The conventional wisdom that you can’t go wrong with horror comedies if you can think of ways to write new jokes is slowly falling apart in Telugu cinema. Call it a clear case of fatigue or a lack of new ideas, horror comedy, as a genre in itself, feels like it is overstaying its welcome in Tollywood.
It has been a cash cow for several producers and directors for almost five years now, and thanks to a series of films which have followed a similar template in their narration, we now know almost all of the tropes and tricks that the director might use to narrate a story.
But, what is this template and how does it mould films in this genre? It all began back in 2013 when Maruthi’s Prema Katha Chitram turned out to be a smash hit. That film, starring Sudheer Babu and Nandita, sowed the seeds for a template of horror comedy films, and ever since, a considerable number of filmmakers have been rehashing the ‘superhit’ formula. Subsequent films like Geethanjali, Devi, Nayaki, Chandrakala (Aranmanai), Kalavathi (Aranmanai 2), Raju Gari Gadhi, Raju Gari Gadhi 2, Anando Brahma, Ekkadiki Pothaavu Chinnavada, Next Nuvve have all used plot points similar to that of Prema Katha Chitram, and the success of most of these films made it seem like they were safe bets for everyone involved.
Traditionally, one of the biggest advantages while dabbling in horror comedies has been the budget. It’s entirely possible to shoot an entire film within one house, and the more number of a laughs a film has, the better are its chances to hit the bull’s eye at the box-office.
It’s almost always about a bunch of friends going to a house only to realise that it is haunted by a ghost. And soon, they are tormented by the ghost for one reason or another, and by the time you begin to wonder what the whole point of the film is, it cuts to a flashback to explain the ghost’s backstory. Most times it is about a young girl who is killed, abused, or has gone through something worse. And in the end, the ghost and the bunch of friends team up to avenge the ghost’s death. Right from Prema Katha Chitram or the recent Next Nuvve starring Aadi, Vaibhavi and Rashmi Gautam, most films have followed the same route, although some interesting twists have been introduced into the plots, like the one in Taapsee, Mahi V Raghav’s Anando Bramha, where it’s the ghost who get scared of humans or the one in Nikhil, Nandita Shweta’s Ekkadiki Pothaavu Chinnavada which focuses on the dilemma — do you fall in love with a person’s soul or body?
Horror comedies are also one of the very few genres which don’t need a big star to sell the film, and the onus is mostly on the comedians to keep the audiences engaged. Considering that the Telugu film industry is blessed with some of the finest comedians in the country today, this almost feels like a cakewalk. For Mahi V Raghav, the challenge was to convince everyone in the crew to believe that there’s still some scope to narrate a new story in the same genre. And that is how Anando Brahma, one of the surprise hits of 2017, happened. “I’m not a big fan of horror comedies, and when I went to meet the producers, they said they would listen to the story as long as it’s not a horror comedy,” Mahi V Raghav says while chuckling. Recalling how he started Anando Brahma, he said, “Then Taapsee too, was reluctant to do the film since she had already done Ganga with Lawrence. There were several technicians in the film who were not big fans of the genre. I think all of us believed in each other and took a leap of faith while doing the film.”
In the midst of all this, Siddharth’s latest horror drama Aval (Gruham in Telugu) feels like a wake up call that Telugu and Tamil cinema desperately needed to look at the horror genre with a fresh perspective. In a recent interview, Siddharth said, “There’s a myth that if you scare the audience too much then they won’t watch the film. That explains why we make so many horror comedies. But if you see how people went in droves to watch the Conjuring series in India, you know that there’s a big audience for pure horror films. We can’t blame the audience for anything.” The film opened to rave reviews in Tamil, and the Telugu version is slated for release on 10 November, just a week after Aadi, Prabhakar’s Next Nuvve, a remake of a Tamil horror comedy Yaamirukka Bayamey, released in theatres.
All this makes us wonder, why do people love horror films in first place? Is it the thrill of being scared? Or something else altogether? Siddharth avers, “We love sharing the experience with someone close to us and it’s all the more true when it comes to the horror genre. Sometimes, people just don’t want to accept that they really got scared while watching a horror film, and at other times, they are trying to figure out how the filmmaker pulled off a certain horror sequence which scared them. It’s like trying to understand a magic trick. Moreover, I’m a purist and I’ve always loved horror films which stayed true to the genre.”
On the other hand, the Telugu film industry could be the biggest benefactor of the phenomenal success of Rohit Shetty’s Golmaal Again, which is going to join the 200 crore club soon. The Hindi comedy horror film too, followed a similar template as seen in several Telugu films of the same genre, and there’s a belief that the success of Rohit Shetty’s film could prompt more filmmakers to buy the remake rights of Telugu and Tamil horror comedies.
At the moment, the genre has been beaten to death, particularly in Telugu cinema, and in recent times, it’s been treated the same way as a sugarcane is treated in a juice shop — recycled over and over again such that the very idea of horror comedy sounds horrific now.