Cast: Tanya Maniktala, Shantanu Maheshwari, Revathi, Sikander Kher, Adil Hussain, Saswata Chatterjee and Tillotama Shome
Director: Pratim Dasgupta
Rating: Three stars (out of 5)
The idiosyncratic urban fairy tale at the core of Tooth Pari: When Love Bites, a Netflix original series written and directed by Pratim Dasgupta, is set in contemporary Kolkata. What, however, hangs over the arcane collision-of-two-worlds fantasy, both stylistically and textually, is the defiantly bohemian spirit of 1960s and 1970s Calcutta.
More a genteel romance than a zany and zippy sanguinary lore, Tooth Pari: When Love Bites is a story of impossible love that rides on a range of emotions, impulses and eccentric sleights. It is mildly diverting and technically spiffy fare bolstered by a great cast.
The series bridges (successfully for the most part) two opposing spheres – one inhabited by a handful of vampires prone to sending their victims into “deep hyp”, the other occupied by flesh-and-blood humans dealing with matters that often stray beyond the mundane.
Tooth Pari: When Love Bites tells the story of a vampire whose human existence did not go well and a diffident young man browbeaten by his parents into jettisoning his dreams. The two are drawn to each other after a chance encounter despite the immense divide that separates them and the dangers inherent in the liaison.
When their paths cross, blood is inadvertently but inevitably drawn. Just one drop opens a door for the pretty ‘ghost’ who leaves her underground hideaway (a place that is simply referred to as ‘Neeche’) every night through a manhole pathway and, when that is sealed in the wake of a crisis, through a Metro station platform. The sight of blood also brings to the fore a medical condition that is one of the many reasons that make the latter unfit to be the dentist that he is.
A seductive blood-sucker, Rumi (Tanya Maniktala), loses a vampire tooth when she, during a noisy, crowded party, attacks a reveller who has a prosthetic neck. She visits a shy and reluctant dentist, Roy (Shantanu Maheshwari), to fix the damage.
The clinic reeks of the fish that Doc Ray has used for the Tramfrado he has just whipped up in an adjoining room for the recording of an ‘anonymous chef’ vlog. Not that Rumi is interested in anything beyond the missing tooth.
The encounters and adventures that the accidental meeting between Rumi and Roy triggers add up to what, if you are able to get into the swing of the spirited, fanciful yarn, should be food and drink, if not a heady potion, for you.
The renegade Rumi revels in breaking rules. She slips in and out of the world in which she lives with 29 other vampires. She craves fresh blood. She risks severe punishment but that does not stop her. Those that lack her derring-do have to make do with frozen blood smuggled out in pouches from a medical research centre.
They have an occasional human visitor, Dr Adi Deb (Adil Hussain), a flashy, loquacious, silver-maned entrepreneur whose secret deal with the vampires gives him unquestioned authority over them.
In the world that exists Upar – yes, that is what the vampires call it – Roy, son of a successful dentist, is a mamma’s boy, a 26-year-old virgin. His blood is sought after for reasons of purity.
While Rumi fights to break free from the tyranny of rules, Roy has a hard time warding off his parents, ‘Maa’ Roy (Swaroopa Ghosh) and ‘Baba’ Roy (Rajatava Dutta) as they mount pressure on him to get hitched.
Rumi has been dead for years. Roy has no idea how to get a life. A departed girl who is alive to her needs and a young man who has killed his urges share nothing at all, temperamentally or existentially. Yet, as they grapple with their past and present, they end up exploring the possibility of a future together.
But is that even possible? The hurdles in Rumi and Roy’s path are numerous. One of them is police sub-inspector Kartik Pal (Sikander Kher). He is on their trail although the man has no clue who or what might have been responsible for the Tangra restaurant incident in which Rumi broke a tooth.
Rumi and her ilk have to reckon with a far more formidable foe – Luka Luna (Revathy), a cool-headed ‘Wiccan’ who heads a team of ageing vampire-slayers. She has stories that date back to the 1970s – the period of the Naxalbari uprising and the Vietnam War. One of them features Biren Pal (Anjan Dutt), Kartik’s Alzheimer’s-stricken father.
Her nocturnal forays are Rumi’s moments of liberation from the constricted world where she and others ‘exist’ in fear. Love, the lure of freedom under the night sky and the need for regeneration push her to act against the will of those who lay down the rules.
Owing to how his conservative, overbearing parents treat him, Roy is perhaps even more trapped. He seeks solace in the company of the ageing bon vivant and former theatre actor Ian Zachariah (Avijit Dutt), once known to his fans as “Marlon Brando of Beniapukur”.
Tooth Pari has a supporting cast to die for. It includes a wonderful Revathy, a delightfully droll Adil Hussain, a solid Saswata Chatterjee as a history-spouting vampire, the never-less -of-brilliant Tillotama Shome in the guise of a Nawab Siraj ud-Daulah era Kathak dancer, and Barun Chanda in a crucial cameo.
Lead actors Tanya Maniktala and Shantanu Maheshwari, helped along by an energetic Sikander Kher, give solid accounts of themselves all through the eight-episode show.
Tooth Pari, artfully lensed by Subhankar Bhar and embellished with a score by music composer Neel Adhikari, revolves around vampire attacks, violent deaths and brutal decapitations. It is unapologetic about its frequently weird and baffling leaps into playful illogicality. However, the series keeps its feet firmly on the ground even as it plunges into the domain of spectral mumbo-jumbo.
The phantom past of a metropolis that bore witness to great political mayhem, social upheavals and cultural efflorescence in the first few post-Independence decades is tangentially woven into the narrative through expository conversations and reminiscences. Not all of them crackle with verve and carry weight in terms of narrative centrality but they do, one way or another, serve the purpose that they are meant to.
Tooth Pari harks back to a Goutam Chattopadhyay rock number and poet-composer Jasimuddin’s folk song Rongila re sung by Sachin Dev Burman – the latter is the timid dentist’s favourite. In doing so, the series evokes a bygone era of vampires and their sworn enemies – the Cutmundus, a coven of witches who regroup as soon as word spreads that the buzzards are back.
Tooth Pari: When Love Bites is a fable about what is dead, what is alive and what can be revived in a city with a past that is straining to stamp itself on the present. But the series also works reasonably well simply as a whimsical, entrancing, absurdist take on love and longing that defies – and respects – differences. There is much here to munch on. Dig in.