If there’s one genre where Bollywood has lagged in terms of producing good, rewatchable films, it’s when the industry has been demanded to conjure stories from the spooky realm. Bollywood’s horror movies, as a subgenre of its own, have not had quite the success over the years. In the list of truly successful and critically acclaimed Bollywood horror films, there are only a few that stand out. As a result of the lack of prominence of horror films amidst the larger landscape of Bollywood films, the genre has faced the need to keep reinventing itself over time. Somewhere in this pursuit, there have been a bunch of original ideas that have been able to evoke fear while also pushing forth stories that are intriguing at their core.
In recent history, horror comedies such as Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2 and Golmaal Again (both franchise films) have been attracting audiences to the theaters for a family-friendly experience, whereas conventional horror films have been very few and have failed to attract eyes. It could be easily said that a lack of ingenuity has been a major cause for the dearth of horror films in Bollywood recently. But as this evolutionary cycle allows for the birth of an inventive collection of films within the genre, Bollywood has left in its trail some horror films that offer something for every type of horror film lover. Further, Indian horror movies combine traditional horror tropes with Indian sensibilities to extend a unique experience as distinct as Japanese or American horror.
Directed by Ram Gopal Varma
Bhoot (Ghost) focuses on a couple who rents a high-rise apartment at a ridiculously low price. When Vishal (Ajay Devgn) finds out that the reason the apartment is priced so low is the suicide of a woman who killed herself after killing her son, he decides to keep it under wraps from his wife, Swati (Urmila Matondkar). But Swati eventually finds out about the suicide and soon, her behavior starts changing. Although Vishal shows skepticism at this change of behavior first and takes his wife to a doctor, he realizes that there’s something much more sinister at play. Unlike most Bollywood films, Bhoot doesn’t have a single song. Even though there was a sequel and a reboot that followed the 2003 film, none were able to replicate the eerie tones of the original, which became a box-office hit when it was released.
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Directed by Vikram Bhatt
A period horror drama that will make most Bollywood horror lists, 1920 follows Arjun (Rajneesh Duggal), a well-known architect, who decides to marry a girl from a different caste, Lisa (Adah Sharma). When his family stands against their marriage and tries to kill Lisa, Arjun shuns his identity as a Hindu and decides to move away. Fortunately, Arjun gets an opportunity to renovate a stately old manor. But as things go in most horror films set in old manors, Lisa and Arjun become a victim of a vengeful spirit. Set in the year 1920, the film is known for its elaborate sets and picturesque location that lend their own flavor to the film’s story. Avid horror film watchers will also find some similarities to classic horror films such as The Exorcist and The Exorcism of Emily Rose in some scenes. Known for its great soundtrack, the film was followed by three sequels — each not as good as the first one.
1920 is not currently available on streaming in the U.S.
Directed by Prosit Roy
Starring popular actress Anushka Sharma, the plot is centered around the demon Ifrit and a satanic cult aiming to perpetuate the bloodline of the demon. The film depicts a young woman who becomes a victim of a satanic ritual and is rescued by a good Samaritan who’s unaware of her connection with the demon Ifrit. Driven by strong performances and a story that re-imagines the horror genre through a refreshingly novel, atmospheric mood, Pari (Angel) successfully establishes the myth of the Ifrit to be one of the scarier Bollywood horror films in recent times.
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‘Ek Thi Daayan’ (2013)
Directed by Kannan Iyer
In Hindi, “Daayan” means witch. Known for starring in a string of horror films, Emraan Hashmi plays the role of a top magician who’s suffering from the trauma of his past as he believes his father and sister were killed by a witch when he was a child. Building on the myth of the Daayan, a practitioner of black magic in Indian folklore, Ek Thi Daayan (“once there was a witch”) is a supernatural thriller that has many spine-chilling moments laid throughout the film. The film freshly builds on the lore of the Daayan, who’s already familiar to Indian audiences in some form or shape. Along with the scares, the film also packs a few punches in terms of twists and turns in the story.
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Directed by Rahi Anil Barve
Set in the village of Tummbad, an ancient village cursed by incessant rain for worshipping Hastar, a deity who was cursed by his mother for being greedy, Tummbad follows Vinayak Rao who spirals down a path similar to the greedy god who has brought chaos and misfortune to the land. Combining local folklore and mythology to bring a period drama, the film banks on its imaginative world-building and genuine performances to evoke suspenseful horror and amusement. After suffering a long production cycle, the film became somewhat of a sleeper hit with more audiences finding the film when it made its streaming debut. The good news is that a sequel, set in the village of Tummbad, is in the works by the film’s producer, Sohum Shah, who also acted in the film.
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The Best Hindi Movies on Netflix Right Now
Wanna take a short break from Hollywood? These Indian films will keep you hooked!
‘Bhool Bhulaiyaa’ (2007)
Directed by Priyadarshan
A remake of a Malayalam-language film, Bhool Bhulaiyaa (Labyrinth) is a psychological-thriller horror film. The film follows Siddharth (Shiney Ahuja) who returns to his ancestral village with his wife Avni (Vidya Balan) after a trip to the United States. A man of modern values, Siddharth goes against the words of his elders and decides to live on their ancestral property, which is rumored to be haunted by the spirit of the classical dancer, Manjulika. Balancing the act between a comedy and a thriller, Bhool Bhulaiyaa leaves the viewer guessing if it is a horror movie at all. But this doesn’t mean it won’t give you the creeps when the moment comes. Both the film and its standalone sequel were commercially successful at the box office, and worth binging in a night — if you dare!
Bhool Bhulaiyaa is not currently available on streaming in the U.S.
Directed by Amar Kaushik
A lighter horror-comedy, Stree (Woman) is based on the urban legend of a witch that visits the houses of the residents of the village. To ward off the witch, the residents write “Come Tomorrow” in the local language on the doors of their houses. When the witch visits the houses of the residents, she finds the message and goes back, only to return later and find the message again the next day. The cycle continues, and the residents remain free of the witch who kidnaps men of the village. Part horror-comedy, part social commentary — Stree is definitely one of the lesser creepier ones on the list but makes it up with some great performances by the cast and its entertainment value. Stree is one of the best horror comedies in the more recent catalog of Bollywood horror films that have leaned more toward the subgenre as a result of its favorable reception by audiences.
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Directed by Akshay Akkineni
An official remake of the Tamil-language film of the same name, Pizza really banks on its thrilling plot to keep the viewer on the edge. The best part is that everything seems uncertain until the last moment. The film follows a pizza delivery boy who finds trouble when he is sent to deliver pizza to a haunted house. With a few parallel threads running alongside the central story, Pizza is quite an interesting watch that balances the act perfectly between a thriller and a horror film. The strength of the film is definitely its intricate storyline — something that’s not common to Bollywood horror in general.
Pizza is not currently available on streaming in the U.S.
Ghost Stories (2020)
Directed by Karan Johar, Dibakar Banerjee, Zoya Akhtar, and Anurag Kashyap
Netflix’s Ghost Stories is a Hindi-language horror anthology film featuring segments from prominent Indian filmmakers Karan Johar, Dibakar Banerjee, Zoya Akhtar, and Anurag Kashyap. The distinct style of the filmmakers results in a collection of horror films that provide a flavorful mix of horror stories. From the paranoia of a young pregnant woman to a town terrorized by a zombie-esque epidemic, the four anthology films provide interesting takes on horror settings as imagined by new-age Indian filmmakers, with the help of an ensemble cast including Mrunal Thakur, Avinash Tiwary, Janhvi Kapoor, Raghuvir Yadav, Sobhita Dhulipala, Vijay Varma and Pavail Gulati.
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‘Darna Mana Hai’ (2003)
Directed by Prawaal Raman
Ram Gopal Varma’s Darna Mana Hai (Fear Is Forbidden) is possibly the best use of the anthology horror format in an Indian horror film. The film follows a group of seven friends who get stuck in the middle of a forest when their car breaks down. To keep themselves entertained, they start telling each other horror stories. It’s only later that they realize something’s happening outside the stories as well. Featuring an ensemble cast of Indian actors including Saif Ali Khan, Shilpa Shetty and Nana Patekar, Darna Mana Hai was a box-office failure at the time of its release but caught up with the audiences later thanks to streaming. Now considered a cult classic horror, Darna Mana Hai was followed by a standalone sequel with a similar format, packed with another all-star ensemble cast called Darna Zaroori Hai (Being Scared Is Necessary).
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