You know you’re in for a good time when the first 40 seconds of a show involves: a) an homage to Sam Raimi’s 1981 horror classic The Evil Dead; b) a dig at sanskaar as well as beef politics which ties in an incest joke; and c) auto fellatio (not that one, the other one). Created by stand-up comic and actor Varun Thakur, Shaitan Haveli is the Ramsay Brothers’ throwback you never realized you needed.
Full disclosure: I adore the horror genre in general and its ‘80s B-grade edition in particular, so this mini-series was just the grist for my mill. Think Delhi Belly set in and around modern-day Mumbai with the luridly camp sensibilities and aesthetics of budget horror flicks from the latter half of the 20th century.
Hariman (Bhupesh Singh) is THE B-grade horror film auteur before his latest project, a misguided shot at mainstream movies, fails spectacularly at the box office. Audiences don’t seem to agree with Hariman’s reasoning that if you have sex comedies and sex-horror films, you can have a sex family drama, and the director finds himself drowning in debt to a gangster named Ponty (Adi Irani, having the time of his life), who then nearly drowns him in the swimming pool.
Fortunately, Ponty has a son Monty (Hemant Koumar) and his love for his progeny is matched only by the realization that said progeny is good for nothing. So when Hariman offers the starring role in his next film, a return to desi horror, to Monty, Ponty grudgingly postpones Hariman’s final immersion and even extends his line of credit.
Hariman and his henchman Gangu (Kanchan Pagare) fill out the rest of the cast with Monty’s white girlfriend who swims in a bikini while sucking on a lollipop (just in case her role in the series and film is unambiguous); a Bollywood starlet currently in the public’s bad books due to a leaked video; an aspiring actor Rahul (creator Varun Thakur) who will play the secondary hero aka guy who dies in the end; and aging actor Mukesh, who used to be the star of Hariman’s early, gory works, but is now cast as the villain much to his disgruntlement.
Operating on a shoe-string budget, Hariman decides to shoot the film that he’s sure will have him declared “India’s Nolaine”, in a dilapidated haveli that’s rented out two rupees a day. On being told this low price is due to the manse’s reputation of being haunted, Hariman is gratified that he probably won’t have to spend too much on the film’s special effects.
And so, the cast and crew turn up at their filming location/accommodation, which is naturally haunted by a chudail eager to resurrect Chandaal (Surender Thakur), her old boss who’s sort of a hybrid between a tantric sadhu, a vampire, and a sleaze; basically an amalgamation of Amrish Puri roles, he even talks like him. In any case, the film crew soon find themselves embroiled in a horror story not of their own making and chaos, comedy and bad make-up ensue.
It’s important to remember that this is an homage to/spoof on a genre that mostly works due to the ‘it’s so bad that it’s good’ factor, a cinematic Schadenfreude if you will. Subsequently, the plot lines have been done to death (pun sort of intended), the production value is limited to say the least, and the acting ranges between sublime to over the top. This last is best exemplified by the female leads, who are typecast as vamp and sex object respectively.
So, while Neha Chauhan’s Prarthana is a spoiled, opportunistic Bollywood starlet, Pippa Hughes’ Julia is the token white girlfriend of Monty, the token white female with way too many shower scenes of Hariman’s film, and of course, the subsequent love interest of Rahul, the film and series’ actual hero. Both are two-dimensional stock characters, and the way they’re played is nothing to write home about. So I shan’t. It’s unfortunate though that while the series acknowledges the treatment meted out to women -- on and off set – as well as the typical male gaze, after a few jokes on the subject it again relegates the ladies to the same stereotypes. Even Mahua, the chudail and secondary antagonist, just wants to get into her boss’s pants, er, black robes and when thwarted, switches sides in the time-honored tradition of a woman scorned. Kudos to all three ladies for playing along, though.
But what Shaitan Haveli lacks in woke-ness it more than makes up with its laugh-out-loud and highly meta dialogues and some truly fantastic performances by Hariman, Gangu and Monty. Hariman is Ed Wood-like in his determination to finish his film despite a tiny budget and crew members being constantly murdered and turned into zombies, and his Bhojpuri-accented banter with, and asides on, his cast are a thing of hilarity. He’s ably seconded in this by Gangu who has more grounded solutions to fate and people’s foibles than his earthy but occasionally impractical boss. It’s quite the challenge to be the comic relief in a comedy, but Hariman and Gangu do it beautifully. Meanwhile, Monty, with the body of Bhai, and the voice and mental obtuseness of one of Bhai’s 12-year-old fans, is a caricature of many a new actor obsessed with sculpting every muscle except the acting one. Koumar essays this role of aesthetic dumbbell with a nepotistic sense of entitlement as if he were born into it.
Also worth mentioning is Mukesh -- the faded and jaded Bollywood semi-star of yesteryears -- that one garrulous, bellowing and slightly bipolar drunken uncle that everyone has and Zahid Ali captures his embittered resentment more than competently. Rahul and Chandaal are limited by their roles of earnest hero and resurrected villain respectively and so don’t get a lot of the funny dialogues but they fill out their characters quite nicely.
The rest of the cast comprises a dipsomanic watchman turned mummy (Brendan Fraser and Tom Cruise’s, not yours), a zombie with a gambling problem, and the usual group of lackeys that collect around both film sets and super-villain lairs, all deeply invested in their bit roles.
And yes, of course there’s a sub-plot involving the blood of sinners which is needed to raise a Tantric vampire from the dead. Enjoy.