Content warning: self-harm, sexual violence, police violence.
From the trailer, I thought Dracula Sir was going to be the kind of film that the film industries of India do often and, generally speaking, very well: a reincarnation story.
I was already hooked by the title alone, but a few extra ingredients made me even more excited to see it:
• It was made in the Kolkata-based Bengali cinema industry, and I’m aware of relatively fewer of Bengali reincarnation films than I am of Hindi-language ones (my favorite example is Kshudhita Pashan, discussed here on the Gutter; I’ve also written about the Hindi film Ek Paheli Leela and the Telugu film Eega)
• Its protagonist has the fangs of everybody’s favorite vampire, not in creepy flashbacks but in his “now” day-to-day life
• Despite the vampire element, it seemed as much political as supernatural, with lines about revolution and what appeared to be an assassination in a misty field at dawn.
Now that I’ve watched it, I’m happy to report it is indeed unlike anything else I’ve seen—and this is not exactly the faint praise it may sound like. The film is broken into 6 chapters, each with a title and containing scenes set in the “now” and “then” portions of the history that links the characters. “Now” in this film is Kolkata contemporary to its release in 2020, and the past is Kolkata in 1971. If you don’t know Indian history, it’s useful to know that this is an era of communist upheaval against the federal and state governments, with this year in particular seeing more violence in urban areas and action among university students.
In the present, the central character is Raktim (Anirban Bhattcharya), a substitute Bengali school teacher who has long and pointed canine teeth. His students mock him, his landlord Bhuvan (Supriyo Dutta) bullies him, and his only opportunity seems to lie in his unusual teeth. The one person in his life who seems interested in understanding him as an individual is his dentist, who suggests that Raktim’s desire to have his teeth fixed means he’s actually just afraid to be different in the face of a conformist, mediocrity-oriented society. This brief conversation is one of the film’s most interesting ideas, and I wish more had been done with it. Raktim seems scared of, or at least very subdued by, every interaction he has, and I think that he’s not so much afraid of being different as he is utterly worn down by his experienced reality of it.
Raktim’s quiet life starts to go off the rails when he is offered a small role in a film playing, of course, a vampire, complete with white face paint and a big black cape. As he gears up for his big scene, he has flashes of what we will come to know as other scenes and threads of the film’s central stories that we have not yet seen him experience: a hand holding out two bloodied teeth, a woman with blood running down her face, fires with clouds of smoke, a voiceover intoning “this valley of death is not my country.” Instead of pretending to bite the bared neck of the film’s heroine on a foggy night, he actually does it! The flashes continue and he runs off into the city.
The next chapter opens in the past, and a Jane Eyre-approved voiceover about how people use attics to hide secrets. We meet Amol (also played by Bhattacharya), a revolutionary hiding in the home of his former girlfriend, a widow named Manjari (Mimi Chakraborty). She’s hiding him from both the police and his comrades, whom he has deserted. Manjari seems hopeful that they will reconnect, but he gives her the “now is not the time for love” runaround.
Their talk of bombs exploding leads us back to the present, where Raktim watches fireworks from the terrace with his landlord’s partner Sabita (Bidipta Chakraborty). We have already seen Bhuvan rape her and abuse her child from her first marriage , and she makes a plea to Raktim to protect them, proposing they run away together. When he refuses, she turns on him, calling him spineless.
The film cuts back and forth between both these romance-tinged couples, and song lyrics talk about being born again.
Raktim walks to the riverbank and leaves a suicide note; Majari appears, breaking some kind of time-space continuum or demonstrating Raktim’s fracturing mind (or both?), shreds his letter, and throws it into the air like confetti.
The narrative pace of switching back and forth between present and past speeds up as the frantic realities of both Raktim and Amol become more and more similar. Bhuvan’s violence against Sabita and her son continues, but this time Raktim breaks the cycle: whether is he has just utterly frayed or whether he has been emboldened by Manjari’s appearance I do not know, but he opens his mouth wide and bites Bhuvan. It is GROSS.
Meanwhile, Amol is harming himself as practice for police interrogation, fearing that he will give up his comrades’ whereabouts if the police put pressure on him. Raktim finds Bhuvan in hospital and apologizes; Bhuvan chokes out “Amol [yes! not Raktim!], please forgive me!” before flatlining. In the courtyard of their apartment building, Raktim starts drinking a bag of blood he’s taken from the hospital, wondering aloud to Manjari about what he has become.
With this wild escalation in violence, there are now these two characters who link the story: Manjari has been established as existing in both eras simultaneously without aging, and now Bhuvan is increasingly recognizable as the aged version of one of Amol’s revolutionary comrades who, political opinions aside, is a misogynist sleazebag who threatens Manjari in 1971. Manjari encourages Amol to flee before the police find him. She’s too late; the police come for both Amol and Raktim. As the temporal ends of the story hurry towards collision, Raktim and Amol are battered, trying to make sense of what’s happening and whether they have any choices left.
Dracula Sir—a title that should have been sent back to the drawing board, in my opinion, as there is only a sliver of time depicting Raktim in the school where pupils call him that—is a weird and interesting film.
I’m not usually one for gore, but it is quite effective here, mirroring actual political history (and current events too, of course), as well as the mental and social conditions of someone who society refuses to accept. “Is the monster me or is it ALL OF US?” has been done before, but I haven’t seen it done this graphically in an Indian film or in a Bengali setting at all, and to me this is a creative approach. Viewers who are more observant than I am might find the constant flashing forward and back tiresome, but I thought it was excitingly unsettling. Similarly, I was pleased by the links in words, images, and objects between the eras. For example, Raktim reads his students a text by Tagore called “The Flute,” and Amol plays the flute in his hideout. An exterminator sprays the city streets as Raktim walks home from work, and the revolutionaries run from clouds of tear gas. There is an extended thread about the perilous social status of widows in both eras, and I was interested to see it play out: Manjari and Sabita are both widows, Amol’s sleazy comrades prey upon widows sexually in the 70s, and Raktim’s teacher colleagues comment on a broken statue of a real social reformer that we later learn the 70s men destroyed.
[Spoilers in the next paragraph for something important that happens later in the game, though it is not the finale of the film.] Dracula Sir stumbles at about 75% through in a way that, for me, undoes a lot of the interesting narrative and affecting violence. After Raktim is arrested, prison psychiatrists declare him schizophrenic, questioning him as he gets input from Manjari, who he sees sitting behind them but of course is not really there. Sure, this diagnosis would explain (or “explain”) his adherence to people and histories that don’t exist, but it’s just so pedestrian compared with what the film has given us so far. Political upheaval, romantic melodrama, the cruelty of society to those who are physically different, and reincarnation are all more interesting than an illness assigned and treated with a hand-wave, especially when that illness is largely just a label slapped on towards the end. We also don’t get to see the work that it would take to manage the disease or be re-integrated into the world (including the challenge of the already isolated life Raktim was leading before his diagnosis). We’ve seen how he suffers; why not let us see how he heals? The doctors also leave different staff members alone with an unrestrained Raktim multiple times, which seems…risky, given that he, you know, maims people even with plenty of witnesses around? [/spoilers]
People who know more about vampire stories should weigh in here: what does Dracula in particular offer that a more generalized physically monstrous chomp-happy creature does not? Neither Amol nor Raktim have the sexual danger of Dracula, and the only vampiric trait I can think of that comes in to play is the deformation that the fangs cause, making Raktim self-conscious and tending to hide himself away. I suppose that the teeth are also embedded in a way that temporary changes like a Mr. Hyde or werewolf type are not, forcing him to deal with his physical differences all the time. There’s a quick tie to a pulp novel that Raktim confiscates from his students, but I wanted more made out of this: a Bengali teacher seeing his own tortured life reflected in a Bengali novel has potential, doesn’t it?
Ultimately, there is a distance between Raktim and the viewers that leaves us wondering what will happen to him. The makers resist tying up the story tidily, and given how messy and jarring it has been, that makes sense to me. To have Raktim be on a certain, healthy, supported path would be too easy and would disrespect the difficult life he’s had until now. Even though Dracula Sir makes no reference to the pandemic concurrent to its present-day setting, it felt like an apt analogy to me. Watching this film with my 2121 eyes, “What is going ON?!?” is a perfectly acceptable place to leave a character. We’ve been through A LOT lately, and who knows what’s going to happen next? Probably the downtrodden won’t start biting their tormentors, but maybe they should.
Dracula Sir is available with English subtitles on the Indian film streaming site Einthusan.tv.
Beth Watkins has not now and has not ever been a dracula.