If Shyam Ramsay could have had his way, he might have staged himself a spectacular death. It would take place inside a medium-sized dilapidated haveli, which looks unremarkable in the daylight but turns into a fearful place after sundown; when dead things that did not truly die, or die properly, emerge and run riot — for what is an abandoned haveli if not the devil’s playground? He’d throw in a nubile and guileless young woman who’d need saving from a red-eyed, furry man-monster, and perhaps in that effort, a fatal scratch from the creature across Shyam’s chest does him in. Anything on those lines, really, would work for the creative genius of the Ramsay Brothers, the kings of sexy-horror films of the 1970s and ’80s. He passed away from pneumonia at a Mumbai hospital yesterday. He was 67.
Shyam was the sixth son of Fatehchand U Ramsinghani, a radio shop owner in Karachi, who moved to Bombay during the Partition and decided to try his hand in being a film producer. He changed his name to Ramsay and had a handful of hits, such as Shaheed-E-Azam Bhagat Singh (1954) and Rustom Sohrab (1963). Father to seven sons — Kumar, Gangu, Tulsi, Arjun, Keshu, Shyam and Kiran — he decided to involve them all in the business, and soon, Ramsay Brothers was born. Their good run ended when their 1970 film, Ek Nanhi Munni Si Ladki, tanked. But all was not lost. Film lore informs us that two of the brothers, Tulsi and Shyam, watched the film in a cinema hall, and noted that the audience reacted the most to a scene where Prithviraj Kapoor’s character, dressed in a grotesque costume, and a devil’s mask, commits a robbery and scares Mumtaz. They set about convincing Fatehchand to produce one more film, Do Gaz Zameen Ke Neeche (1972), and when it became a hit, the family was back in the game. But this time, with a little help from zombies, vampires, werewolves, helpless but sexy young women, and stop-motion techniques that evoked fear and delight in equal measure.
“The Ramsays created a syntax for a unique cinematic language that had never existed in Hindi cinema. The recent passing of Tulsi and now Shyam highlights a deep irony facing most artists in India — that their work might never be celebrated in their own lifetimes,” says Sushmit Ghosh, who along with Rintu Thomas, has directed a 27-minute documentary, Kings of Horror, produced by the Public Service Broadcasting Trust. It will be screened at the Open Frame festival tomorrow in Delhi. “Our film is an ode to the eccentric genius of these mavericks and brings together some of the doyens of indie cinema today, as they deconstruct, contextualise and redefine films of the Ramsay Brothers,” says Ghosh.
Shyam, who directed the Ramsay Brothers hits, Darwaza (1978), Purana Mandir (1984) and Veerana (1988), also created India’s first horror series, The Zee Horror Show — the initial 24-episode offering with the channel became so popular that it ran for nine years, from 1993 till 2001. His last outing on the big screen was Neighbours in 2014. He is survived by his daughters, Saasha, who is a filmmaker, and Namrata, a TV actor and scriptwriter.