A Monster and a Gentleman: The Story of the Ramsays' Villain
Anirudh Agarwal, the fearsome character from Bollywood’s horror films, is really a romantic at heart
A woman can’t conceive. She is taken to a cavernous place where a huge bat-like creature hangs from the wall. Because, really, where else would you take her? Four sari-clad women lie gyrating on the floor, forming an ‘X’. The young woman, in a white sari like theirs, is dunked in some sort of liquid. A chant begins, “Hoor-hoor-tak, hoor-hoor-tak”. The women are now on their feet, dancing. Cue the appearance of a giant of a man through the smoke. He’s borrowed Count Dracula’s cape. His face could well have been carved out of stone, the jawline a thing of beauty. His hair is plastered down. “Tumhe aulaad hogi [You will have a child],” the man-creature’s voice booms.
The ‘patient’ seems hypnotized—as you likely are by now. Soon, the chanting stops, the creature lies down next to the now-unresponsive woman, covers her with his cape and, we find out later, makes sure she has her aulaad.
The movie is Bandh Darwaza. The man–creature’s character is Nevla. He is, to put it simply, pure evil. For aficionados of Indian horror cinema—a curiously large number considering the pitiful quality and volume of the genre—Nevla is the greatest ‘monster’ ever. Saamri, of Purana Mandir, is the other classic character.
The man playing both roles was Anirudh Agarwal, credited as Ajay on screen for the most part. Both films were made by the Ramsay brothers, originally a brood of seven whose formulaic horror factory became a success story at the time. There were many reasons why they became so big. Agarwal was one—a massive six-and-a-half-foot reason.
“I didn’t look like a normal person. I just have a strange appearance.”
Agarwal was a godsend to the Ramsays, who, before they cast him the first time in Purana Mandir (a 1984 runaway hit), had used amateurish horror-flick make-up and highly professional masks to create their bad guys. Agarwal was—is—immense; not someone you want to mess with and certainly not stumble upon in a dark alley. “With me, the Ramsays did not need any make-up. Only a little. I looked like a monster anyway,” says the retired actor, smiling.
Agarwal, now in his 60s, was born in Dehradun and played mythical characters in local plays growing up. He studied at the University of Roorkee [now IIT Roorkee] to become a civil engineer. Work took him to Bombay, where the acting bug is in the air. When he was out of work for an extended period due to health reasons, a good (or not) Samaritan suggested he meet the Ramsays for an acting gig. He did. Purana Mandir was made, and the rest is Indian B-movie history.
Agarwal made only three films with the Ramsays; the third being 3D Saamri, an attempt to join the emerging 3D jamboree of the time, as well as cash in on the popularity of Saamri. Later he also appeared in the Ramsays’ super-successful TV series, Zee Horror Show.
His journey as an actor did not end there—nor did his career as a civil engineer, he did well there, running his own business. But, with his unconventional looks, Agarwal was typecast in the roles of the scary henchman. Or, on one occasion, the main bad guy, Babu Gujjar, in Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen. “That was a good role. I fit the character perfectly, and the character fit me,” recalls Agarwal. It was also, perhaps, the only time he got to show off his acting chops.
It took me years to live down Dracula and convince the film producers that I could play almost any other type of role,” said Bela Lugosi once. On another occasion he said, “I’d like to quit the supernatural roles and play just an interesting, down-to-earth person.” Lugosi, the Hungarian–American actor synonymous with Count Dracula, could well have been speaking for Agarwal there.
Now happily settled in Mumbai with his wife Neelam, and their son and daughter both in America, Agarwal says he never watches his films, “Mazaa nahin aata hai [It’s no fun]. I wanted to do something special, where I could put some effort and energy. But no one thought I could do anything. No one wanted me as a normal man.”
He calls himself a romantic, dreaming about the kind of roles Rajesh Khanna portrayed. But Agarwal is nothing if not self-aware. “But if you see me, it doesn’t go with every character. If I had been five-foot-ten …” His enormous height was triggered by a hormonal imbalance. Agarwal’s bitterness with the way things turned out is evident, and while he continues to be on cordial terms with the Ramsays, he regrets playing Saamri and Nevla.
That said, he has moved on. A family man, Agarwal is a part of the community in Mumbai’s Andheri West, doing his bit in religious festivals, a spot of social work here and there, leading a retired life and visiting his children sometimes. “Some people get scared when they see me, but I am a very normal man. I think this is India—where appearances matter. The first impression is that there is something wrong with me. It’s human nature.”
Actors like Lugosi, or Boris Karloff or Christopher Lee, they became icons, luminaries. “The monster was the best friend I ever had,” Karloff said in an interview once. Known for playing Frankenstein’s monster in more than one film, he has two stars on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. Not bad, you’d say.
Why is it so difficult for Agarwal to come to terms with the fact that he is, perhaps, India’s Karloff, or Lugosi? His argument is a fair one: “In Hollywood, they make big budget films. Even horror films. As an actor, you can keep making films like that. Here, people think in terms of heroes and villains. There, they could do that sort of role their entire lives. I could never have made a living playing the monster.” Had there been a career in it, he “would have accepted it”. “But there weren’t many monster roles for me after the Ramsays stopped making films. So I was stranded.”
“If he walked on the street, people would turn around and look at him. That’s what his face was like,” director Shyam Ramsay says, perhaps uncharitably, though not unfairly. Off camera, Agarwal is gentle, polite and affectionate. He made a success of his business, and is now reaping its benefits with his doting family.
A life mostly spent with Neelam, the one real romance in his world. “She’s from Saharanpur. I’m from a village near Dehradun. Ours was an arranged marriage, so we never saw each other before getting married. The parents discussed it, and both of us said yes. Alag zamana tha [times were different].”
Lost in the crowd, though standing out still. Never quite reconciled with the monster’s role and no real chance at interesting and challenging roles either. Certainly not your man-next-door. Agarwal’s career in films may be tinged with regrets, but if there was a stock-taking of Indian cinema—beyond the stars and big films—there would be a Walk of Fame Star for the man who played Nevla and Saamri—the greatest monsters in Indian cinema.