Indepth: What ails the horror genre on television today? – Part 1

Everyone likes some good old chills and thrills now and then. Over the years, filmmakers have scared the wits out of us with films like ‘The Exorcist’, ‘Nighmare on Elm Street’, ‘The Conjuring’ series and many more. Television has also had its fair share of scary fare – such as ‘Goosebumps’, ‘Penny Dreadful’, ‘American Horror Story’, etc. 

Indian television, too, has had some commendable horror series, such as ‘Aahat’, ‘Zee Horror Show’, ‘Fear Files’, ‘Woh’, and in recent times series such as ‘Naagin’, Kaun Hai’ and ‘Nazar’. In fact, ‘Naagin’ has been seeing unprecedented success, becoming the top ranked show on Hindi GECs in all its three seasons. 

Populated by malevolent spirits, daayans, ichchadhari naagins and all manner of folk from the netherworld, the horror genre on Indian television has built up its own band of niche viewers over the years. As Monica Ranadive, a producer and broadcast consultant, noted, “The horror genre is for a niche audience and not for the masses. The genre appeals to the younger generation – the 15-25 age group – and is more male skewed.” 

In the past, we’d seen A-list Bollywood names in horror shows on TV – Om Puri, Ashutosh Rana, Ashutosh Gowarikar. The storylines were strong and there was as much attention to creating a ‘right’ atmosphere for the horror story to play out as it was to create a look that gave people sleepless nights. There were some stellar performances that took the story forward. 

However, the horror genre today tries too hard to bring in the chills with over-the-top make-up, storylines that border on the ridiculous and factor in huge doses of superstition. What has also irked horror aficionados is the blurring of lines between family soaps and horror stories. The whole nation watched incredulously when a family soap about two sisters married into the same family – ‘Sasural Simar Ka’ – introduced a ‘horror/ supernatural’ track where Simar turns into a fly and also enters the Netherlands to battle evil forces. And admittedly, ‘Naagin’s transformation is more supernatural than blood-chilling horror. Besides, she doesn’t reside in some eerie part of the jungle, but a regular household and is even married. Revenge is more on her mind than unleashing some ghoulish terror. 

In this two-part Indepth series, Adgully explores all aspects of the horror genre on Indian television today. In Part 1 of this series, Adgully speaks to a cross-section of industry experts on what ails the genre, reasons behind the slide, viewership trends, as well as why this genre is stuck in a time warp.  

Why are we not producing good horror on television anymore? 

Deepak Rajyadaksha
Deepak Rajyadaksha

Deepak Rajyadaksha, Deputy Business Head, Zee TV:
“With an explosion of choices across digital platforms, there is an increasing demand amongst viewers for variety on television, paving the way for experimentation by Hindi GECs with different genres. To add diversity to our programming line-up, Zee TV brought its viewers a first-of-its-kind weekend fantasy thriller show. ‘Brahmarakshas – Jaag Utha Shaitaan’ back in 2016. This show was an instant success as it broadened the gamut of horror to include fantasy, which is more child-inclusive. In fact, ‘Bramharakshas’ made for a great family viewing experience. Zee TV’s ‘Fear Files’ franchise has been a huge success since its inception and has grown in popularity with each successive season. With these two shows in the horror genre, Zee TV has consistently produced great content in the horror genre.”  

Ashish Gowalkar
Ashish Gowalkar

Ashish Golwalkar, SET India:
“We have not explored this genre now for a few years now. Yes, ‘Aahat’ was pathbreaking; we may think of doing something in this genre in the future.” 

Monica Ranadive, Producer and Broadcast Consultant:
“As far as Indian GECs are concerned, we have women as our main audience and generally women are not horror friendly, therefore GECs or Indian TV doesn’t like to cater to more horror shows.” 

Ricky Sandhu, Shooting Stars Productions:
“In my view, it boils down to lack of vision in the creative departments of both channels and production houses. Great filmmaking is, in some measure, a direct consequence of budgets. Television and a lot of films in our country are looked upon as an easy money-making venture and not so much as a creative endeavour that makes money.” 

“Producers want stories that are limited to the least amount of locations, least number of actors, there are budget cuts where the technical staff is concerned, and the saddest outlook is that it’s a “one time” watch, so why worry about quality or shelf life. Most importantly, not enough money is spent on good quality writers or story development. This is why we are so far behind and immature in our outlook compared to our foreign counterparts. Even though a murder mystery, we still enjoy David Lynch’s ‘Twin Peaks’ because it was made so brilliantly that it is timeless.” 

“In India, when it comes to horror the only ones that come to mind are movies. We have produced some amazing horror movies like ‘Woh Kaun Thi’, ‘Gumnaam’ and ‘Raat’, thanks to some amazing story writing and with a focus towards the art of the genre, but that can’t be said for horror on television.” 

“If you make it well, the money will follow, but sadly our focus is skewed.” 

Sukesh Motwani
Sukesh Motwani

Sukesh Motwani, Partner, Bodhitree Multimedia Productions:
“Various seasons of ‘Fear Files’ since 2012 has actually revived and rebuilt interest in Indian horror genre by trying to infuse topicality and also has attempted to ‘recreate’ urban legends and stories based on newspaper articles and actually reported happenings! It is only because of attempts to base horror on ‘real incidents’ as reported that the horror genre in episodic format has revived itself. Indian horror genre is dependent on the quality of stories and locations and Indian motifs, hence, it is not truly dependent on make-up or VFX. But more budgets in that direction could obviously lead to better VFX and better make-up. But the bigger challenge is to also improve the quality and exotic nature of the kind of locations that can be used to build better stories within the horror genre.” 

Abhimanyu Singh
Abhimanyu Singh

Abhimanyu Singh, Contiloe Productions:
“The viewership is definitely coming from the bottom of the pyramid, and there is now this large audience that is not watching TV and has moved away from general entertainment television. But an even larger audience is coming which is the bottom of the pyramid and which was not watching TV earlier and I think they will continue to watch it, but they will want variety like thrillers, crime shows, and horror. They have also had an appetite for historical and mythical shows. Such audiences are coming in for variety. Soaps will continue to rule, but at the same time people will also want more variety.” 

Mautik Tolia, Partner, Bodhitree Multimedia Productions:
“Horror shows for television are primarily designed today for a mass audience, where you are catering to an audience that has got a certain preconceived notion of horror and in that, they want more pulpy kind of storytelling – with a lot of twists and turns. This is probably why we don’t see too much experimentation when it comes to horror. The other limiting factor is budgets – the horror genre requires a lot of special effects, prosthetic make-up, action, and a lot of time to shoot to get the right effect. That’s where the problem happens and why we aren’t able to match the standard that one sees internationally. What can be done is that with all these web-series coming in which have ample budgets, one would hope that sooner or later in the future horror web-series in India might be able to make that crossover and would be able to have that kind of scale over there. That’s really the crux of the matter.” 

Viewership trends 

Deepak Rajyadaksha, Deputy Business Head, Zee TV:
“Since Hindi television is largely a family viewing experience across Indian households, horror traditionally found its way into the late-night slots after the kids are put to sleep. That being said, the genre has seen an evolution right from the 90’s, where things have moved away from gore and bloodshed towards demystifying paranormal activities that stay unexplained. Each successive season of ‘Fear Files’ has presented incidents which are inspired from true life accounts and have a specific message embedded at the root of it, which urges people to move away from blindly following superstition and equips them to rationalise and understand fear. Our offerings within this genre are no longer about instilling fear in the minds of the viewers or propagating blind faith, but giving viewers insights into the paranormal realm, decoding fear, educating them while providing a thrilling experience.” 

Monica Ranadive, Producer, and Broadcast Consultant:
“The top 5 horror shows on Indian TV have been ‘Zee Horror Show’, ‘Aahat’, ‘Shhhh... koi hai’, ‘Woh’ and ‘Fear Files’. These became brands in itself. I had an opportunity to be a part of the ‘Fear Files’ Season 1 team as it was my favourite genre and we were dealing with and exploring a very different approach towards the horror genre. ‘Fear Files’ Season 1 on Zee TV was trend breaking as it dealt with real stories and stories that showcased paranormal, atmosphere horror connected to real life stories. The ‘Fear Files’ team did their research well and brought different aspects of horror to the forefront. The show highlighted fear and did not deal with just gory or zombie horror, which at times have failed to induce shock or fear in the viewers. ‘Fear Files’ Season 1 got 4+ TRPs across GECs in this genre in 2012. The fact that it was based on real people and their stories brought in a great deal of TRPs and a new wave of audience came to watch the show, thus making it a brand for Zee TV. The current season of ‘Fear Files’ deals with all kinds of horror elements – haunted places, objects to ghosts to zombies and is garnering 0.7 TRP." 

Reasons behind the slide after seeing a peak during 1990s 

Deepak Rajyadaksha, Deputy Business Head, Zee TV:
“These trends work in cycles. It all stems from one offering of a particular genre clicking beautifully and the rest of the players leveraging the formula. So, if a mature romance works on one channel, you will soon see a deluge of that genre across other channels. The trick, then, lies in being able to provide a substantial differentiator that makes your offering unique within the genre. Horror has never really lost its place, at least on Zee TV, because our horror offering ‘Fear Files’ has been a raging success with each successive season and has garnered a huge viewership base. The fans of the show have often written to us with their own real-life accounts and requested us to feature these stories on the show. ‘Fear Files’, as a show, has evolved over the years and with each successive season, the attempt has been to strengthen its credibility and authenticity by keeping our narrative as close to reality as possible and involving a scientific take through engaging with paranormal experts and real people who have experienced the phenomenon first-hand.” 

Monica Ranadive
Monica Ranadive

Monica Ranadive, Producer and Broadcast Consultant:
“Repetitive way of telling a horror story made the genre lose its lustre. It was very popular in the 1990s because the genre was new and the VFX introduced in the execution added to the quality of storytelling and production. But post the initial uproar, the stories and way of execution became repetitive. The niche audience also started losing interest. Also, as women viewers were not a part of the niche audience, channels lost TRPs and it was not a viable proposition." 

"‘Fear Files’ Season 1 broke that trend on television in 2012 when the show dealt with real incidents/ experience and real people. The true story approach immediately got the required eyeballs and it got the attention of the women viewers, which made the show popular. Technically, lot of efforts and research went into the make-up of the characters and the VFX was concerned plus the execution approach was based more on Hollywood-style production. The shots were designed in such a way as to create an atmospheric fear, even as music played a very important role in creating the ambience and feel. All aspects were considered to make this show look convincing and believable." 

Ricky Sandhu
Ricky Sandhu

Ricky Sandhu, Shooting Stars Productions:
“Again, it’s the lack of vision and creativity, as also the lack of budgets to get good make-up artists and technicians. We are still getting our make-up dada’s to wet some cotton in fake blood to make scars. We need genre specific people to pick good stories. A creative director who green lights regressive family dramas is also choosing scripts for horror. That, in itself, is the most horrifying thing about the Indian horror scene on TV." 

Why does the horror genre seem to be stuck in a time warp? 

Monica Ranadive, Producer, and Broadcast Consultant:
“Horror initially was interpreted with the gory approach. TV has a way of adopting a ‘dumb down’ approach for the audience, they want to spoon feed their viewers, therefore, the horror genre sticks to giving a face to the ghosts or ghostly creatures that feature in the story. Paranormal horror needs that kind of atmosphere and ambience to grab the viewers’ attention, therefore, they work better in a theatre or an enclosed space. Our audience who watches TV is multi-tasking most of the time, so to grab their attention or to generate shock value horror characters are created.” 

“As for the tacky make-up and visual effects, it all depends on budgets that a producer gets to execute the horror stories. The lesser the budgets, the tackier the approach as specialised make-up and VFX are expensive.” 

Abhimanyu Singh, Contiloe Productions:
“If you look at ‘Kaun Hai?’, we have got very good visual effects and some very good locations as we have shot across Kashmir, Rajasthan, Goa, and Gujarat. Locations are very important when it comes to horror. Our visual effects quality is very good and so is our make-up as we have tried to move away from over-the-top make-up. We have gone more for doing a combination of make-up in VFX. If you watch ‘Kaun Hai’, you will definitely see the efforts that we have put in to improve the quality of horror on TV.” 

Deepak Rajyadaksha, Deputy Business Head, Zee TV:
“As a channel, we have never compromised on the quality of the product in terms of costumes, make-up, production value, etc., of the shows that we put on air. The production values have always been planned in accordance to the themes which we have picked out for the episode or the season.”

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