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How B-Movies Managed to Sustain A Cult Following in Modern India

How B-Movies Managed to Sustain A Cult Following in Modern India

February 18th, 2023
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For three decades, thousands of B-movies were produced—made on paltry budgets, rarely starring known faces but featuring a ton of sleaze and wild ideas.


A white Fiat Padmini rolls through a creaky iron gate in the dead of the night. A wooden door swings open. A balding man in an El Bandito moustache emerges from a red-lit room. “You’ve brought a body?” he sneers at a quaking man as white as his clothes. 

Bougainvillaea branches shake, which means a storm is coming. Everyone is dressed head to toe in white, including the ‘corpse’ of a woman lying in the car’s back seat. But, of course, she is still alive—and now strangling her husband who dropped two bullets in her after she caught him “red-handed” canoodling with his mistress.



Thunder and lightning. The gardener brandishes a sword. The surprisingly-upright woman inches backwards, into her own grave. The husband, straining through no less than nine shots, fills up the grave with sand. His shirt is unscathed, but his hapless girlfriend, capable of little more than screaming, is not. A hand pops out and grabs her ankle. Thwack! The sword chops off the hand. Blood-soaked and lying on a bed of dried leaves, it wriggles. You’d find it hard not to giggle.

The rest of Vinod Talwar’s Khooni Panja, a low-budget horror movie released in August 1991, follows in much the same vein: choppy editing, non-starter jokes, acting that’ll make you cringe, an overuse of neon light, comically crafted costumes; but suspense as thick as blood. In a year when Bollywood movies had little success at the box office—SaajanSaudagarHum and Phool Aur Kaante were but a few that did well that year—this rough-around-the-edges B-movie held the audience’s attention.


It wasn’t the only one. “The golden era of B-movies was between 1998 to 2003, but the complete era stretches from the late 1980s to the late 2000s,” says Aseem Chandaver, a B-movie buff who worked as a researcher on the fascinating new documentary series Cinema Marte Dam Tak, streaming on Amazon Prime Video. For three decades, thousands of these movies were produced—made on paltry budgets, rarely starring known faces but featuring a ton of sleaze and wild ideas. Unwittingly comic? Sure. Ahead of their time? Maybe. But a loyal, cult following? Absolutely.  

“‘B movie’ is an American term,” says Chandaver, “for the film that, say, Roger Corman [‘The King of Cult’ as he was popularly known] would shoot on the cheap with the thousands of feet of reel left over from the main project. In India, these films were high concept but badly executed. They had the vision to do something more than what Bollywood could do, but lacked the money, talent and skill.” 

By multiple accounts, the first of these stalwarts was Joginder Shelly, the “enfant terrible of Hindi cinema” who began making horror, taboo and action films in 1960. “He created the model for truly guerilla films: How do you make a film for Rs 5 lakh, how do you distribute and exhibit it?” Shelly demonstrated the bankability of gonzo films with the ‘superhit’ Ranga Khush (1975), which came at the height of the dacoit era in the 1970s and gave Sholay stiff competition.



With Pyasa Shaitan (1984), he bought the rights to a Malayalam movie starring Kamal Haasan. He kept scenes with Haasan intact, shot some ‘hot scenes’ in Hindi, and stitched it all together. It was one of the first examples of the ‘bits’ technique, says Chandaver, which was a hallmark of the B-movie—where filmmakers shot ‘hot’ scenes separately and left them out of the versions sent to the censor board for clearance, which would be inserted into the projectors at opportune moments—and a big reason for their mammoth success. 

Alongside a league of prehistoric films; and BK Adarsh’s tarty Public Service Announcement films like Jawaani Ki Kahani—both supposedly educational, but actually quite pornographic—rose Talwar, and his arch nemesis, Mohan Bhakri. Both took their cue from the success of the Ramsay Brothers—the pioneers of horror in Bollywood—and both minted money on the back of their low-budget jump scares, with ‘bits’ thrown in. 

The tempo rose in the ’90s, as more makers appeared on the scene, churning out films at faster speed and ever lower budgets. There was Harinam Singh, who Chandaver calls the “Tommy Wiseau of India”. “Khooni Dracula (1992) was made in a beg-borrow-steal mode. The first scene features a dracula, but they couldn’t even afford a coffin. So the dracula is shown lying on the grass in a children’s garden,” laughs Chandaver. “But the music is somehow great. When I put out the Khooni Dracula theme song on YouTube in 2008 or so, people were legit recreating it. It went viral!”


Then there was Teerat Singh. “Such a wild guy that the first and second halves of his films don’t match,” says Chandaver. “In Sir Kati Laash (1999), the headless ghost of a man transforms into a woman to have sex with the male servant of the house! In the second half of another film, Khooni Ilaaka: The Prohibited Area (1999), he has duplicates of Bollywood stars staying in this locality who get killed off one by one.”

The golden era of B-movies belonged to the estranged brothers Kishan and Kanti Shah; especially the latter, whose blockbuster films like Loha (1997) and Gunda (1998) starred A-list actors like Dharmendra and Mithun Chakraborty. “Kanti Shah is the greatest, he is the Roger Corman of India,” says Chandaver. On an industry level, people returned to work with them because they knew how to multiply money, they paid cash-in-hand on a daily basis, and they rarely had back debts. “Things like women’s sexuality mattered a lot to Kanti; he depicted women as horny as men.” 

But this wasn’t just happening in Mumbai. In Kerala, filmmakers like Purushottam (Haiwaan) had realised early that they needed to designate a separate category for “thrills”. In Tamil Nadu, Silk Smitha reigned through much of the ’90s. “A whole league of experimentation was going on around her. She would be in spy, karate, sci-fi flicks. There’s even a Rajnikant movie, Fauladi Mukka, a Shaolin sort of film, that went the B-grade route and starred Smitha. She was doing her own stunts while looking hot.”   

Chandaver, whose personal collection currently holds about 400 B-movies sourced from around the country, says there’s a depth that is often disregarded. “Why I love that bygone era is because that entire scene had a peculiar aesthetic,” he says. “They worked hard on their posters. A lot of them were like the giallo films of Italy, with that yellow tint. The themes were taboo, things that mainstream Bollywood could not provide: a lot of dominatrix themes, spectrophilia, homoeroticism.” 

In her paper “I Wasn’t Born With Enough Middle Fingers”, Dr Aditi Sen of Queen’s University studies the low-budget films of everyone from Harinam Singh to Vikram Bhatt a

nd argues that “Bollywood low-budget films fulfil the basic function of horror movies—that is, they subvert mainstream moral order and sexual morality. These films open up the space for dialogues that mainstream cinema has totally neglected. Particularly, in the areas of incest, female lust, and the othering of male sexuality and transgender identities.”


“The heroines mattered, actors rarely did,” agrees Chandaver. “Sapna Sappu (frequently starring in Kanti Shah’s films) was the Deepika Padukone of her time. The grammar-breaking and the no-fucks-given attitude that these people had… it was a much more liberated time. They really understood their audience.”

Another big reason for the dominance of B-movies (and their eventual demise, ironically) was technology. As Vibhushan Subba, a professor at IIT Bombay, wrote in his 2016 paper ‘The Bad-Shahs of Small Budget’, focused on Shah brothers: “The ’80s saw the rise of cassette culture in India with the introduction of the VCR. An estimated one million colour television sets were imported as a result of the government’s policy change, with the total number of sets in India increasing from five thousand to five million in less than two years.”



This meant the upper classes retreated indoors for more private entertainment, leaving public theatres for the working classes. Subba quotes Ramesh Sippy, the director of Sholay, as saying: “Films started to deteriorate in their content because they had to appeal to the lowest denominator, which meant more basic kind of films.”


The B-movie’s fall from grace was a result of multiple factors, and that was despite the support of then CBFC chief Vijay Anand: overreaching by greedy producers, tighter scrutiny and police raids, the rise of the multiplex, the arrival of the Internet and greater access to pornography. B-movies had also become reviled as films for people who were “not like us”. 

The change happened seemingly overnight. Chandaver recalls how the single-screen theatre, Paradise, in Mahim, near where he lives, transformed from a grimy B-movie hub that was screening Ravi Basera’s Khandala House in the summer, into a shiny, renovated space screening Aamir Khan’s Ghajini by the end of 2009. 

In that final decade, B-movies became the preserve of the VHS-VCD circuit too; with copies retailing at Victoria Library in Mahim and Lamington Road in Mumbai, and Palika Bazaar in Delhi. Online, Chandaver has been sourcing DVDs for his collection from Induna.com since 2010. All the big players in the CD space—Moserbear, Shemaroo, Raj Video, Priya Video, Bombino VCD, Pen video—have remastered their titles into VCDs. Ultra is even rendering B-movies in 4K right now. 

The demand has clearly not diminished—Talwar’s Khooni Panja has garnered 3.3 million views since it was uploaded to the YouTube channel MovieHub a year ago. But the supply hasn’t either. “Everyone has a camera now,” says Chandaver. “Uttar Kumar in Haryana is a walking, talking industry by himself. He makes four movies a year. In Dear vs Bear (2014), he plays a footballer who gets trapped in a jungle, and he actually defeats a group of bears by playing football.”



Chandaver also mentions films like the upcoming Target India, by a “living legend” called Vijay Saxena (“which may not be his real name”); Dinesh Makwana’s Woh Ban Gaya Killer (2017), with a travelling screening schedule; and Sumnash Kaljai’s Leera the Soulmate (2018), touted as India’s first fully VFX film. And then there is the host of erotica apps—Ullu, Kukkoo, Prime Play and many more, the majority of whose content, says Chandaver, is being produced in Meerut. 

The old Mumbai guard continues to work. “Dilip Gulati (Jaan Lada Denge, Jungle Beauty) has recently made one on the Sushant Singh Rajput tragedy. Kishan sends erotica to these apps. Kanti has built his own app with Sapna. Talwar works as a production guy in Boney Kapoor films,” Chandaver rattles off. “The fact is, erotica has a larger base in India than porn. It has to have that layer of a story, which these guys know how to make. So they might get back in the game.” 

In Cinema Marte Dam Tak, Talwar, Gulati, Kishan Shah and J Neelam—who made films like Daku Ganga Jamuna (2000) and Sadhu Bana Shaitaan (2004)—are tasked with putting together a short film each within seven days on a small budget. Those films are yet to see the light of day. “But that taboo zone will not return,” says Chandaver. “People are just not ready, they are lazy in their consumption, the barest minimum works for them right now. I don’t know why. I suspect that category of cinema may not even sit well with Gen Z.”   

Chandaver calls the phenomenon “the TikTok moment”. “The elite could never produce as much content as these guys do. Just like with TikTok, they were more creative, resourceful, active and energetic, as compared to the Instagram guys. And the circle continues.” 

But one thing’s certain. “We used to laugh at these movies,” he says. “I stopped doing that a long time back.”


The Article originally originated at VOGUE

02 FEB 2023, Nidhi Gupta

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