Why Dracula fails to get a bite of India but atmas, dayans make us shiver

November 8 was the 170th birth anniversary of Dracula writer Bram Stoker. The book was published 120 years ago. But though Count Dracula is a powerful figure in horror films in the West, and also enjoys popularity here, are vampires missing from Indian folklore and popular culture?

art and culture Updated: Nov 12, 2017 18:30 IST
Poulomi Banerjee
Poulomi Banerjee
Hindustan Times
Dracula,Vampire,Bram Stoker
British actor Christopher Lee in a promotional portrait for the 1968 film, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave. (Getty Images)

It was her first experience of a Hollywood horror film. A young Anu Mukherjee had gone to witness the dark deeds of the infamous Count Dracula with her brother at a Calcutta movie theatre. Nearly 40 years later, the film remains the ultimate experience in horror for her, the bar against which she measures the fear factor of every other horror film. “It must have been sometime in the early 1970s. I was about 15 or 16 years old. And I embarrassed myself by screaming out loud in the hall when Dracula sank his fangs into the neck of the first of his unsuspecting victims,” recalls 62-year-old Mukherjee, a homemaker.

“The test of a good horror story is its ability to play on the reader’s or viewer’s psyche. It doesn’t need to have a ghost jumping out of a closet… but it should build the expectation that something is about to happen,” says Shinie Antony who has recently edited a collection of short stories titled Boo.

When Bram Stoker wrote Dracula – the book celebrated 120 years of its publication earlier this year, while the writer’s 170th birth anniversary was on November 8 – he offered both. He not only built an eerie setting in the Count’s old castle and the whispers of death and disappearances surrounding him, but also showed the Count stalking and preying on his victims. Still, did Stoker foresee the extent of the popularity that his creation would enjoy – even after more than a century?

“The supernatural genre is all about bragging rights, how much you held out being scared or how much it scared you. The closer it is to reality the scarier the story,” says film director Suparn Verma.

A search on Google reveals a list of about 40 films on the Dracula theme alone. The list of vampire films is much longer. So synonymous did Bram Stoker’s Dracula become with vampires and their behaviour, that more than a century later Stephenie Meyer, author of the Twilight series of books (written between 2005-2008), had to first bring up the nature of Stoker’s vampire, sleeping in the coffin for example, or being burnt by sunlight, before writing off these characteristics as myths.

Yet surprisingly, though both Dracula and the more recent vampires – Twilight’s Cullens and their friends – have enjoyed popularity in India (just count the number of Count Dracula costumes at Halloween parties here), there are few original vampire stories in popular Indian culture. Even Hollywood-inspired narratives of the Count and his descendants are rare. The success of The Twilight Saga did inspire a 2010 Indian television show, Pyaar Kii Yeh Ek Kahaani, but it hardly started a trend.

Film Fright

“The Ramsay brothers had an outstanding vampire in their 1990 film Bandh Darwaza,” says Shamya Dasgupta, writer of the book Don’t Disturb The Dead: The Story Of The Ramsay Brothers. “The character was called Neola, played by Ajay Agarwal, who had this Count Dracula-like high-collared attire. He preyed on young women, who he sought out at night, and also had sex with them.”

A poster of 1990 film Bandh Darwaza.

Suparn Verma, who directed the 2013 horror film Aatma, also mentions “a crossbreed vampire in the Ramsay film Saamri”. But the 1985 film was a mix of black magic and revenge drama, perhaps to make it more palatable for Indian viewers. Tulsi Ramsay, one of seven brothers who are acknowledged as the pioneers of the horror genre in low-budget Hindi cinema in the 1970s and 1980s, gives the example of a female vampire, Jasmin, in their film Veerana, as someone who would first seduce her victims and then kill them.

But except for these three films – out of a total of over 30 made by the Ramsays – there seem to be few examples of vampire films in India, or at least none that enjoy immediate popular recall.

“The atma (spirit) is more common to Indian films,” agrees Tulsi Ramsay. From the hit 1992 supernatural film Raat, to the more recent Raaz (2002), Bhoot (2003) and Aatma (2013), spirits and stories of being possessed by spirits, seem to be the staple of Bollywood horror. Stories of black magic and witches are also not uncommon – the most recent example being Ek Thi Daayan (2013), directed by Kannan Iyer. The same trend seems to be reflected in fiction – at least in the Indian writing in English segment.

A poster for the Emraan Hashmi, Konkona Sen Sharma, Huma Qureshi and Kalki Koechlin starrer Ek Thi Daayan. The 2013 film was directed by Kannan Iyer.

Writer Mukul Sharma, on whose story Ek Thi Daayan was based, sees nothing wrong in this, “If Hollywood does not miss the ulte pair wali chudhail, why should we in India worry about the lack of iconic vampire characters?” he questions.

Stoker is believed to have based his Dracula on the character of the Romanian prince Vlad Dracula or Vlad the Impaler. “The west adapted it more naturally. We have been dabbling in possession, spirits, evil witches and the odd zombie in films so far,” says Suparn Verma. He adds, “The supernatural genre is all about bragging rights, how much you held out being scared or how much it scared you. The closer it is to reality the scarier the story.”

And “our myths and legends – the Hindu stuff anyway – have to do more with monsters, chudails, pishachas, ghosts and ghouls,” points out Dasgupta. “There are usually ancient curses at work, and there is usually a way to solve the problem – this is how Hindu mythology works.”

Roy D’Silva, who curates the horror blog Saamri (the name is inspired by the Ramsay film), says that one reason could be that in traditional Hindu culture, the corpse is usually cremated and not buried. So an incorporeal being is more common than a living corpse or the undead.

But stories of vampires and blood-drinking demons are common not only in European cultures, but also in folklore across the world, including Asia. The Malaysian Penanggalan, a beautiful woman who preys on the blood of pregnant women, the Leyak, a similar being in Balinese folklore, and the Ab in Cambodia, are examples.

Rooted In Folklore

When the stories of Vikram and Betaal were first translated into English, it was titled Twenty-five Tales Of The Vampire, says Sadhana Naithani, Indian folklore expert and professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University. “Like the vampire, which is neither alive nor dead, Betaal is a talking corpse, though he doesn’t drink blood.” She has other examples of vampire-like characters in regional lore as proof of vampires not being completely alien to Indian culture.

A scene from the Doordarshan serial Vikram Aur Beetal. The television series had Arun Govil playing the character of king Vikramaditya and Sajjan as Betaal.

“Around 20 years after the 1857 revolt, there were stories circulating in parts of India, such as Meerut, about a British man who would kidnap young boys, take them to a hill station and hang them upside down to take out their body fluids to make medicine. The rumours gave him the characters of a Momia, a being neither alive nor dead, common to the folklore of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh,” she says.

Writings available on the Internet also mention a chedipe in the folklore of the Godavari region. The chedipe is a kind of “witch-vampire associated with the devdasis”. The word literally means a prostitute. While some chedipes were spirits, there is also mention of those who were undead. Then there are references of the Pey and his female counterpart, the Peymakilir in Tamil culture, vampires who haunt battlefields and feed on fallen soldiers. While the Pey is believed to drink the blood of the dead, the Peymakilir is also said to devour flesh.

What Haunts Indians
  • Atma or Bhoot: Ghosts or spirits of dead people
  • Preta: A supernatural being that has gone through extreme levels of suffering, especially extreme hunger and thirst
  • Dayan: A witch
  • Chudhail: A female demon that can shape-shift and thus lures her victims and then kills them or sucks out their virility
  • Pishacha: Flesh-eating demons

“Putna, a demon mentioned in the Mahabharata, is a cannibal who also drinks blood. But she is different from a vampire, in that she was cursed in her previous life by the gods. Indian mythology has many examples of pishachas, daityas and rakshas. Even in our culture, they are evil beings of the night. But unlike the vampires, they are not created by the bite of a similar creature,” says professor Nandini Sahu, also a folklore expert.

Naithani admits that vampires – as in the blood-drinking undead – are far more prominent in European folklore, and thus get used in their literature and films. But adds, “We have a rich folklore, with variants of the vampire. But our filmmakers and literary authors have not engaged in enough re-telling and re-interpretation of these.” Instead we have remained somewhat fixated on the atma.

One reason could be that horror as a genre, in films and fiction, remains largely unexplored in mainstream popular culture. A few ghost stories for kids and the odd film, often with an element of sleaze – think Veerana (1988) and Ragini MMS (2011) – are what we are familiar with. Good horror stories are few and far between, and most stick to the tried-and-tested territory.

“Horror is treated as a bastard child in the genre of films and literature, which is why we have limited horror films and even more limited literature,” agrees Verma. “This is not due to lack of ideas but lack of legitimacy and backers. But with the new generation being more exposed to ideas, my feeling is that this is about to change very soon.”

A poster for the Bipasha Basu and Nawazuddin Siddiqui starrer Aatma.

The Ramsay films were known for their limited budgets. “Now people like Vikram Bhatt and Ram Gopal Verma have been making big-budget horror films,” says Tulsi Ramsay. Neither Verma nor Ramsay doubt audience interest in all things that go bump in the night, vampire included. “We are as ready as anyone can be,” says Verma. But Dasgupta cautions, “It has to make sense, though. Just borrowing a concept and trying to fit it into an Indian context won’t work. Whatever the plot, it has to have an explanation. There has to be background and logic.”

One hundred and twenty years after his creation, perhaps the time is finally ripe for Count Dracula to explore new territory and go Indian. Willing victims are waiting to be converted.

First Published: Nov 11, 2017 22:36 IST