Indian cinema doesn’t have too many good films in the horror genre to boast of. There are only a handful of quality horror films. Here are, what I think, some of the best Indian horror movies ever made:
1. Lapachhapi (2017) (Marathi)
Horror is an unapologetically ridiculed genre in Hindi cinema. Marathi horror-thriller Lapachhapi is among the handful of films which triumphantly thwart that perception. Director Vishal Furia’s debut feature manages to evoke genuine scares and chills, without compromising on the narrative or giving in to stereotypes. An engrossing plot from the get go, the film has everything going for itself. From the sound effects to the perfectly lit frames (courtesy cinematographer Chandan Kowli) and a brilliant cast, everything comes together to make this a successfully executed effort. It’s also to the director’s credit who picks a location that adds to the eeriness.
Where to Watch: Zee5
2. Tumbbad (2018)
A parable on greed and how it devours its children, this is such a visual extravaganza that you begin to marvel at the audacity of the filmmakers. Their dauntless courage to dream beyond the obvious and to go where most Hindi films are afraid to go — a dark, stylised, surrealistic netherworld! The film needs to be seen on the large screen to internalise the intensity of its cinematic expanse. Do rope down the womb of Mother Earth to experience an eternal conflict. Beautifully shot, it is not really a horror show. Beyond horror lies the forever struggle between man’s need and his greed. Clearly, it’s one of the most important movies to have come out of India this year and deserves deep appreciation for its ambition and craft. Take a bow, Hastar.
Watch Tumbbad on Amazon Prime
3. Pari (2018)
A tale of love’s triumph over hatred, Pari takes a simple concept and weaves it into a folklore-inspired horror story that is amazingly realistic and surreal at the same time. One could say that the film is based in the realm of magic realism. It takes the concepts, images and structures of reality and introduces us to magical elements.
These magical or fantastical elements may or may not be real at all. It all depends on the subjective perspectives on truth. The insistence on the existence of multiple truths and the shunning of absolutism becomes a star characteristic of the film. The main proof of this theory is the amazing twist ending which leads us to question the existence of the supernatural elements in the cosmos of the film itself. This interesting and open-ended take on a horror movie makes Pari stand out as one of the best horror movies in this post-modernist era.
Watch Pari on Amazon Prime
4. Eeram (2009) (Tamil)
Symbolism and imagery are one of the most important aspects of the portrayal of a gothic horror setting. And Eeram exploits and implements those two things brilliantly. We are given an amazing premise to work with initially as well. The movie starts off as a mystery and uses the entire first half to make us juggle through the different possibilities in our mind. The mysterious first half perfectly opens up the movie to its audiences and makes the experience engaging and interactive.
Once the first half has us engrossed and invested, the film reveals the major gears that were churning out the mystery. This brilliant move then allows for the mystery horror to become a horror thriller. This sudden genre shift is hailed as one of the best as it does not mix the two but creates a clear bifurcation between them. This adds a certain character to the film that you won’t find in any other Indian horror film.
5. Yavarum Nalam (2009) (Tamil)
Yavarum Nalam is one of the best and most innovative psychological horror movies ever made. The movie has a certain character of its own. The atmosphere of creeping metaphorical and sometimes literal darkness looms over the portrayal. The plot of the movie itself is quite mystical and mysterious. The movie integrates communication technology so seamlessly with the classic revenge plot that it feels absolutely organic. Yavarum Nalam is able to take the genre of horror to a whole new level.
It heavily depends on its plot and the performances. Both the elements provide exemplary support to the film and aid it’s overall execution. It has one of the best twists in any horror movies. And at some points, the movie will lead you to believe that it is actually a crime thriller rather than a horror film. This clever ploy allows the movie to prey on your mind. So, don’t fall for that one.
6. Mahal (1949)
India’s first reincarnation thriller film, Mahal is a groundbreaking supernatural suspense thriller that goes over and beyond our expectations. It has a very unique style that closely resembles the German gothic architectural style that had been moulded into the Indian context. Mahal has many twists and turns and simply plays with the genre itself as well as your mind. It weaves an intricate and complex web of identities that surpass the boundaries of time.
Is there even a ghost? Or is it manmade? Is there a solution to everything? Or will love’s labour be eventually lost forever? These questions pop up recurringly in the film and truly make one question the realities and beliefs of the world as well as the people living in them. The movie truly deserves the title of a classic for it paved the way for future Indian gothic horror movies.
Watch Mahal on Amazon Prime
7. Raat (1992)
Raat is in true sense a cliche but a great horror movie. There is a reason that cliches become cliches. And the reason is that they are extremely scary. The jumpscares that this movie presents are some of the best I’ve seen in Indian cinema. They are completely unexpected and catch you off-guard. The movie must also not be mistaken for a simple scare-based horror for there’s depth to it. The condition of those who are affected by these supposedly supernatural activities of otherworldly beings is taken into account and this facet is explored with great detail.
The ardent non-believers clash with those who fear the other-dimensional threat. Science and logic versus prayer and spiritual healing become a central theme. Raat is genuinely one of my favourite horror movies because it is able to create a truly scary and poignant horror setting while focusing on issues that are usually kept on the shelf in this genre.
8. Stree (2018)
Like all unusual, inexplicable ghost stories we’ve grown up watching, here too we’re served with a tale that defies easy explanations but one that draws you right in. There’s no time for why-abouts when you’re already warned with a ‘based on a ridiculous phenomenon’ disclaimer. Credits also to the writers (Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK) and the director (Amar Kaushik) who keep you riveted in this imaginative tale, which, if not in good hands, could’ve possibly looked outrageously silly. Horror comedy is a barely explored, if not completely uncharted territory for Hindi cinema. We’ve only scratched the surface. But with Raj and DK’s zombie horror Go Goa Gone (2013) and now Stree (2018), we’ve come a step closer to justifying the genre.
Stree‘s ghost tale may be strewn with archaic beliefs and genre clichés but the grammar of this film is far from it. It ridicules misogynistic mindsets; its characters (and their language) aren’t cut out of a mainstream Bollywood film. Stree is a well-intentioned and relevant effort especially in today’s context when we’re talking equal rights for women and men like never before. It’s interesting the makers used this genre to tell their story. Horror here is metaphoric of the times we live in.
Watch Stree on Amazon Prime
9. Pisasu (2014) (Tamil)
The ghost in this dramedy isn’t the representation of decadence; it rather remains as a conduit of empathy and mercy. The storyline is simple and threadbare. A young violinist is haunted by the ghost of a woman whom he watches dying in an accident. Moved by the ghost’s kindness, the protagonist takes up the task to find the person who killed her. The narrative has a few jump-scare moments that are typical of horror flicks. Still, its beautiful and strong emotional layer takes it beyond the usual vengeful ghost movies. Mysskin’s visual experimentation has often left the viewers wonder-struck. The final stretch of Pisasu is a fine example of that. Director Bala produced this gothic horror film, which went on to become a box-office hit.
10. Darna Mana Hai (2003)
Indian horror films tend to have a predictable, formulaic storyline. It is mostly good vs evil with obvious religious innuendoes and a damsel in distress. Ram Gopal Verma decided to break the format and along with director Prawaal Raman succeeded immensely. The film had six different ghost stories. It neither had a standard protagonist nor a typical ghost in white saree and twisted legs. On the contrary, it mocked some of the traditional horror stories, like ghosts on a highway. It was semi-satirical take on ghosts and serial killers. The film was also shot in imaginative, innovative ways with a fine ensemble of actors.
Darna Mana Hai was Ram Gopal’s experiment done right. Such kind of fearless filmmaking made him one of the most interesting filmmakers in India.
11. Pizza (2012) (Tamil)
Pizza derives its scares from the terrifying atmosphere it creates. The movie is special in its own way. It tries to create genuine horror with the absence of any stereotypical cliches. It is the emptiness of the abandoned home and the rare appearance of apparitions at the most unexpected moments that makes the movie truly terrifying. This combines with some amazing camerawork and dark cinematography to accentuate the unorthodox style and substance of the movie.
Apart from the amazing and unconventional depiction of horror, it also has some of the best twists ever. This, combined with a compelling and interesting backstory makes the characters and the plot worth investing in. Pizza is truly a very different and a very original movie that takes experimentation with the genre of horror to the extreme in order to present us with a work that is both thrilling and terrifying.
12. Madhumati (1958)
Last but certainly not the least, is Bimal Roy’s paranormal romance, starring the legendary Dilip Kumar and Vyjayanthimala. Written by Ritwik Ghatak, it was the first Hindi film that dealt with the theme of reincarnation. The classic went on to become the source of inspiration for countless Hindi films that followed. One notable example is the Shah Rukh Khan-Deepika Padukone starrer Om Shanti Om.
Trivia: Did you know Madhumati held the record for the highest number of awards won (9) at the Filmfare Awards until Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge broke it in 1995.