Why are films such as Bhoot, Bulbbul, C U Soon, and V runaway hits? We find out what makes suspense-thrillers click
The horror and suspense-thriller genres have witnessed a sudden surge in releases. The creators of these films tell us what’s working and why
Anu and Jimmy meet on a dating app and are slowly discovering things about each other. Until, one day, Anu appears on the computer screen with a bleeding head. What started on a happy note, turns into a grim tale... and things get complicated quickly. It’s not a pretty film after all, but C U Soon, a movie shot during the lockdown, has garnered a lot of attention. Likewise, as a story that’s set in a zamindar’s haveli in 19th century Bengal, Bulbbul isn’t just about the life of the rich. It goes on to explore the deep and dark secrets of the people of this palatial home. It is such stories, packed with suspense and horror, that have gripped audiences in the last few months.
Horror flicks like Bhoot (Hindi), Ghost Stories (Hindi) and Bulbbul (Hindi), and suspense-thrillers such as Anjaam Pathira (Malayalam), Psycho (Tamil), Raat Akeli Hai (Hindi), and V (Telugu) sparked a conversation around these genres. Not just movies, even web series in the same space have been well-received across OTT platforms. Shows such as Paatal Lok, Abhay, Betaal, and Asur are the most talked about for their gripping narrative, seamless execution, and nuanced acting.
Smart screen magic
Something about this genre is working in its favour. Otherwise, a nation that mostly thrives on saas-bahu dramas and Rasode Mein Kaun Tha remixes wouldn’t suddenly get hooked on to dark stories about ghosts, serial killers, and vengeful criminals. “I think thrillers have an engaging quality about them,” says actor and producer Sharib Hashmi who starred in the recently released independent thriller My Client’s Wife. “I personally love watching thrillers. If a thriller is well-made then it keeps you on the edge of your seat till the end. Particularly during the lockdown, a suspense-thriller made people feel like the story was their own experience. Even if they were staying with their family and didn’t want to watch it with them, they had the option of watching it on their smartphone. You can’t get the same experience if it is a superhero film or a big production — you must watch those on a big screen. But with a thriller, it’s the opposite,” adds Sharib. His film was the first movie to be released on the newly launched OTT platform ShemarooMe Box Office.
For the creators of such movies, the process of writing suspenseful narratives is equally exciting. Creating the twists and turns in the plot and working on a nailbiting story are challenges that they really look forward to. Akhil Paul, who has scripted the popular Malayalam thrillers Forensic and 7th Day, says, “There are several different ways to tell a story, but to carry the expectations of the audience through the various ups and downs of the plot, and to create appealing characters and entertaining storylines that are held together by a suspenseful plot, is both challenging and exciting.” In Forensic, which released earlier this year on Netflix, Akhil has created several absorbing subplots that make the narrative a gripping one. “An easy way to pull the viewer into the storyline is by teasing them with a hook that grabs their interest. For example, the concept of a ‘child killer’ in Forensic helped us to slide in the main plot of the hunt for a serial killer into the narrative. Once the audience is gripped by a fresh concept like this, telling the rest of the story becomes much more entertaining,” explains the writer-director. In addition to this, the edgy cinematography, sleek editing, and realistic acting are elements that contribute to the finesse of such thrillers.
The recently released Telugu suspense crime thriller V offers a very distinct visual experience, particularly the action scenes. “I did not want any highly over-styled action, I wanted to make it look as real as possible like an actual cop is fighting. We shot with a camera that has an extremely high frame rate. I wanted specific moments (to be captured) but most of it had to be fast and real. We added realistic sounds because I wanted the audiences to have an immersive experience and make them feel like they’re in the middle of it all,” explains director Mohana Krishna Indraganti.
For horror films, the approach to storytelling and filmmaking is slightly different. While the suspense and thriller elements are integral to the narrative, there’s also a challenge to also make the audience feel the threat of the other world that exists. It’s not about a serial killer or a criminal. “When we say horror, we mean the fear of predators, the unknown and incomprehensible desires within ourselves. These experiences are as primal as pain, nightmares, and anxiety and evolved for the same purpose — to train our minds to face potential life-threatening eventualities. I believe horror cinema should speak to our most primeval urges while flagging a great unambiguous warning to our erroneous behaviours that need an urgent course correction,” offers Anand Gandhi, who made the groundbreaking horror film Tumbbad. The visual sequences and the SFX of Tumbbad redefined the way Indian horror films are made.
For an audience that was used to the traditional approach taken by the Ramsay Brothers in their movies in the ’80s, Anand’s production came as a pleasant surprise. Earlier this year, another film upped the expectations of the audience. Bulbbul impressed not only with its unique tale but also its aesthetics. In a long thread, filmmaker Anurag Kashyap tweeted, “When I saw Bulbbul, the title sequence sucked me in, the reds of it, I love red. Red is cinematic, visceral. What I didn’t expect were the red nights, the red moon, from a horror mystery it had transformed into a moody fable, pure poetry and it had me enthralled and engrossed.”
The horror genre is no longer about prosthetic makeup, mounted shots, and animals howling. The visual tone of the film plays a key role. Jenuse Mohammed, director of the Malayalam sci-fi fantasy film Nine explains, “Horror gives you interesting technical challenges as a filmmaker. Like how to mount a scene where you are not reliant on jump scares. How to work with blocking a scene and lighting. It’s like how Kubrick managed to create the incredible dread in The Shining where practically everything is very well and uniformly lit! It’s films like those, where the horror is more psychological, rather than just a woman in a white dress, that excites me. More mind space, less the ghoul in the cupboard!”
While technical details and the grammar of filmmaking play a significant role in the making of both suspense thrillers and horrors, it’s the story that needs to bind all these elements together. One loose end, and everything else will fall like a pack of cards. While a Bulbbul with its legendary tale worked well as a horror film, the new release C U Soon clicked as a thriller. The former was a big production with some palatial sets, the latter was shot on phones and is completely set on computer screens. However, both films appealed to the audience for one common reason: the engaging narrative and storytelling.
“It is difficult to make every story convincing irrespective of the genres we are attempting. That’s because viewers have a lot of reference movies in their minds. A good film will always have an interesting plot, engaging storyline, and a simple narrative form. It’s just the way we present a story,” explains Mahesh Narayanan, director of C U Soon. Actors too look for challenges in the script. It’s not always a linear narrative. The unexpected surprises and subplots are what attract them to take the leap.
Tripti Dimri who portrayed the role of Bulbbul says, “It has drama, romance, and the supernatural element. It had everything one could ask for. I think our focus should be on the story, on what the director or the writer is trying to say. With Bulbbul, Anvita (Dutt, the writer) was very sure about what she wanted.” Stories are what count, and the creators of these films are making these stories come alive in a way that gives the audience an adrenaline rush, perhaps the reason why the thriller-horror genre will continue to deliver some unforgettable films.
Crime/psychological thriller - Directed by Ram Kumar, this 2018 Tamil crime thriller is a gripping story of a police officer (Vishnu Vishal) who tracks down a psycho-killer.
Horror/fantasy- Replete with metaphors and striking visuals, this horror fantasy by Anand Gandhi and Rahi Anil Barve is a compelling tale of a family that builds a shrine for Hastar, a monster who is never to be worshipped.
Drama/thriller - A well-made investigative thriller, M Padmakumar’s Joseph follows the story of a retired police officer who unexpectedly gets pulled into a criminal case that eventually leads him to unearth something even bigger.
C U SOON (2020)
Experimental thriller - Conceived and executed during this lockdown, Mahesh Narayanan’s pacy film that is set across multiple mobile and computer screens is a free-flowing thriller.
ANJAAM PATHIRAA (2020)
Crime/Thriller- Having set a benchmark for crime thrillers, Midhun Manuel Thomas' crime drama portrays the workings of a criminologist who helps the police track down a serial killer.
Horror/Comedy- Amar Kaushik's experimental comedy moves in mysteriously entertaining ways as it manages to be spine-tinglingly scary and funny at the same time.
Thriller/Action-Written and directed by G Ashok, Bhaagamathie is an Anushka Shetty acting marvel as she portrays Chanchala Reddy, an IAS officer who gets possessed by a spirit as she is sent to a haunted house for interrogation.
Horror - Anvita Dutt's Bulbbul is aesthetically pleasing, and yet a gripping dark tale that revolves around a child-bride and her journey from innocence to strength.
Horror/Mystery -This supernatural film by Prosit Roy redefined the genre by being refreshingly different with its storyline and performances besides the spine-chilling visuals.
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