The Cult of C-Grade Movies

This is cinema that can make a masochist wince. So how come it is acquiring fans who know—or ought to know—good cinema from bad?
Crass Conscious
THE WILD SIDE Aseem Chandaver, creative writer by profession, C-movie evangelist by passion (Photo: ZISHAAN AKBAR LATIF)

Among many other affronts, Teen Eekay—titled rather modestly by C-movie standards—has what is a preposterously comic scene. Writer-director-actor Joginder is looking for a spot in the bushes to defecate. Once finished with the business, he raises his lota and breaks into a frenzy of ill-choreographed bhangra. In another sequence from the Ramsay brothers’ Veerana, Satish Shah plays what seems to be an alter ego to the Ramsays: a wannabe director who’s writing a horror script on a spooky night. When the innkeeper gets him milk, he picks up a skull and instructs her to pour it right in: “Iss khopdi mein daal doh. Jab main is khopdi mein dhoodh peeta hoon, toh iss khopdi (pointing to his head) se naye naye idea mendak ki tarah uchhal ke baahar aate hain.” The YouTube clip of this scene has received 38,933 hits so far, and, for all you know, already has a cult following of those ready to try drinking milk out of a skull to get ideas frog-leaping out of their own.

What’s with these films? Who watches all this? And what explains their internet popularity? C-grade movies were supposed to be what manual labourers watched in India’s small towns to escape their wretched lives, but there is evidence that they’ve sneaked their way onto the viewing screens of a new generation of urban viewers in possession of an education; and in many cases, more than just an education, actual knowledge of the history of world cinema. The tackiness of such films appeals to them because they view them in the context of a sense of sincerity, raw craftsmanship and passion that most C-movies represent.

Aditi Sen, professor of history at Queen’s University, Kingston, Canada, was first introduced to C-movies as a teenager. Away from India, she is far closer to these films now than ever. Her father was a black-and-white movies buff and he passed on the interest to Sen, who gradually broadened her choice over the years. “I was never choosy about the films I watched. But, of late, I have been addicted to old low-budget films. Horror has a special place in my heart because I grew up on the Ramsays and the 80s’ Hammer Studio horrors.” During a trip to India earlier this year, she sought an appointment with Tulsi Ramsay and conducted an interview with him. ‘Finally, a word about my feelings,’ she blogged at the end of it, ‘Bliss is an understatement. All these years of dedication was well worth it.’

The Ramsays, originally seven brothers, emerged in the 70s and 80s as India’s leading exponents of horror. Their avowed fans, among whom filmmaker Sajid Khan counts himself, insist they must not be clubbed with C-grade filmmakers. “The Ramsays were mainstream and had built a reputation as good filmmakers in the genre they were operating in,” says Khan, “My strong belief is that they did not want to make a quick buck, unlike someone like Mohan Bhakri, who was called ‘the poor man’s Ramsay’.” And it takes a filmmaker to appreciate their craft. “The Ramsays are a family of technicians—they write, produce, direct, edit and photograph their films. When a film is born of so much passion, how can it be C-grade?” asks Khan, who is often credited with exposing India’s TV watchers—fed on saas-bahu soaps—to C-movie style gimmickry through his shows, Kehne Mein Kya Harz Hai and Ikke Pe Ikka. His other achievement, by self-admission, is that he’s one of the very few who own the entire Ramsay collection, and has seen these films repeatedly over the years. “In small ways, whether people catch on or not, I have tried to pay homage to some of the good things of C-movies. In Housefull, there’s a fight between Akshay Kumar and a monkey. I told the sound recordist to look up movies of the 70s and 80s. When he couldn’t find the appropriate sound, I volunteered to dub it in my own voice. Dishoom-dishoom was what I grew up on. Even in my shows, I tried to bring out my genuine love for such films,” says Khan, “it’s something I sincerely believed in.”

Sajid Khan isn’t alone. Farhan and Zoya Akhtar, Farah Khan, Shimit Amin and Anurag Kashyap all call themselves C-movie buffs.

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You know a C-movie when you see one. Relentless hamming, cringe-worthy direction, cheap thrills, continuity glitches, assistant directors ambling in and out of the frame on occasion are some of their obvious markers, though they span genres ranging from sex and erotica to violence and horror (often unwittingly). Unlike Western B-movies, science fiction tends to get a miss. “Indian C-movie audiences can’t relate to sci-fi,” says Sen, “Ghosts, demons and ghouls are very much within our corpus of imagination because of religion and mythology. Even in mainstream cinema, our sci-fi plots are still rather basic and immature.”

These films are mostly shot on budgets—some as low as Rs 5 lakh—that make ‘shoestring’ sound like extravagance, and make use of stock situations, non-actors and inept writers. What this guarantees is flaws that the cognoscenti enjoy, with much entertainment to be derived from films such as Do Gaz Zameen Ke Neeche, Gunda, Daku Ramkali, Insaan Bana Shaitan and Shaitani Badla whose titles are a tickle in themselves.

That many of these filmmakers take themselves seriously only adds to their charm. Kiran Kotrial, screenplay and dialogue writer of the Salman Khan-starrer Bodyguard, says it’s the technical errors and inadvertently hilarious scripts that make them so engaging. “There was a film I was watching in which three guys walk into a garden and remind each other, ‘Yahan pe bhoot ka saaya hai [there’s a ghost’s shadow here].’ Suddenly, they start shivering from side to side while not a leaf moves in the background. Because they don’t have the budget for a blower, they express themselves through gestures,” says Kotrial.

For someone like Vivek Mandrekar, a senior visualiser, their real charm lies in the mind-bending dialogue. “Some of the lines are so baffling that you really don’t know what to make of them. Take this one from Paanch Faulad. Sonika Gill is getting raped by Joginder and Raza Murad. Unfazed, she dares them, ‘Mujhe phool mat samajhna. Main un paanch fauladon ki behen hoon jinse saari duniya kaapti hai.’ And Joginder replies, ‘Achcha, toh tu paanch fauladon ki behen hai, toh zaroor tu kachcha loha hogi jiski main banduk banaa ke hamesha khelta rahoonga.’” In someone’s feverish idea of repartee, a rape victim who declares herself steely (and no shrinking violet) can gruffly be told that she’s all the better then as hot metal for a play-gun to be forged out of.

Sajid Khan’s favourite is from the Ramsays’ Hotel: “Most of their films had a comic subplot with Rajendra Nath. He says something so profound in Hotel that it will take me a lifetime to figure: ‘Yeh Horlicks mujhe Howrah bridge ki yaad dilaata hai.’ It doesn’t make any sense.”

While Khan tries to wrap his head round why Horlicks should remind anyone of Howrah Bridge, C-flicks are busy gathering more and more fans not just for their absurdity of plot, odd locations and weird dialogue, but also as an austere form of cinema in its own right. Filmmakers, after all, are not their only fans. Management and medical students swear by C-movies too, falling back on them as stress busters. So too professionals. When Dr Amit Gaikar, a practising physician in Central Mumbai, shuts his clinic, the first thing he does is reach out for the newest VCD. “After a hard day at work, why should I watch a movie that gives me a preachy message? I put on the cheesiest of the lot and forget all my worries,” says Gaikar, who gets his fix from the neighbourhood DVD parlour. Or a fellow C-movie aficionado.

There are many to be found in big cities like Mumbai. For some of them, it’s something of an opium fix. C-flicks have its believers and non-believers, the devout and the rejectionists, and there exists no middle ground. One such devotee is Aseem Chandaver, a creative writer who works with Carving Dreams Entertainment. Inspired by the kind of movies he is addicted to, his description on Twitter reads like a C-grade title: Gina Kholkar @BabaJogeshwari — Mahim ka Maha Pralay, Vashikaran Yantra Free. A long-standing Bollywood buff, a Mithun Chakraborty worshipper to be precise (as affirmed by a Facebook picture), he has an incredible collection of strange-sounding titles and posters that he never hesitates to lend friends. Hyper-active on social media networks, he uploads clips of his favourite scenes, or sometimes entire movies, on YouTube as a ‘BabaJogeshwari Presentation’.

Chandaver traces his C-fixation to a CD of Khooni Panja he once picked up while travelling to Daman. What began as a simple exercise in comic relief (“A good laugh was certainly the origin”) has turned into an all-out passion supported by a library of some 400 titles (prime source: induna.com), through which he tries to study the mind of filmmakers. They strike him as auteurs, the sort who live their deepest fantasies via their work. As Chandaver began paying more attention to such cinema, a macabre thought suggested itself—that filmmakers who focus on necrophilia, paraphilia or the incubus myth could well be sexually deranged in their own private lives. “In one of Kanti Shah’s films, the duplicate of Johnny Lever who works at a morgue stitches the lower half of a man’s body to a woman’s upper half. So, the bhootni (ghost), once thirsty for man’s blood, is now lesbian. What kind of loonie mind can think of such a situation?”

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Filmmakers like the Ramsays, Kanti Shah, Mohan Bhakri, NA Ansari, Harinam Singh, Vinod Talwar, Gyanendra Choudhary and SR Pratap are seen as torchbearers of C-movies. And if well-known stars like Dharmendra and Mithun Chakraborty have fanatical followings in India’s smaller towns, at least some of it is because of their roles in C-movies. In fact, Mithun’s record partnership with TLV Prasad in the 90s not only made the actor the darling of such filmgoers, it also enriched him enormously.

Sajid Khan, who is currently directing Mithun in Housefull 2, has had the privilege of discussing his TLV Prasad days with him at length. “Mithunda was following the age-old casino formula—bet small, lose small. At that time, he didn’t want to take up movies that were risky. He felt it wise to stick to formula and it worked for him.”

Such cinema is relatively risk-free not just because of the small sums spent, but also the more than receptive market in what the trade calls B and C centres. “Joginder—God bless his soul, he’s with us no more—was a successful filmmaker. He made a film called Ranga Khush, which ran for 50 weeks,” says Khan, by way of example. “Certain segments of the audience,” he adds, “connect with these films more than with mainstream Bollywood biggies.” Agrees Kotrial: “Kanti Shah’s Munnibai (starring Dharmendra) released around the same time as Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Bade Miyan Chote Miyan and ended up as a big hit. There’s a loyal audience for them.”

All they lack is scholarly appreciation, unlike in the West, where it takes a brave critic to ignore B flicks. With its origins in the early 40s’ studio system, such cinema has thrown up stars like Humphrey Bogart, Jack Nicholson and John Wayne, who all began with low-budget quickies. What’s more, B-moviemakers such as Ed Wood Jr and Roger Corman—who the French consider an auteur because of his distinctive style—have been hoisted as legendary Hollywood figures, with a glowing roll-call of fans that includes Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. Why, even today’s pulp fiction genre owes much of its existence to B-movies, while the first recognised noir film, Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) was in spirit and budget a valid B-picture.

Indian C-movies bear all the hallmarks of indie cinema, but seem destined to remain in the shadows. Khan believes most of us will find at least one aspect of the C-movie appealing, but the fear of peer mockery could keep us from talking about it. “Everybody watches porn but denies it. Similarly, people will never accept the fact that they find such films entertaining. They want to treat it as their guilty pleasure. Abroad, Ed Wood’s films feature amongst the worst ever made. That’s quite an achievement. In India, we don’t celebrate the bad, the ugly, so to speak,” says Khan, who has openly claimed that Manoj Kumar’s unintentionally funny Clerk is his favourite pastime. “Clerk is by no means a C-movie. In fact, it’s A-grade fun. It’s about time it attains cult status. There’s a scene in it where Shashi Kapoor enters an auditorium reed-thin but exits as a very fat man. You fall down laughing.”

Chandaver has another take: “Part of the problem is that we don’t have cerebral filmmakers who make lowbrow films on purpose. That’s why scholars don’t show any interest in Indian C-makers. On the other hand, someone like Corman is informed on the overall history of cinema and is allied with mainstream Hollywood.” In the West, he adds, Tarantino has a cinematic sensibility held in respect, and this is a filmmaker who reputedly spoke of rummaging through the history of B-movie bins to find ‘jewels’. “What our C-movies lack is that sophisticated sensibility,” he says.

Ask C-moviemakers, though, and their big complaint is the way their work is labelled. Kanti Shah, who famously never gives interviews but makes an exception for Open (after much effort, one might add), has a question: “What business do people have calling our films B or C grade?”

Kotrial, he of Bodyguard, agrees. “There shouldn’t be anything like ‘A’ or ‘Z’ movies,” he says, “These categories are made by the media.” But Kanti Shah wants more than just a dumping of labels, he wants a fair chance as a filmmaker. “Look at my films with honesty, because it’s the same honesty with which we make them,” he says, “Koi film chhoti ya badi nahin hoti, whether its budget is Rs 100 crore or Rs 1 lakh. When I make a film, all I am thinking about is making that film. I work from 7 am to 10 pm non-stop. I will make films as long as there are people to watch them.”