Tag Archives: Archana Puran Singh

‘Mahakaal’ Is More Than a ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ Rip-Off

When it comes to remakes of foreign horror films, critics often deride American studios’ lack of creativity — but one of the most interesting trends is foreign films that remake American horror. Especially popular in Bollywood cinema, these films often diverge so radically from the source material that they end up being enchanting. And among all of the Hindi remakes I’ve seen, none are quite as entertaining or more undeserving of the rip-off title than the Ramsay BrothersMahakaal.

What Is Mahakaal, Exactly? 

Mahakaal follows college student Anita, whose life is upturned after she is attacked in her dreams. Her mysterious assailant — a man with a golden clawed glove — begins to stalk and kill her friends, leaving her powerless. She soon finds out that her father’s relationship with the magical killer, Shakaal, is much deeper than she expected. The monster doesn’t just threaten her and her family; unless he is destroyed, everyone will be subject to widespread “time of death” — the Mahakaal. 

With that summary and a reputation as a ‘knock-off” in reviews, I understand the suspicion. We have a Nancy analog, a Lieutenant Thompson stand-in, and, most importantly, a Freddy Krueger look-alike complete with claws. And yes, some scenes are ripped whole cloth from A Nightmare on Elm Street, a ten-year-old movie at the time of filming. 

But you might have noticed how off the rails that final detail went. A dream wizard capable of ushering in an apocalyptic time of death? That sentence alone perfectly represents how Mahakaal abandons the original Nightmare in its presentation and creates something else entirely. 

The Multitudes of Mahakaal

Mahakaal transcends being one type of horror movie and ends up being an exquisite corpse of genres. We suddenly grind to a halt and shift gears from horror to drama to action and back as if the movie itself has a will beyond the creator’s hands. In one instance, we go from Anita being attacked by Shakaal in her sleep to her tending her wounds to being suddenly ambushed by a gang of men — who then get into a surprisingly well-choreographed martial arts fight scene in the middle of a university campus.

In another scene, the movie interrupts itself for one character to play out an extended parody of the Hindi action film Shahenshah and rescue two random extras. Each shift is a perfectly campy sucker punch that serves to baffle and delight.

You’d think the number of sheer tonal shifts and melodrama in Mahakaal would tear the movie’s integrity apart. But the lifeblood of this film is horror, and its horror sequences do more than work — they excel. Many of the Ramsay Brothers’ films made conventional horror unconventional, painting typical hauntings with mystical and phantasmagoric brushstrokes. They treat it as an epic painting where horror is the primary pigment, accompanied by an array of vibrant tones and genres.

This wholly unique style of filmmaking was the product of both hindsight and raw talent. The creators of Mahakaal — the late great Shyam & Tulsi Ramsay — had made their name as the progenitors of popular Hindi horror years prior. This was all before New Line Cinema —  “The House That Freddy Built” — had its red and green foundation. 

The Ramsays built themselves on what their father affectionately called “tiffin box productions,” micro-budget affairs filmed on location with practically nothing. Through grueling 18-hour shooting days, the Ramsays became the heart and soul of the Indian horror movie scene. What resulted was a distinctive ragtag style that would become the zeitgeist of Hindi horror for years.

How To Reinterpret A Nightmare

When it isn’t giving you wholly original imagery, Mahakaal’s recreations of analogous Nightmare sequences bring an uncanny visual energy. Take, for instance, the body bag scene in the original Nightmare on Elm Street. In Craven’s iteration, you sit in the atmosphere of Nancy being slowly cornered in the claustrophobic and warm boiler room. 

The Ramsays invert the setting and crank up the speed. Anita follows the blood trail into a room filled with giant ice blocks and cold vapor. Her undead friend Seema attacks her in a visual homage to Sam Raimi’s original Evil Dead (more than a few Evil Dead references are scattered throughout the film). The zombie is impaled on a hook and carried away into the fog. Shakaal bursts from the shadows into a chase sequence, cackling maniacally as he pursues her.

It ends in roughly the same place as Nancy’s, with Anita waking up in the classroom screaming. Though both of our heroines end up with a burn on their arm, Mahakaal moves quickly and dirty. The unexpected snap zooms and pulling out to widen the shots are (often) jarring hallmarks of Bollywood cinema. But not all that is jarring is bad; this is kinetic, high-energy camerawork that matches the animated script and actors.

This camerawork captures locations and set design that feels like a true dreamscape. You get demonic lairs, the centerpiece a skull made of pinned-up bodies, and bright red pits of glowing fire. Ruined buildings in the woods and spacious estates with dark corners are all over. The men behind the camera know how to emulate the best of Craven’s choices while straying off the beaten path and working with the heavily reduced budget of a 90s Bollywood feature.

Behind it all is a score that does much of the same. Mahakaal’s soundtrack, composed by the prolific duo Anand-Milind, is undeniably a copyright infringement’s hair away from the original Nightmare soundtrack. Still, when its OST is composed for the more horrific scenes, Anand-Milind gives way to the droning and harsh interpolations in their synth. It’s these aggressive lo-fi sounds that mingle well with the music Anand-Milind is covering. Juxtapose all of that against the traditional Bollywood music in the film — replete with extended romantic dance sequences — and you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything that sounds like it.

Why Mahakaal Works So Well

Why does all this work so well when it theoretically shouldn’t? It’s the sincerity of it all. To pull off a two-hour, epic interpretation of Freddy Krueger’s first outing, you require sincerity from your cast and crew. 

Its gore is silly-looking but earnest and surprisingly good at points. Its deaths pale compared to Nightmare’s in execution but are enjoyable and were clearly fun to shoot. Archana Puran Singh deserves to be in the halls of Scream Queen history just for the performance here. Mahabir Bhullar plays the villainous warlock Shakaal with a physicality you only imagine in skulking fairy tale villains. You can sense that everyone who worked on the film was toiling to create something you’ve never seen before. And in that, they succeeded with flying colors.

The Ramsay Brothers clearly loved horror cinema from all over the world — and chiefly America. But their strength was that they weren’t as beholden to the conventions of the genre. As pioneers of Hindi horror, they were liberated from having to take any one path in creating their films. They instead could occupy all of them in some capacity without ever losing their individual artistic spirit.

It’s a one-of-a-kind experience to go into the Ramsays’ newer nightmare without any warning. You get a spooky adventure that you have to let yourself be swept up into and accept the rules of it as they’re made. There have been, and will most likely be, plenty of people trying to go after Freddy’s crown. But there will never be another Mahakaal