Saturday, July 19, 2008

Zibahkhana: Screaming Pakistani teens meet burqa psycho

For years, filmmakers and scriptwriters from India and Pakistan have been making sensitive features/documentaries in an attempt to open the eyes and minds of viewers in both countries – to help us appreciate each other better, discover cultural similarities and shared histories. (Just a couple of days ago, I watched the earnest Ramchand Pakistani, about Pakistani Hindus stranded in India after crossing the border by mistake.) Now it turns out that these well-intentioned moviemakers have been barking up the wrong tree. You want to create empathy? Get off that soapbox and pick up a chainsaw. The most effective way to make young Indians feel for their brethren across the border is by throwing together a low-budget spoof of teen-slasher/gore films with a distinctly Pakistani context. Who would have guessed?

Omar Ali Khan’s Zibahkhana (Hell’s Ground) raises the question "Which is the worse fate: to be chased across a deserted jungle by a homicidal maniac armed with a spiky iron ball or to have a sweet old lady hold your hand, look closely at you and ask Tumhari shaadi kya ho gayi hai, beta?" Watching this movie in one of the smaller auditoria at Cinefan was among my most surreal experiences in eight years of attending the festival. The camaraderie in the audience was comparable to that
in the screening of Ram Gopal Verma ki Aag (mentioned here). As the Pakistani teenagers in the film followed the example of their predecessors in western horror movies – saying and doing numerous brainless things, wandering off alone in the woods when common sense dictated otherwise – and paid for it by having their limbs chopped off and ground to mush, people in the hall hooted and whistled. Roars of laughter accompanied the scene where a boy and a girl suddenly turn all bashful and awkward just because they’ve been left alone with each other (never mind that their friends are being massacred a few trees away).

As you can tell, Hell’s Ground follows the 1970s and 1980s B-horror movie template of errant teens doing something they shouldn’t be doing (in this case: lying to their parents, stealing out together on a long drive to a rock concert and shooting up along the way). Naturally, this invites bloody retribution.

The protagonists are five youngsters – three guys, two girls – in a large van, and we realise that they’ve gotten off the main road (in more senses than one) when they encounter a creepy, Dracula-like tea-stall owner who shouts after them, “Jahannum mein jaa rahe ho, mere bachchon!” (“You’re on the path to hell, my children!”) After a run-in with bloodthirsty zombies and other unsavoury types, the film climaxes with a – what else – burqa-clad psychopath who comes running after them whirling a most unwieldy ball-and-chain. This psycho belongs to a family who make Norman and Norma Bates look like the Kumars at Number 42 in comparison, but I have a word of advice for him: for optimum results in slicing up terrified teens, use a less cumbersome weapon. (Even Leatherface never put himself to as much grief with his bulky chainsaw as this monster does.)

Hell’s Ground isn’t a good film. In fact, I wouldn’t even call it a “so bad it’s good” film – more like “so bad that it’s good for a few chuckles here and there, with some fun reference-spotting for the gore-movie buff”. But it’s very entertaining if you’re in the right mood and if you see it with the right audience, and it’s also the epitome of a critic-resistant movie – try to point out that the acting, the script or the camerawork are amateurish or shoddy and someone can retort that it's meant to be that way. As such I feel silly trying to write something coherent about it here.

But as a big fan of the horror and gore genres, I want to make a point. Walking out of the hall, I heard more than one person offhandedly saying, “You know, all gore films are like this – it has all the usual elements of the genre.” I have to disagree. The great gore films are many cuts (no pun intended) above Hell’s Ground in their execution (um, again, no pun intended) and most of them have their own internal consistency; simply having “all the elements” isn’t enough. This one tries to be a spoof but never really fixes on a tone. It plays some scenes obviously for laughs, nudging and winking at the audience (one of the funniest scenes involves the realisation that the real name of the hippest, most “chilled out” member of the crowd – a girl called Roxy – is Rukhsana), but it plays others dead straight. The one thing it gets right is its running time – less than 80 minutes, which is optimum for this film.

It’s sometimes forgotten that horror and gore are different genres, though they often overlap. Hell’s Ground – though it picks up ideas from horror movies such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Night of the Living Dead, Friday the 13th and even Psycho – belongs in the latter category. There isn’t a single scary (as in “jump out of your seat” scary) scene: all the potentially frightening moments are broadcast well in advance (sometimes with comic panels that show us this or that monster about to make an appearance). The accent here is on showing as much bloody flesh as possible, along with providing viewers a few comic breathers.

The highlight of the screening (apart from the sheer thrill many of us felt at experiencing a film like this at a festival that takes its role as a purveyor of Meaningful Cinema very seriously) was the interaction with the director. Omar Ali Khan was very likable, very self-deprecating (honestly, it’s hard to see how he could be otherwise with a roomful of people who had just seen his film!). He joked about his early influences as a movie-watcher (“my parents let me see just about anything I wanted to – maybe they shouldn’t have!”), about Hell’s Ground being “a tribute to directors whom you wouldn’t even have heard of, they are so bad”, about the gore effects being bought wholesale from the hardware store down the road , and even about the contaminated-water problems in Pakistan (referred to in the film), “which doesn’t mean that all of us will turn into bloodthirsty zombies – but some of us might!”

The film has understandably caused ripples at many film festivals, where people tend to have pre-set ideas of what a Pakistani film should be like. Will there be a sequel, someone asked Khan. If I can get someone deranged enough to finance one, he replied. Hell’s Ground cost only about 100,000 US dollars, and it shows. (I suspect the bulk of that money went in purchasing the big van - the teens are more concerned about not getting zombie blood on it than about their own safety.)

[Here's an earlier post on one of my favourite gory films, Dario Argento's stylish Suspiria. And another on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre here. Also see the official website of Zibahkhana - I think it has a couple of clips.]


  1. “Jannat mein jaa rahe ho, mere bachchon! Jannat mein!” (“You’re on the path to hell, my children!”)

    Ummmm....Jai,shouldn't that be Heaven,or maybe the guy said Jahannum

  2. hardik: sorry about that, have changed it. One reason for the confusion was that there's a signboard saying "Jannatpur" when they head towards the forest.

  3. Oh, heard awesome things about 'Zibahkhana' from friends who saw it - would have been fun.

    But dude, I saw the five-and-a-half-hour version of Peter Brook's Mahabharata last night (told you we'd bought it) and nothing else matters. Nothing at all matters now.

  4. Shamya: about the length of Brook's Mahabharata...I remembered that I had asked Jean-Claude Carriere about it when I met him a couple of years ago. Apparently there had been plans to transfer the full 9-hour version to the screen but it didn't work out; financial issues maybe. So the version you have should be the longest available one.

  5. It seemed complete enough. I personally have a problem with people adding or subtracting from the original - it's fine to analyse and throw in your perceptions but... - which this one did on a couple of occasions. But that apart it was everything I expected and a lot more. Had a slight problem with Bheema being a bit of a buffoon as well. And never saw the bit about 'Bheeshma contemplating lifelong celibacy'.

  6. You mean "Bheeshma contemplating the problem of celibacy" - that's the way the photo is captioned in the book I have. Btw, just as I thought Ronit Roy's performance as Bheeshma was going to be a saving grace of Kahaani Ekta ki Mahabharata Ki, they have the poor guy performing Matrix-style leaps during fight sequences (the one where Bheeshma battles the king of Shalva at the Kashi swayamvara).

  7. Looks great! Any way for someone out on a tropical island to get their hands on it?

    Reminds me of wonderful taqwacore. Ah, so much love. You can read the book that inspired the real-life punks online at Google Books.