Horror and comedy are a match made in heaven, the lightness of one cutting the dark, brooding intensity of the other—like a splash of milk in a bold cup of coffee, and ice chips in coke. As good as this sounds, acing this genre is nothing short of a mammoth task—one that Bollywood seems to have accomplished with flying colours in 2022. Thanks to Anees Bazmi’s Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2 and Amar Kaushik’s Bhediya, the sub-genre of horror comedy has lured a loyal fanbase into its corner.
The year began with the mega success of Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2 in May, and ended with Kaushik’s blockbuster hit, Bhediya, in November. Both films were made within a neat Rs 60 crore budget and collectively raked in Rs 350 crore at the global box office.
But context is vital to understanding the relevance of the money that these films made. Of the 112 Hindi films released in 2022, including dubbed South Indian movies, 35 per cent of the box office share belonged to South cinema. This number used to be less than 15 per cent before the pandemic hit, indicating that India’s cinematic palate and landscape are undergoing a massive transformation.
When films like Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2 and Bhediya did well in a year where non-Hindi movies reigned supreme, it marked not just the rebirth of Bollywood but also the horror genre: Served with a generous sprinkling of comedy and backed by superlative performances.
Also read: Amar Kaushik has perfected horror-comedy with Bhediya. Kudos for getting Northeast right
The evolution of Indian horror comedy
From formulaic Ramsay Brothers’ horror films of the 1980s and 1990s—like Veerana, Purana Mandir, and Purani Haveli—to the new brand of sultry horror introduced by Ram Gopal Verma and Vikram Bhatt in the 2000s with Bhoot (2003), 1920 (2008), and Raaz (2002), the Hindi film industry has seen various interpretations of this adrenaline-inducing genre.
But the tide is shifting now.
Contemporary horror films are interested in experimenting with the craft, and jump scares are passé. While new-age Hindi horror is set in small towns, with folklore, haunting spirits and supernatural beings leading the front, there is a freshness to how directors treat the subject now. From Pavan Kirpalani, Gurmmeet Singh, to Prosit Roy, many have dabbled in horror-comedy, but only one name has cracked the code: Amar Kaushik.
Before Kaushik made his breakthrough film, Stree, in 2018, Priyadarshan hacked the potential of this genre with Bhool Bhulaiyaa in 2007. The film, starring Vidya Balan and Akshay Kumar, served both horror and comedy in equal proportions, a first for Indian audiences. After a six-year hiatus came Krishna D.K. and Raj Nidimoru’s Go Goa Gone, a unique film with zombies as the central theme, and spectacular comedic performances by Vir Das, Kunal Kemmu and Saif Ali Khan. But it wasn’t until Kaushik made Stree five years later that viewers formally acknowledged horror-comedy as a genre.
What ‘Stree’ did for horror-comedy
Besides the sniggers and ominous soundtrack, the film was backed by a powerful story. Set in a small town called Chanderi, Stree was conceptualised around folklore, where a witch named Stree abducts men during the four-day-long annual ‘Mahapuja’. As a result, the men cannot step out alone after dark. To see men get kidnapped despite the machismo associated with them is amusing, to say the least. With Stree, Kaushik has consciously attempted to challenge the patriarchal mentality that Indian society cannot let go of.
Even the climax shatters the notion that a ‘stree’ (woman) cannot protect society — a role traditionally reserved for men.
Many filmmakers attempted to reprise the magic of Stree after that, but none made an impact. In fact, the second instalment in the Stree-verse, Hardik Mehta’s Roohi (2021), is a classic example of how not to make a horror comedy. Roohi lacked a coherent plot and any depth. Instead, what we are served is cringe-inducing moments lazily stitched together. Interestingly, as opposed to its spiritual prequel, its central female character was irrelevant to the plot.
Also read: The Zee Horror Show — how the Ramsays created a cult TV series with jugaad, corpses & ghouls
Horror comedies of 2022
When Bollywood was at its lowest—striving to find a hit while being attacked by Twitter boycott trends—in came Bazmee with Bhool Bhulaiya 2. It is not easy to replicate the magic of Priyadarshan or even the impeccable performances of Balan and Kumar. But thankfully, Bazmee did not try to ape his veteran predecessor.
Instead, he came up with his own brand of slapstick horror comedy with Karthik Aaryan in the lead. Casting Tabu proved to be a great decision too, as her brilliant performance helped the film make buzz at the box office. Set in a lavish mansion in Rajasthan’s Bhawanigarh, Tabu played the double role of malevolent spirit Manjulika and her twin goody-two-shoes sister, Anjulika. The plot is simple and often flimsy, but Tabu makes the watch worth it.
Then, in November, came Gurmmeet Singh’s Phone Bhoot, starring Katrina Kaif, Siddhant Chaturvedi, and Ishaan Khatter.Horror and comedy are tricky genres to pull off, even individually. When clubbed together, the narrative and performances must be top-notch. Sadly, Phone Bhoot failed at both, its only redeeming qualities, perhaps, being the Khattar-Kaif-Chaturvedi camaraderie and its good use of pop culture elements (like the dead groom from the first instalment of mega-hit OTT show, Mirzapur).
But soon after Phone Bhoot’s failure, Kaushik’s Bhediya came to the rescue of a flailing Bollywood. Bhediya tells the story of Bhaskar (played by Varun Dhawan), a road construction contractor who travels to the dense forests of Ziro in Arunachal Pradesh for a project. Things take a chilling turn when a series of unexpected deaths occur after a wolf-like wild animal bites Bhaskar.
What worked in Bhediya’s favour was the social satire and authentic representation of Northeast India. Hailing from Arunachal Pradesh himself, Kaushik ensured that the film did not add to the list of misrepresentations of the often-overlooked states.
If anything, 2022 will serve as a lesson for filmmakers attempting to tackle horror comedy in 2023 and beyond.
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This article is part of a series called Beyond the Reel. Read all the articles here.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)