wonder that director Ajay Singh is a Santosh Library Graduate. After all, he helmed Shaitaan Haveli, the Amazon Prime Original web series that is a tribute to the pulp horror films that were a mainstay of Bollywood from the 70s through the 90s. We caught up with the talented director to find out what drives him to Indian horror:
- Why Shaitaan Haveli?
OML had sent me a brief synopsis and wondered if I’d be willing to direct it. Now, interesting thing is, at that point in time I was writing my next series after I Don’t Watch TV, a scientific comedy called Gangster Newton. So to be offered a series named Shaitaan Haveli was really “interesting”. In fact, I asked Varun Thakur the same question when we first met to discuss the series. But once he started talking about the Ramsays and all the horror classics we both loved, there was no doubt about the title Shaitaan Haveli. I think it neatly encapsulated everything about the era and the style of horror that we were paying homage to.
- How did you go about planning the tone of the series? Did you watch the films that the series is based on?
I have a slightly academic approach when it comes to films. So I was aware that if we want to talk about the 70’s and 80’s Indian horror classics, we first need to go back to the Italian giallo films of Mario Bava and the countless number of films made by Hammer Films during the 50’s and 60’s that influenced horror films world over including our own filmmakers. The first thing that struck me the most was the use of colour, usually the deep red. You can find the same influence in a lot of mid 80’s Ramsay films. We also wanted to bring in elements of American Grindhouse films for music and styling of the series. Having said, Indian horror is the most unique genre/film in the entire world, so our main influences were always the Purana Mandirs and the Bandh Darwazas. We wanted to retain the aesthetics of that period while telling a contemporary story.
- The script tackles several aspects of Bollywood, including talented actors doing pulp films for money. Do you think the actors in the retro horror films were talented actors?
Why just actors, we all have done things for money! Why do you think I did Shaitaan Haveli for? (wink) I am kidding! I think talent is an overrated term. Passion and honesty are more important qualities that an actor needs to be judged by. When I see some of the biggest actors of the time working in these so called “pulp” films, the thing that strikes me the most is their complete devotion to the story they were trying to tell. Deepak Parashar, Vijayendra Ghatge, Mohnish Behl, Jasmine, Aarti Gupta – I love them all.
- Bollywood horror has undergone a complete change from the pulp to the situational horror. Which one do you think defines Bollywood horror better?
The Indian horror films of the 80’s and early 90’s, for all their influences, were quintessential Indian films. I personally would prefer those films over what’s being made lately.
- What’s your favourite scene from the series?
The opening scene. It was the first scene we shot in and around the haveli and it was the most crucial sequence for us. We wanted it to set the tone and template for the rest of the series. It also starred one of my most favourite actors – Alekh Sangal. To get him naked in the shower while the extremely cold wind from the open window tortured his soul is the sort of macabre fetish that filmmakers like us live on!
- One scene that was difficult to shoot?
All of them, man! The entire series was shot in around 22 days with continuous rain disruptions, so time was the enemy! But if you ask me to pick one, I’d say the climax episode. We had just two days to shoot the entire thing! That was tough considering the kind of scale we wanted to give it.
- Who’s your favourite character in the series?
That’s pretty tough! Hariman, Gangu, Mahua, Monty, Mukesh, Julia, Prarthana, Chandaal, Zombie Ravi – they are all such unique characters played by some exceptionally committed actors. The series is unthinkable without any of them. One thing I really liked in the script that Varun, Chirag and Kautuk had written was the ensemble nature of it all. In fact I really admire Thakur for the selflessness with which he had relegated his own character in the background for a large part of the series. I think that shows great character. So, I’d say Rahul.
- How’s the experience and atmosphere at the shooting a web series, how different is from a film?
Make it cinematic. These are the three words in my head when I begin any project. So whether you are shooting a video for a few thousand rupees or a web series worth much more zeroes, you have a responsibility to give the audience the best experience possible. So I’d say no difference in terms of approach and commitment. Of course, budgets on web series are slightly lesser than films, so you need to shoot fast and be extremely efficient. That’s where the skills are tested.
- Which is your favourite Bollywood horror film?
My best memories of Indian horror are the rental videos from Santosh Library in Goregaon. And I can never forget how spooked I was to watch a film called Shaitaani Ilaaka! Nothing in Indian horror has scared me as much since. Check the film out. Especially the character called “Laal Bai” played by Neelam Mehra in a Blood and Black Lace style costume! Pure Mario Bava.
- Horror is making sort of a comeback on the streaming platforms. Do you think this phase will last?
Absolutely! I think it’s too important a genre to not exist online. In fact, I think internet can truly free horror from old tropes and commercial demands. I see a lot of innovation happening in future in terms of storylines and treatment.
- More mainstream actors are looking at making horror comedies. Ajay Devgn made Golmaal 4, Shraddha Kapoor is making Stree and Abhay Deol has announced Nanu ki Janu. What’s your take on horror comedy?
Horror Comedy is quite a difficult genre to pull off. You risk either being too funny to be scary, or too scary to be funny. So it’s a tightrope walk – difficult to edit and even more complicated to do background music for, which is why I am so happy with the exceptional job done by our editor Sangeeth Varghese and Music composer Advait Nemlekar. They are the real stars of the series along with our exceptional DOP Subbu Bharathwaj.
- The end episode has hinted at a sequel, how close to a sequel are you?
The response has been phenomenal from both public and Amazon. They have conveyed their happiness to us, but so far nothing is official as far as the second season is concerned. So let’s wait and watch.