The third film in The Twilight Saga series, Eclipse, opened at more than 700 screens across India last week, raking in Rs4.5 crore during its opening weekend. PVR pictures, the distribution arm of PVR group, released it in four languages—English, Hindi, Tamil and Telugu. Book store owners agree that the Stephanie Meyer books on which the film franchise is based have been recording consistent sales.
Bloodsuckers: (clockwise from top left) Neola the vampire, a poster of Eclipse, and a DVD of Veerana.
As if on cue, Rupa and Co. is releasing a subaltern spin-off later this year: a novel about an Indian girl who falls in love with an American vampire (similar to Twilight’s Edward Cullen, we should think). It is a young adult novel targeted at 15 to 24-year-olds, mostly girls. Shruti Sharma, an editor with Rupa, says it will sell in small-town India where vampires are still endlessly fascinating. The book will be priced at Rs150-200 to make it more affordable and accessible to its target readers.
While the local success of Twilight hints at an urban reimagining of the vampire figure, weeding out blood and gore for a romantic sheen, India has a history with the bloodsucking character and, more broadly, the horror genre.
In folklore, we have the churail—ba vicious ghost-like vampire described as an unkempt woman with wild hair and long nails. There’s the masani— another female vampire, a spirit of the burial grounds. Betaal—made famous by the Doordarshan television series Vikram aur Betaal— we know as a somewhat endearing storyteller. But he is half-man, half-bat. And yes, he survives on blood. These characters thrive in Hindi pulp comics. Raj Comics has a dedicated Thrill Horror Suspense series in which it publishes titles such as Ek Katora Khoon (A bowl of blood).
But the ghouls need to be in cinema to remain etched in public memory. Notable vampires from the Ramsay Brothers’ Hindi films include Jasmin from Veerana— Vengeance of the Vampire (1988) and Neola from Bandh Darwaza (1990), a Dracula-like vampire who slept in a coffin by day, and transformed into a bat at night to hunt humans.
It’s been 20 years since the last memorable Hindi film vampire. Film trade analyst Vinod Mirani is incredulous over the phone from Mumbai: “You aren’t really asking me about Indian horror films? They’re dead.” Mirani is of the opinion that the Ramsay Brothers—the first family of Indian horror cinema—buried the genre with the last of their films.
Despite the occasional horror film that involved “A”-list stars and directors, the 1980s saw Indian horror and vampire films become synonymous with low- budget sleaze.
The films were safe bets at the box office, grossing impressively at the smaller “B” and “C” centres. But this also meant that the genre never broke out of that narrow mould. Purana Mandir (1984) and Bandh Darwaza (1990) essentially bookended the mass appeal of Ramsay Brothers.
Kartik Nair, who is researching a thesis on the Ramsays for an MPhil at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, says India’s first taste of the horror genre were old Hollywood films. Nair learnt that the Ramsay Brothers were inspired by the 1930s Hollywood horror movies they saw as young boys in Indian theatres in the 1950s and 1960s. “Their concepts and production values were already at a two-decade disadvantage when they started,” explains Nair.
Neverthless, the Ramsay ghost now looms over film-makers who attempt the genre. As Mirani says: “Ram Gopal Varma thought he would reinvent horror, he even called his films ‘classy horror’, but failed miserably.” The smooth import of Hollywood thrillers, sci-fi and horror—by way of theatrical and DVD releases—raised the ante for what viewers expected.
With the advent of cable television, it made financial sense for the Ramsay Brothers to move on to television, which they did in 1993 with the Zee Horror Show. Sony Entertainment Television launched Aahat soon after; it is still running 14 years later. According to Saurabh Tewari, programming head for Imagine TV’s fiction division, the years 2002-06 were the “golden period” for horror on Indian television. Though Imagine TV does not have any horror shows on air right now, Tewari says he is open to “urban” horror pitches because they have immense potential. Other television channels reflect a similar sentiment: In May, Star India launched a 2-hour programme called Sohn that channel authorities describe as a “complete treat for the horror connoisseur”.
On the film front, this March, Pritish Nandy Communications partnered with the UK-based High Point Media Group to announce a new film division called I-Horror to focus on horror and paranormal films. The first film to be released under this banner will be The Accident in 2011, with Shiney Ahuja and Soha Ali Khan.
With the focus on the horror genre rekindled, the Indian vampire will perhaps emerge from the coffin after all.