Director: Pratim D. Gupta
Writer: Pratim D. Gupta
Cast: Tanya Maniktala, Shantanu Maheshwari, Sikandar Kher, Revathi, Tillotama Shome, Saswata Chatterjee, Adil Hussain
If I were an Indian dentist right now, I’d be perilously close to suing Hindi cinema. (Or as they call it today: Leading a troll army of ‘Boycott Bollywood’ hashtags). As if pop culture hadn’t done its bit to convince the world that dentists aren’t “real doctors,” horror fiction is on its own trip. Freddy (2022) starred Kartik Aaryan as a lonely Parsi dentist whose heartbreak, caused by a cruel girlfriend, turns him into a vengeful psychopath. And now, Tooth Pari: When Love Bites – a Netflix series centred on a love story between a rebel vampire and her human dentist – features Shantanu Maheshwari as a shy loner whose blood is unique because he’s a virgin and a Momma’s Boy.
The lawsuit can be a defamation one. The problem isn’t that dentistry is treated as a personality disorder; it’s that these characters – and the stories they occupy – are about as compact as the rotten teeth they pull out. The awkward introvert often runs a clinic that looks like a vintage house gone wrong; this one is so artistically (and dimly) lit that it’s no wonder the young doctor’s career is a joke. His passion for cooking is introduced in a scene where he coyly asks a bartender at a party if he can make a cocktail for him. The entirely unintended homoerotic tension in this scene is the only chemistry we see across eight episodes. His romance with the female vampire has the aura of two pre-teen siblings cosplaying to amuse their parents.
If I were Bengali right now, I’d be even closer to filing that lawsuit. Tooth Pari is another symptom of the Bollywood-Bong syndrome, completing the 2023 trilogy along with the screechy Mrs. Chatterjee vs Norway and the clueless Mrs Undercover. The setting is modern-day Kolkata, again. So you have a fanged protagonist named Rumi (Tanya Maniktala) of course, whose lyrical motivations can best be described as “all vibes”. Rumi lives in the Neeche (‘Below’) section of the city, with a clan of 30 former-human vampires who depend on frozen blood pouches for nourishment. But she’s a firebrand, so she sneaks out of the underworld (accessible by a pillar at a metro station) after sunset, parties and seduces amoral Bengali men to feast on their fresh blood. Thanks to some exposition dumps parading as quick chats, the world-building terminology flows thick and fast: Deep-hyp (wiping out the victim’s memory), blood bar, ‘baaghinis,’ sharpies, hibernation pods, decapping, vampires greeting each other with a cheerful “Goodnight,” clan leader Ora, overlord AD, the Cutmundus (a gang of vampire killers) and their witchy leader Luna Luka. It is also unsubtly conveyed that garlic, silver, Howrah bridge, smoking and sunlight are hazardous to vampires. I may or may not be kidding about Howrah and sunlight, but it shouldn’t matter.
One night, Rumi bites a drunk man’s prosthetic neck (I’m serious) and loses her right canine. Her urgent visit to a dentist – that soft-spoken, mollycoddled virgin named Bikram Roy – sparks off an (alleged) attraction between the two. While she discovers the purity of ‘Doc Roy’ and hides her mischief from the leaders, her missing tooth triggers a crowd of convoluted sub-plots involving a troubled cop (Sikandar Kher, as Kartik Pal) and his unwitting alerting of the long-dormant Cutmundus. Everyone is out to get someone, and there’s half-witted gore and half-baked lore. But most of Tooth Pari feels like an unsupervised root canal because of its uneven tone, flimsy writing, amateur acting and staging. The vampire lair below looks like Tim Burton’s Batman raided a video-game parlour; it resembles the B-movie monster pad from the recent Phone Booth (2022), except Tooth Pari isn’t supposed to be a spoof.
Its narrative is ‘dead’ serious, because naturally, writer-director Pratim D. Gupta connects desi vampire legend to the real-world Emergency and conflicts of the Chinese Revolution-inspired Naxalite movement in Seventies’ Calcutta. The mythmaking is amusing at times, fuelled by the dissonance between what the show thinks it is and what it actually looks like. It fails at such a technical level – where the rhythm of every scene exists in isolation to the next – that sitting through Tooth Pari becomes an endurance exercise. I missed my swim this morning, so I suppose this will have to do.
I’m willing to accept that Tooth Pari gets greedy and strives for genre-fluidity. But even within its hipster Tinder-Dracula universe, very little makes sense. A lot of Rumi’s fears stem from whether Ora and AD will find out about her frequent visits to the top. The penalty is instant death. But there’s absolutely no tension attached to her curfew-breaking ways. She comes and goes at will, even though her senior guardians David (Saswata Chatterjee) and Kathak enthusiast Meera (Tillotama Shome) keep insisting that she is playing with fire. There’s never any danger of her getting caught; the security down under is as bad as the imaginary pressure. Then there’s the track of the dude she unsuccessfully bites in the first episode, who soon turns into a vampire himself and gets inducted into the clan. Rumi knows that if he recognizes her as the seductress from above, her game is up. But her dodging of him below – in this cramped space for 30 vampires – is limited to one throwaway disguise sequence and nothing else until the end. The show’s suspense is skewed and convenient, arriving only when the premise gets dizzy from running around in circles.
When the love story comes into focus, the track of Doc Roy and Rumi unfurls like it’s detached from the rest of the show’s universe. There’s a cringey meet-the-parents episode in which Roy tries to ‘test’ Rumi by serving her garlic chicken. (When she says she’s vegetarian, she is served only the garlic chunks). There’s also a random meet-the-family episode, where Rumi’s ageless guardians visit Roy’s chaste Bengali parents, and the culture clash is mined with the clunkiness of fangs sinking into a concrete wall. Words like “my past still haunts me, maybe your love will help” and “we are like fire and gasoline” further blur the lines between spoof and mediocrity. The quirkiness of him asking her to promise that she will never bite (“defy your primal instincts for me”) is lost in the show’s pursuit of phantom longing.
The performances are an extension of this mess. I get that vampires are not human, but the brief to Tanya Maniktala seems to be “spirited but robotic” – it’s a strange, unfeeling turn that interprets energy as the language of inertia. Much like in Gangubai Kathiawadi, Shantanu Maheshwari looks frightfully young, though I suspect he might have had more to work with had he not been written as a mousy dentist. Some of the characters are downright absurd – like AD, for instance, a silver-haired crook (he glows in the dark, I think) who seems to exist solely so that we notice how solid Adil Hussain’s Bengali is. Foremost among them is Luna Luka, played by Revathi, a vampy villain whose arc is as confounding as the taandav she does while killing vampires. Luna is flamboyant and showy, but she behaves like a bitter English Literature professor who is avenging her lack of tenureship. It takes some doing to squander a supporting cast of this calibre, but Tooth Pari is impossibly wasteful.
It’s not Luna’s silly dance or the tacky 90s-Mahabharata-aesthetic effects that are the issue so much as the soulless execution of these scenes. There is no sense of coherence to the staging – at one point towards the end, a couple goes from happy to sad to combative to heartbroken in a single moment as if they were puppets with different mood buttons. At another point, the couple has sex in the bedroom (scored to whispery indie music) while their parents are busy drinking downstairs; it probably happens, but every scene in Tooth Pari – whether it’s eating, kissing, killing, blood-sucking – has the same mechanical pitch. Love is a dry theory here, not a tangible feeling or act. As is sex: When Rumi sucks on Roy’s gaping wound, his silly smile destroys the very concept of sexual innuendos. Even the few decent elements – like the cop’s sad family situation, or Rumi’s loaded backstory – unfold with alarming nonchalance. It’s just cold film-making, as though this were a script-reading session with makeshift faces happening on screen.
The reason I’m doubly upset with a series like Tooth Pari is because it’s a genre killer of sorts. The Hindi storytelling landscape is averse to risk-taking and innovation, which automatically weakens the conviction in sci-fi, zombie apocalypse, vigilante superhero and vampire stories. So when something like this does get made – that too in a long format with streaming resources – there’s the extra responsibility of batting for a virgin genre and future storytellers. But Tooth Pari is the kind of misfire that might drive audiences away from homegrown vampire productions. You get only one chance to create such worlds for the first time, and for better or worse, a lot rides on these little breakthroughs. This is a one-liner that rarely digs beyond the potential of its premise.
The one great vignette – of an aspiring actor choosing to become a vampire to preserve his youth only to realize that he is invisible to cameras – unlocks the hope of many untapped immortality stories. A few vampires casually speak about how they helped Mahatma Gandhi drape his dhoti or refer to their time during the Battle of Plassey, but the toll of their agelessness is never addressed. They act weird, and that’s it, but what about Rumi’s challenge of having to seduce so many men across generations without falling in love? What about the trauma of having to live through so many different India(s)? What about the tragedy of falling for a human knowing that he will grow old and you will stay the same age (a la Let The Right One In)? What about the epidemic of sickly and suicidal people converting to vampires to cure themselves? What about nocturnal challenges during the Covid-19 pandemic? There’s so much that remains untouched by the makers in their pursuit of cheap wins (like Rumi taking Roy to an abandoned theatre in Maniktala as an ode to the actress playing her). The lack of narrative space is disappointing. If I were a vampire right now, I’d be close to suing but closer to spreading blood-sucking terror in the industry. But perhaps the best revenge would be to make a mainstream thriller about dentists, Bengalis and disenfranchised vampires.