A Bollywood Nightmare on Elm St.
Thanks for the warm response for the first episode of “Deja View”! And since the Platinum Dunes remake of “A Nightmare on Elm Street” was just released, I thought it might be fun to squeeze in the second episode right away and talk about a Bollywood version of the film, “Mahakaal.”
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The Platinum Dunes reimagining of “A Nightmare on Elm Street” has just clawed its way into theaters, but this is hardly the first time that Wes Craven’s seminal horror film has been remade.
In fact, back in 1993 Freddy Krueger took a trip to India and traded in his trademark sweater and hat for a trenchcoat and a mullet.
On this episode we’re going to take a look at “Mahakaal” and try to shake off that weird feeling of Deja View.
Bollywood Horror was virtually invented in the 1980s by filmmaking siblings the Ramsay Brothers. With their film “Purana Mandir”, they single-handedly created a ravenous market for the genre, launching a horror boom that lasted a decade. It was at its tail end that Shyam and Tulsi Ramsay released “Mahakaal”.
“Mahakaal” tells the story of college student Anita and her friends, who are stalked in their dreams by the murderous demon Shakaal, whose actions in the dream world have a very tangible effect in the real one.
So let’s talk first about the parallels between “Mahakaal” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street” Aside from the basic plot, the most obvious similarity is the iconography. In fact the film opens almost immediately with a shot of Shakaal’s razor glove. And during the opening credits, which mirror the original’s, Anita’s friend Seema wanders the halls of a creepy abandoned building and ends up in a set that’s more than a little reminiscent of Freddy Krueger’s boiler room.
And of course what would a “Nighmare on Elm Street” remake be without the iconic deaths? Well actually this proved to be an interesting problem for the Ramsay Brothers. Because during the making of “Mahakaal,” their chief rival Mohan Bhakri released his “Elm Street”-inspired film “Khooni Murdaa.” And while it wasn’t a direct remake, it DID incorporate a number of the film’s most memorable moments, including the death scenes.
Of course the Ramsays couldn’t do those scenes again without being redundant, so they had to get creative. In some cases, they set up the same scenarios from “Elm Street” but changed the murder weapon. And in other cases, well, they simply looked to the other “Elm Street” movies.
But where do “Mahakaal” and “Elm Street” differ? Well, the biggest change is probably Shakaal himself. Unlike Freddy Krueger, he was more than just a child murderer. Shakaal fancied himself a sorcerer and sacrificed children to increase his black magic powers. He also wasn’t burned alive by a mob of angry parents; but rather buried alive by the chief of police after Shakaal murdered his young daughter. And notably, he doesn’t share Freddy’s penchant for wisecracks. Shakaal chooses to remain silent, save for his sinister laugh.
“Mahakaal’s” climax is also radically different from its model by being substantially more physical and action-oriented. Shakaal, finally able to manifest himself in the real world, captures Anita and lures her parents and boyfriend to his lair, where he fights them hand to hand. Meanwhile, Anita does little more than run away and scream. This is a far cry from “Elm Street’s” Nancy who, all alone, is forced to use her wits to trick and ultimately defeat Freddy Krueger.
And that brings up another interesting point, which is that as a character, Anita is almost shockingly passive. In the original “Nightmare on Elm Street”, Nancy is a fighter. She spends much of the movie working out ways to protect herself, setting up defenses and drinking lots of coffee. In “Mahakaal”, not one character even makes an effort to stay awake! Instead, everyone basically goes about their business until Shakaal starts breaking the rules and invading the real world.
One last thing I’d like to point out is “Mahakaal’s” extremely inconsistent tone, which over the course of the film oscillates wildly between gruesome horror and and aggressive comic relief. But while that may seem strange to an American audience, in India it was all part of the formula. Comedy, sex appeal, and monsters were all essential components to the Bollywood horror film.
“Mahakaal” received only mediocre success upon its release, but that almost certainly had more to do with the then-thoroughly over-saturated horror market than the quality of the film itself. Judged on its own merits, the film is vibrant, stylish, fun, and absolutely worth a watch.
Thanks for watching, I’ll see you next time… and pleasant dreams.