Purana Mandir (1984)
Directors: Shyam Ramsay, Tulsi Ramsay
Stars: Mohnish Bahl, Arti Gupta, Puneet Issar, Sadashiv Amrapurkar, Ajay Agarwal, Sadhana Khote, Satish Shah, Trilok Kapoor, Pradeep Kumar
1/2 (out of 4)
Purana Mandir is my first venture into the wild world of Bollywood cinema and Hindi Horror movies. Bollywood refers to the film industry based in Mumbai (Bombay + Hollywood = Bollywood) featuring Hindi-language dialogue; it’s one of the largest film production centers on the planet (the entire Indian film industry is the largest in the world in terms of number of films released). Bollywood films tend to go with the kitchen sink approach (called Masala), offering a little something for everyone, mixing lots of genres together. For example, Purana Mandir features a love story, family drama, kung fu action, horror, babes, parody, comic relief, and music – lots of music. Suketu Mehta, in his book Maximum City, says:
Most commercial Hindi films are musicals, with anywhere from 5 to 15 song sequences…. Hindi movies face no guidelines [that the song fit the plot]. The suspension of disbelief in India is prompt and generous…audiences are pre-cynical; they still believe in motherhood, patriotism, and true love.
For a westerner not familiar with Hindi horror movies, first contact with Purana Mandir is a little disorienting. It certainly starts out with both barrels blazing – a devil-worshipper by the name of Saamri (a menacing Ajay Agarwal) has committed many unspeakable crimes, and the royal procession of Raja Harimansingh of the sultanate of Bijapur has the misfortune of a carriage wheel breaking while traveling through his land. After killing some of the Raja’s guards as well as his daughter (Saamri’s method of killing involves sucking the victim’s life force until their eyes turn white and bleeding – straight out of the awesome Horror Express), Saamri is subdued with the help of the Trident of Shiva (trishula). The Raja’s holy man suggests burning Saamri, but as is the case in many horror films, Raja doesn’t listen. Instead, he has Saamri decapitated, with his body buried in a temple and his head buried behind a wall in his palace. Before his execution is carried out, Saamri puts a curse on the Raja’s family, saying that all female heirs will die horribly in childbirth. Yeah, Saamri is really capital-E Evil.
A few hundred years pass, and the Raja’s great-great-grandson Thakur Singh ( Pradeep Kumar) is distraught over the idea of his daughter Suman (a very cute Aarti Gupta) hooking up with boyfriend Sanjay (Mohnish Behl), because he knows that if she conceives a child, she will die (a flashback to her mom’s death isn’t pretty). This is the point in the film where the viewer experiences an onslaught of constantly shifting tones, the first taking place at a nightclub where “item girl” (Leena Das) performs a song/dance in what is termed the movie’s “item number.” Afterwards, Thakur orders his henchmen to give Sanjay a good beatdown so he’ll stay away from Suman, but Sanjay’s super-best-friend Anand (Puneet Issar – reminding me of an Indian version of Fred Williamson) knows kung-fu and the pair open up a can of whoop-ass on them. A musical interlude features Sanjay walking the beach and reminiscing about his times with Suman, helped along by camera pans, zooms, and optical effects. After Thakur is forced to tell his daughter the truth about her unfortunate bloodline, the young couple decide to drive to the Bijapur palace to investigate his wild claims. Coming along for the ride is the always dependable Anand and his wife Sapna (Sadhana Khote).
After spending the night at the temple (where Suman dreams of a headless body), and some encounters with bizarre characters, like the creepy woodcutter Sanga (Satish Shah), they arrive at the palace, greeted by caretaker Durjan (Sadashiv Amrapurkar) and his mother, who is unable to speak. Suman is drawn to a giant painting of her ancestor Raja Harimansingh – the eyes of the painting seem to follow her. After seeing the floating head of Saamri and taking a shower where the water turns to blood (my first thought went to the obscure TV thriller This House Possessed), Suman eventually freaks out and attacks the painting with a knife. This reveals a secret room behind the painting, which Durjan and Sanga believe conceals a hidden treasure. It turns out that it’s not treasure at all, but Saamri’s buried head, which possesses the woodcutter and begins an attempt to rejoin its body.
The scenes I have just described are good, straightforward horror that, when taken by themselves, follow western conventions rather closely. The directors – Shyam Ramsay and Tulsi Ramsay – have been influenced by American output like The Evil Dead, which shows up in eerie forest/car-driving sequences and some indoor camera tracking shots, not to mention the special look of Hammer horror and the American monsters/slashers of the 70s and early 80s (Michael Myers, Jason, Freddy). There are interesting camera angles, mist effects, a creepy musical score, some gore, and some skin (censors prohibited nudity and kissing, but Purana Mandir does its best to work around that restriction). Most important, as a monster/villain, Saamri is a real threat, and he is used to great effect in the few sequences that feature him. But remember that Purana Mandir is not a western horror picture, but a Bollywood pic that incorporates western styles. There are many sudden mood changes, as the film is fond of martial arts sequences out of nowhere and many musical numbers – two of them inserted into the final act, disrupting the flow. There’s also the misguided attempt at an unrelated comedic subplot that is a full-on parody of Sholay (the biggest blockbuster in the history of Bollywood cinema). The subplot fulfills the “story-within-a-story” criteria which is, from what I gather, typical of the Masala film style, and the desire of filmmakers to appeal to as broad an audience as possible. I realize I am looking at this movie with western eyes – I’m trying not to. However, I consider the comedic bits the weakest part of the movie, while I tolerated better the martial arts sequences and musical interludes – even liked some of them – although they also distract from the overall mood.
I do like, however, the backstory that is rooted in legends and story-telling traditions. The Ramsay brothers are masters of Hindi horror for a reason – when they focus on it, they make it work well, and when they focus on melodrama, comedy, or music, at least they try to keep you interested. Much of the movie takes on themes of honor and friendship, love and jealousy, superstition and religion. The main characters are likable, mostly because the movie spends lots of time with them before thrusting them into the middle of their demon problem (Saamri doesn’t even revive until well over an hour in). Even the grainy, scratched print I saw meshes well with the mist, haze, and fog effects, lending a proper grindhouse feel (it also works with the kung fu scenes). The middle (and middling) Sholay parody may intimidate you with its alienness, but don’t give up – there are jewels in the rough. I’m only half-joking, but I wonder if it’s possible to generate an “American edit”, which would keep all the horror elements (and trim the film down from a 2.5 hour running time to something more B-movie suitable). The Ramsays followed it up in 1985 with 3D Saamri and in 1990 released the cult favorite Bandh Darwaza (also starring Anirudh Agrawal as the villain). Agrawal became a horror icon; female lead Aarti Gupta got married and left the business. Mondo Macabro releases Purana Mandir on a double bill with Bandh Darwaza, called The Bollywood Horror Collection – Vol 1. It has a documentary on South Asian horror movies, an interview with film critic Omar Khan, notes, and previews. Hindi horror fans should check it out.
- Bill Gordon