It’s a question that has — if you’ll pardon the pun — haunted me for a while. Just why do Indian female ghosts wear white saris? Scholars may draw parallels between spectres and white-draped, marginalised widows, but I have evolved my own theory on this: It’s because white saris — stark in colour, billowy in nature — show up well at night. If you are a ghost in a pair of blue jeans and a dark tee, chances are that you’ll never be spotted. But white in a dark background? Bingo!
Hindi films zeroed in on this long ago. Have ghost, wear sari is an old mantra in the industry. Have ghost, wear sari, carry lit candle works even better.
Misty nights — and rain or snow — are other ingredients that a ghost scene in Hindi cinema demands. Take the Waheeda Rehman-Biswajit starrer Bees Saal Baad (1962). Biswajit is idly stroking the keys of a piano when he sees a flitting shadow and hears the notes of a song wafting in from the outdoors. He does what any reasonable man would do — he quickly dons a broad-brimmed hat. Then he rushes out for a glimpse of the ghost lost in a foggy swirl.
Or take Woh Kaun Thi (1964). Sadhana wears white and floats on snow to good effect, as a perplexed Manoj Kumar seeks to follow her song. He also wears a beret, so there may be something about headgear and phantoms that needs to be studied.
I love ghost stories in Hindi films: They are mostly funny — and unintentionally so. I have to admit that I have not seen the Ramsay brothers’ horror films; I am saving them as a mood lifter for a particularly depressing day. But meanwhile there is always Mehmood.
You cannot discuss scary scenes in Hindi films and not mention Mehmood’s superlative performance in a sequence from Pyar Kiye Jaa (1966). Mehmood is trying to make his father, the shaky voiced Om Prakash, cough up some money for a film that he hopes to make. So he relates a scene from the film.
The background music sets the tone, Mehmood says, and then does a nice yowl. Toofani hawa — a stormy wind — (“whooo-whooo”) pierces the air. A tall man, with eyes like buttons and a long nose, walks down a road. He is a corpse. He turns into a frog and croaks by a door. The door creaks open. There is a shriek. It’s a chudail — a female ghost. Instead of arms, she has legs; instead of legs, she has arms. She laughs... And you do, too.
Hindi cinema came late into my life. I saw only a clutch of films while growing up, for our staple cinema fare in our school and college years consisted of the English films screened in two of the Capital’s theatres — Chanakya and Archna.
Then came a device called the VCR, and my life changed. In the early ’90s, I saw everything that I’d missed — films of nimble-footed Shammi Kapoor, sad-eyed Guru Dutt, Bohemian Dev Anand and even just-how-did-he-become-a-star Bharat Bhushan. And, of course, I watched a lot of so-called scary cinema.
One of the earliest films with a supernatural plot was Kamal Amrohi’s Mahal (1949), in which Ashok Kumar thought he was in love with a ghost — the beauteous Madhubala. This was the film that catapulted Madhubala and Lata Mangeshkar (with the song Aayega aney wala ) to fame.
Reincarnation has often figured in Hindi films, catering largely to an audience that believes in rebirth. Bimal Roy’s Madhumati (1958) was about a man discovering an old (and dead) love. Quite a few films were inspired by the 1975 Hollywood hit The Reincarnation of Peter Proud . Karz (1980) — a cruel woman kills her boyfriend, who is reborn and takes revenge — was one memorable version.
Bollywood has spun some memorable ghost cinema over the years. Films such as Chamatkar (1992), Bhool Bhulaiyaa (2007) and Bhootnath (2008) have given way to 13B (2009) and Ghost (2019). Over-the-top platforms offer a clutch of truly scary films, too, but I want my films to be funny, and the ghosts, kind.
One of the nicest ghosts in Indian cinema is arguably Satyajit Ray’s bhooter raja — the king of ghosts — who did a marvellous jig with his cohorts in Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (1969). Goopy can’t sing and Bagha can’t play the drums — though they can’t be faulted for not trying. Their tuneless singing and rhythm-less playing to scare off a tiger gladdens the heart of the king of the ghosts. He is so impressed that he dances with delight, and ends up offering them three boons.
But if that occupies the top spot in ghost dancing, the second prize goes to a film called Bhoot Bungla (1965), where Mehmood and Rahul Dev Burman (in a rare role) check out a so-called haunted house. To the tune of the song Main bhookha hun (I am hungry), the two watch, teeth chattering and body shivering, frisky skeletons do a nimble dance in the air.
There is nothing like a scary Hindi film. It leaves you shaking — but, of course, not so much with fear as with laughter.