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Music is Screaming: Exploring the Music of Bollywood Horror Cinema

Bollywood Horror

Since the early 2000s, there has been a small but steady flow of Bollywood film music compilations packed with fantastic funk, go-go, disco, and even the occasional traditional number. Many of these have been assembled by UK-based DJs, Indian or otherwise, who recognize not just the general catchiness and diversity of Indian film music, but also the abundance of hooks and beats it offers for remixing. And though they may be more “mainstream” by comparison, one should not overlook the crate digging done by the folks at Rough Guide, who released a few great collections of Bollywood psychedelia and disco. 

But there is another world, one not characterized by any sense of respectability: the B- and Z-grade Indian horror film. It’s a world that has more in common with, say, the exploitation films of Joseph Sarno and H.G. Lewis than with its Bollywood brethren. And it’s about time someone celebrated the music from those fantastic movies full of rubber fright masks and stock footage of lightning. In 2011, the people at Finders Keepers Records did just that when they assembled Bollywood Bloodbath. These are mansion foyers, foggy cemeteries, and nondescript city parks the horror and thriller films of India call home.

Bollywood Bloodbath eschews the usual suspects, assuming that we already have enough versions of “Chaiyya Chaiyya” and “The Theme from Don,” great songs though they and other Bollywood classics may be. It avoids as well popular themes from better-known horror and thriller movies. No “Gumnaam Hai Koi,” Lata Mangeshkar’s haunting theme song from 1965’s Gumnaam based on the theme song from Charade. Neither will you hear Gumnaam‘s most famous song, Mohammed Rafi’s frenetic “Jan Pehechan Ho.” Instead, Finders Keepers dug deep into the dank crypt of Indian horror films, where the vaults are haunted by the likes of film makers like the Ramsay clan and where composers and singers like Burman and Asha Bholse, though present, take a backseat to men like Sonik Omi and the king of Indian B-movie music, Bappi Lahiri.

Bollywood Bloodbath is a tour of every mad stylistic crevasse explored by Bollypop during the 1970s and ’80s — from funk to disco to electro to experimental madness that sounds like a Halloween sound effects record as interpreted by Einsturzende Neubauten. Things kick off with an intro track that sports a hint of giallo then flows into “Sansani Khez Koi Baat,” a sort of dreamy disco-meets-psychedelia by pilot-turned-music director and allegedly terrible husband Hemant Bhosle, who manages to rope his superstar mom Asha into performing on his oddly compelling contribution. But it is the next track, “He Met Me in the Guest House” from the film Saboot, where the compilation finds its signature superstar. Bappi Lahiri, who looks exactly like you want him to, has long been a favorite composer for many cult film fans, thanks largely to his work in the international competitive disco dancing epic, Disco Dancer (if you think modern film lacks surrealism and quality costume design, check out Disco Dancer‘s phenomenal and phenomenally catchy “Krishna dharti pe aaja tu“). Lahiri has worked the entire scale of Indian cinema from blockbusters to low-budget actioners to sleazy Tarzan rip-offs, with more than a few horror film scores under his sizable belt.

His style is as all over the place as the movies in which his songs appear. “He Met Me in the Guest House” sounds like a Poverty Row spook show soundtrack collided with a space disco and brought along a 1960s Eurolounge vocalist. Saboot was directed by Shyam Ramsay and Tulsi Ramsay, and the Ramsays were the great champions of disreputable Indian horror. When the industry was defined by coy romances, melodramas, and a general air of conservatism, the Ramsays outraged people with films that wallowed in blood, sex, and all manner of crudeness. Critics and government officials raged against them, and the public pretended Ramsays horror movies didn’t exist — which makes you wonder how each one of them was able to rake in so much cash. In retrospect, and given the filmmakers such as Kanti Shah and Harinam Singh who would follow in their footsteps, Ramsays movies and the music in them are pretty polished and generally enjoyable. Lahiri was one of their go-to musical directors. There are five Bappi songs on Bollywood Bloodbath and all of them are from Ramsay films, including the aforementioned Saboot as well as Dahshat (“Meri Jaan” and “Disco Title Music From Dahshat“) and Maut Ka Saya (“Aafat” and “Dance music from Maut Ka Saya“). They’re all excellent examples of Lahiri’s electro-tinged disco pop and represent what is probably the apex of Bollywood horror movie music.

Among the higher-profile examples of Indian spook film music comes from the team of Laxmikant Shantaram Kudalkar and Pyarelal Ramprasad Sharma, commonly known simply as Laxmikant-Pyarelal. Their first appearance on this disc is the song “Aa Jane Jaan” from the 1969 film Intaqam (there are a lot of films called Intaqam, by the way). The song sounds like someone remixed a more traditional Indian movie song with a composition by exotica pioneer Les Baxter. And if you get a chance to see the scene in which it appears — boy oh boy! Indians in blackface and jungle native get-ups caper about or are locked in cages while Helen, the undisputed queen of Bollywood dance numbers, writhes and pelvic thrusts like a madwoman. The movie itself is less of a horror film and more of an old school mystery/revenge movie, but if Helen is wearing a sequined bikini and wiggling her hips, who am I to complain? 

Laxmikant-Pyarelal show up a couple more times on the disc, with the jungle exotica of “Theme Music from Anita,” which is one of those movies where some heel of a husband offs his wife and then gets himself haunted by her ghost (or is it a ghost???), and the tribal “Chalo Re Doli” from one of the legendary films of Indian horror cinema, 1979’s Jaani Dushman (which, under no circumstances, should be confused with 2002’s Jaani Dushman: Ek Anokhi Kahani, made by the stunningly untalented son of Jaani Dushman’s director). Because Italian composers such as Bruno Nicolai and, especially, Alessandro Alessandroni (who, among other things, brought his sitar over to jam on several tracks from Nicolai’s score for Sergio Martini’s All the Colors of the Dark), were influenced during the 1970s by Indian music, you can really hear the crossover in songs like “Chalo Re Doli.” Tell me that doesn’t fit perfectly in an Edwige Fenech hallucination freak-out scene. Or, you know. A Jess Franco jazz/stripclub orgy.

Ratandeep Hemraj and Sapan Jagmohan turn in a couple of songs that would sound at home in just about any sort of Bollywood movie. Not a knock against them, but they don’t stand out from other songs on other Bollywood compilations the way some of the other songs here do. Usha Kanna’s “Jeena Hai To Jee Bhar Hanslo” from the movie Hotel is a weird, wonderful mix of 1960s spy jazz and acid rock. Then we get to Sonik Omi with “Main Theme From Andhera/Darwaza,” more Ramsays’ joints. This one is a truly delirious mix: hyperactive percussion, ultra fuzzed-out guitars, brass, flutes, a guy with an echo effect screaming “Andhera!” (“darkness”) over and over. 

Then, with the roar of a monster and “bwooo be booo” electronics and synths, along with spooky growling and whispering, twangy guitars and bongos, Bappi Lahiri turns in “Disco Title Music From Dahshat,” which is very possibly the stand-out track on what is a remarkably strong collection.

But that hardly means Bollywood Bloodbath is out of tricks. Rajesh Roshan pops in a couple of times with short tracks — under a minute — combining percussion and creepy laughing and sounding like those old “Spooky Sounds of the Haunted House” novelty records. Both Roshan tracks are from the Ramsays film Sannata. With the track “Superman, Superman,” from the movie Dariya Dil (1988), however, Roshan gets a full four-and-a-half minutes to deliver what is easily the weirdest song in the whole collection. The movie is more of a fantasy-comedy than a horror film, but if you’ve seen its most famous musical number, you’ll likely agree that earns inclusion. It starts out with the sort of electronic fanfare you’d expect from a Keith Mansfield library music collection with a title like “The Triumphant March of Modern Progress.” Then the female disco vocals kick in, along with the chorus and the futuristic space lounge and…I think my head exploded. It probably should have been the last song on the album, because it’s a pretty impossible act to follow. 

Not that the remaining tracks go gently into the night. For example, there’s Khemchand Prakash’s thunderous “Dance Music from Mahal,” which would have been just as at home in a King Kong or Sinbad movie. The disc closes with the sole contribution from acclaimed musical director R.D. Burman, “Bindiya Tarse Kajra Barse” from the film Phir Wohi Raat, with vocals by Lata Mangeshkar. Ehh. I could do without it. It’s not a bad song, but it’s so…normal. So precious. So typically R.D. Burman. He may be the biggest name on Bollywood Bloodbath (though none of these artists are particularly obscure), but Burman’s also the most out of place, like he’s intruding on a cult ritual that rightfully belongs to the Bappi Lahiris, Sonik Omis, and Rajesh Roshans of the world (or the netherworld, as the case may be). Vampires and vengeful girl ghouls can’t kill to this tinkly sort of a tune. 

There. We’ve done it: trash talked the universally beloved R.D. Burman and said, “Man, I wish he was Bappi Lahiri.”

Still, one boring song from Burman is hardly enough to spoil the sheer awesomeness of Bollywood Bloodbath, which takes its rightful place alongside the one-two punch of Bombshell Baby of Bombay and Bombay Connection as among the most essential compilations of Bollywood music. From deliriously cheerful songs like Nadeem & Shravan’s “Dekho Dekho Dekho Magar Pyar Se” to the electro-disco of mighty Bappi Lahiri to…well…whatever the hell it is that Rajesh Roshan is doing, this is a top notch tour of “horror film music” that is as diverse, unreal, and unexpected as Indian horror films themselves.

Bollywood Bloodbath was at one point available as a digital download from Finders Keepers via Bandcamp, but it looks like they’ve dropped it. Thus the links to youtube pages above. But perhaps we can summon a bolt of cartoon lightning, strike its grave, and convince Finders Keepers to resurrect this glorious monster someday.

About Keith Allison

Keith Allison is a writer and pop culture historian living in New York. His interest in film and adventure started at an early age, when he was left to his own devices in the wee small hours and discovered the Universal monsters, Godzilla, and "Matinee at the Bijou." He has written for Alcohol Professor, The Cultural Gutter, Teleport City and the book Sex and Zen and a Bullet in the Head. He is also the author of Cocktails & Capers: Cult Film, Cocktails, Crime, and Cool.

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