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Neighbours (2014)

Plot: horror-loving girl fights vampires with the help of a celebrity author.

For nearly 40 years the hallowed house of Ramsay - Bollywood’s own seven-headed low-budget horror monstrosity - held a long tradition of aping popular American properties and reimagining them for Hindi sensibilities and catering to the retrograde and regressive tastes of low-end grindhouses in rural villages. The Ramsays never shied away from dousing their productions in blood and they were in the habit of casting beautiful young women. They were the force behind illustrious classics as Darwaza (1978), Saboot (1980), Purana Mandir (1984), Tahkhana (1986), Purani Haveli (1989), Veerana (1988), Bandh Darwaza (1990), and Mahakaal (1994). If Shyam Ramsay’s Neighbours: They Are Vampires (simply Neighbours hereafter) is indication of anything, it’s that little to nothing has changed in the intervening three decades since their 1980s heyday. Shyam Ramsay would direct Gentayangan (2018) some four years later with a no-name cast and to little fanfare. It would also prove to be his swansong. The curtain did not fall over the house of Ramsay in some grandiloquent fashion. Instead the brothers went into the night in quiet resignation and humiliating defeat. The world had moved on. Without them.

Was everything the brothers seven produced a classic? Well, no – but they picked up on trends albeit usually about a decade later. They responded to the gothic horror revival from the early-to-mid seventies with Purana Mandir (1984) and Purani Haveli (1989), they paid tribute to the work of Mario Bava with Veerana (1988). They even went as far as to do an unofficial A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) remake with Mahakaal (1994). Mexico and Indonesia got there earlier with Trampa Infernal (1989) and Srigala (1981), respectively but at least the Ramsays had the good sense to make it half as crazy and about twice as cheap. Neighbours, for those not in the know, is the brothers illicit remake of American horror sub-classic Fright Night (1985). While it follows the Tom Holland original quite faithfully and some details have been altered to better suit Indian cultural sensibilities. The biggest change is that it gender-swaps the leads which leads to some interesting problems and gender dynamics that the original didn’t have. There’s also enough blood, fangs and implied nudity to put it on par with the average Renato Polselli or José Ramón Larraz romp. Allegedly Neighbours was intended as a throwback to the erotic horror of yore but suffice to say it never quite succeeds. However, all things considered Neighbours works well enough as a regional reimagining of Fright Night (1985). The old Ramsay formula is given a contemporary make-over but the old ills are still very present…

In Kulbatta, a suburb of Mumbai, one of the last surviving vampires Kapalika (Roushika Reikhi, as Rushika Reikhi) has settled down. Forest officer Vikrant (Gavie Chahal), a Shiv Bhakt, almost falls for her dance of seduction but is beset by ominous looking monks after spotting a black mark on her back. He’s able to ward off Kapalika by burning an Om symbol on her forehead and not much later reducing her to ashes by unleashing his amulet’s mystic powers. From the foliage watches her Master (Arbaaz Ali Khan) who vows to resurrect Kapalika’s spirit and avenge her slaying. In the city horror-obsessed teen Sanam Chopra (Hritu Dudani, as Hritu) gets an invitation to meet her novelist idol professor Malhotra Indernath (Shakti Kapoor) when modeling for her photographer boyfriend Karan (Sunny Singh) one day. Meanwhile in another part of the city Tanya (Roushika Reikhi, as Rushika Reikhi), who turns out to be Vikrant’s sister, experiences a punctured tire. The Master comes to her rescue and takes her to his studio apartment opposite of Sanam’s building. There he engages in a ritual summoning of Kapalika’s spirit who possesses the body of Tanya. She relays her story to professor Indernath and his assistant Sweety (Kirti Vaidya, as Kirti Vaidhya). The two initially brush off Sanam’s mad ravings about vampires as product of a fertile imagination. Sanam’s jock friend Aryan (Rufy Khan, as Rufe Khan) takes an interest in Sweety and when she’s vampirized Sanam, the professor, and her friends join forces to cast Kapalika and the Master back into the darkness from whence they came…

While this sounds like the trusty old “good girl fights evil” plot ubiquitous in horror cinema the gender-swapping of the leads creates some interesting problems. This being India, and this being a Ramsay production, the possibility of Sanam being a woman with determination and agency was nil. Sanam from the beginning is introduced as the nominal hero of the piece, but she’s as passive and immobile as female love interests were in Ramsay features thirty years ago. Springing to her rescue at every turn is her boyfriend Karan. In Fright Night (1985) the main character’s love interest was pretty much a nonentity and had no weight from a narrative standpoint. Here Karan is the most upwardly mobile and pro-active of the entire group. Sanam, to her everlasting detriment, usually stands around, scared out of her wits, waiting patiently to be rescued. This is a good time as any to talk about the duality of how women are portrayed here. Kapalika, Tanya, and Sweety all are given some, or multiple, things to do and possess a degree of agency that Sanam doesn’t. It makes you wonder why. The Ramsays have a long history of ripping off poster art, and here it's Disturbia (2007) that very blatantly gets the treatment. Which sort of makes sense as Neighbours rips that one off about as much as Fright Night (1985).

All Christian iconography has been replaced by their Indian counterparts, and the sacred Om (ॐ) symbol features prominently in several scenes. The vampires here will be familiar to European - and American audiences and for a change they bear no meaningful resemblance to the bhoot or bhut of popular Indian folklore. The bhoot is far closer to the Chinese ghost than to the Hungarian-Romanian nosferatu that Roushika Reikhi portrays here. The most interesting thing about Reikhi’s character is that they decided to name her Kapalika. The Kāpālikas (“skull bearers”) were a small sect of Shaivite (devotees of Shiva) ascetics prominent in India from the 8th through the 13th century. They differed from the more respectable Brahmin household of the Saiva Siddhanta in that they engaged in esoteric rituals including meat-eating, intoxication, and sometimes cannibalism. It’s exactly the kind of thing you’d expect of a Hindi horror production, even in the modern age, to be rife with religious superstition.

Since no A-list Bollywood superstar would be caught redhanded appearing in a Ramsay production (pretty much like it was in the olden days), Neighbours has to content itself with lesser stars as Hritu Dudani, Roushika Reikhi, and Kirti Vaidya. The Ramsays taste in women was always impeccable and they gave the world hourglass-figured wonders as Jasmin, Sahila Chaddha, Archana Puran Singh, and Aarti Gupta. Even sometime Shah Rukh Khan muse Juhi Chawla cut her teeth with the Ramsays. Never in a thousand years would Rani Mukherjee, Kajol, Vidya Balan, Deepika Padukone, or Preity Zinta ponder the thought of lowering themselves to cheap exploitative dross like this. Neighbours is at least custodian to one funny running gag where everybody keeps mistaking Hritu for Priyanka Chopra (not-yet Jonas) and, admittedly, the resemblance is striking. Just like Chopra Dudani has those wide eyes that women of this part of the world are known and loved for. Hritu has survived her foray into the strange world of the Ramsay pretty much unscathed while Roushika Reikhi and Kirti Vaidya remain to prosper in their own ways. Reikhi has done commercials with Shah Rukh Khan and Hritik Roshan. In a just world Reikhi and Vaidya would be cast in a Krrish (2006) sequel or a Shah Rukh Khan production. Dudani found work in television afterwards but, as of this writing, has not acted in anything since 2019. Roushika Reikhi has since moved bases to Australia where she found steady employment in television as a beloved host of live events. We’re unsure what became of Kirti Vaidya but she too seems to have survived her brush with Ramsay mostly intact.

Back in the day the only real competition the house of Ramsay had were Mohan Bhakri and Vinod Talwar while these days they have an entire new generation of horror filmmakers to compete with. While it doesn’t lack in blood and sensuality Neighbours never quite manages to get as beguilingly strange as some of the greatest Spanish or Italian horror from the wicked and wild 1970s. Obviously there’s far better Bollywood horror to be had elsewhere. To make an imitation of an American property thirty years after the original is a difficult enough proposition under the best of circumstances, let alone to make one under India's repressive and restrictive cultural sensibilities and one of a different folkloric origin. In that respect you’ll have to respect Shyam Ramsay for at least attempting to do something like this. There were plenty of easier, local things to remake – yet he bravely chose to go for this instead. Does it live up to the brothers’ 80s output? Yeah, if very narrowly. The classic Ramsay output was slightly more unhinged than this. Neighbours is actually a cool little fright flick if you’re prepared to meet it halfway. That’s better than most.