Some of Bollywood’s scariest spooks remain anonymous. After hours of literally hanging or crawling around, under masks and prosthetics, few even know it was them. Take a look at what it’s like to play the bhoot in Bollywood
Would you want to hang from a harness all night? Be drenched in water and tied to a tree? Have cracked clay plastered on your face so you have to sip your food through a straw?
If these sound like nightmares, you’re not far off. This is what it’s like for the actors playing ghosts and supernatural beings on screen. Perhaps the trickiest part is, they don’t even walk away with the fame. Sometimes, within the industry too, few people know it was them.
Did you know, for instance, that the sinister grandmother in ‘Tumbbad’ was played by a 13-year-old boy? Mohammad Samad is notable for his age as well as his gender. “The Indian film industry is such a chauvinistic world that the ghost is almost always a woman, and that hasn’t changed for decades,” says film historian and critic Bhawana Somaaya. “What has changed is the films, the characters, and the actors who play them.”
Done right though, such a role can be a great test of skill and craft, Somaaya adds. “A ghost story is only as good as its writer and director. And for the actor, it’s a chance to find out — can you really inhabit any role given to you?”
The trick, adds film writer Paromita Vohra, is to balance identity and experience. “The film should, through the story and the actors playing the supernatural characters, appeal to your basest fears as well as your highest emotions.”
Computer graphics, prosthetics, and VFX have made it easier to bring such a vision to life, but that doesn’t lessen the drama for the actors playing the parts.
A 13-year-old grandmother
Samad, now 18, was barely in his teens when he signed up
to be transformed into the haunting, warts-encrusted grandmother / ghost in
‘Tumbbad’. To make things more complicated, he also plays Pandurang, one of the
key characters in
“After one year of shooting, 90 per cent of the film was reshot. We realised that our idea for the sinister, supernatural character of Dadi was not working,” says co-producer Sohum Shah. The makers had wanted an obese Dadi. “We realised the weight was costing the character its essence. We started looking for a thinner Dadi who could be wicked and mischievous as well, and realised we had everything we needed in Samad.”
Well, almost everything. For a month, the teen spent six hours a day just having the prosthetics applied — rubbery masks and fake skins covered in scars, warts, and even protruding metal bars to suggest violence.
“Moving around with all the extra weight was difficult, so I had to train to be stronger. But the main problem was breathing,” he says. “There were times when I just had to take the mask off. But that was such a big operation that I sometimes just used an oxygen mask instead. There was even a doctor present on set to make sure I was okay.”
Samad also couldn’t eat solids with his makeup on, so through the day he lived on juices and soups. “My love of horror movies helped me prepare for the role, and endure the demands it made on me,” he says. “When my friends and family saw ‘Tumbbad’, they didn’t know I was the young boy as well as the grandmother,” he says, laughing. “Their reactions when I told them made me very happy.”
Dangling from a
You could say that it was Flora Saini’s feet that starred in ‘Stree’. For most of the film, that’s all you see of her. But Saini, 34, has no regrets.
The film was so successful, that it’s made her a
household name, even though her face was only revealed during the climax. “Ever
since the release, people call out, ‘O Stree’ when they see me on the road,”
Saini had no lines to memorise, so she could enjoy the experience of being a horror film buff on a horror film set, just watching the story unfold. “The twist in the tale is, throughout my shooting time, I was suspended in mid-air,” she says. “We would shoot all night, so I was hanging there all night, wearing a harness over my sari that really started to hurt my ribcage. It was painful and a challenge.”
Being Sunny Leone
Geetanjali Kulkarni, a National School of Drama graduate with 20 years in theatre, known for intense roles in films like ‘Mukti Bhawan’ and ‘Court’, shocked family, friends and fans when she accepted the role of the ghost / witch in ‘Ragini MMS 2’.
“When the offer came to me, and I heard the story, and I was told that I would work alongside Sunny Leone, I had to say yes. I had never played such a role in my life,” she says. “I had to lip sync to a song, do action sequences. It was like nothing I have done before, but it was surprisingly enjoyable.”
The scene where she had to mirror Sunny Leone still makes her laugh. “I was in a nine-yard sari. She was in a bikini, and the other actor, Parvin Dabas, was handcuffed to a bed. Leone was on top of him. She is supposed to be possessed by me in this scene,” Kulkarni says. “The middle-class woman in me came out in full force. I was so awkward. I started making random small talk with Dabas. The faces of my father, grandfather, and uncles began flashing before my eyes. I imagined them watching me do this.”
It was Leone who finally helped her relax. “She showed me some thigh movements that I could repeat. It was really quite physically exhausting.”
Playing the witch also made her appreciate her husband Atul Kulkarni’s action sequences more (he was most recently seen as Tatya Tope in ‘Manikarnika’).
“I was tied to a tree. I was all wet, supposed to have been doused with kerosene. I felt cold and miserable. I was near tears. That’s when my NSD training came to the fore — all the patience, perseverance and commitment that theatre has taught me,” says Kulkarni.
A 30-year-old chudail
When the feisty stage actor Mansi Multani agreed to play
the grotesque, 75-year-old ghost, Kalapori, in the Anushka Sharma-starrer
‘Pari’, she never thought she’d enjoy it as much as she did. For the first time
in her career, all Multani’s lines were
Her character Kalapori is the devil’s consort, a young
woman trapped in an ugly, withered body, whose job is to ensure the devil
“It was very physical so I could use the ‘theatricality’ of my experiences with theatre,” she says.
It was the prosthetics that turned out to be the hardest part. It took three and a half hours every day for her to get camera-ready. “The prosthetics made me claustrophobic, prevented me from eating, yawning, or stretching my facial muscles in any way, because if I did that, it all started to peel. Balancing the makeup with being creepy and convincing was a big challenge.”
But this ghost wasn’t tacky or titillating. “She is vulnerable and human,” Multani says, “and that’s what attracted me to the role.”
The actor says she saw it as a unique opportunity. “Not many actors in India have got this chance.”
Mud on your face
The best thing about actor Meenal Kapoor’s ghost in ‘1920 London’ was that no special effects were used for her look. It was all done with makeup. That was also the worst thing about it, for her. “It took almost four hours to turn me into that ghost,” she moans. “The director, Tinu Desai, wanted a cracked look. No prosthetics could achieve that. So they decided to use Multani mitti [a type of clay used in face masks]. Once it was on, I could barely move my face.”
It was also physically harrowing because Multani mitti leaches moisture from the skin and is typically worn for about 20 minutes. “My face was caked with it for eight hours!”
Before the film, the NSD graduate had been conducting design-direction and acting workshops, in addition to her acting work. “These workshops make you resilient, physically and mentally. So when I had to crawl, military-style, on my arms, in full makeup, wig, corset and heavy gown, that resilience came in handy.”
But she wouldn’t do it again, she says. “I’ve done it. Why repeat it? I wouldn’t mind playing a negative character, though.”