How I met Dracula

Fayes T Kantawala remembers his strange encounter with actor Christopher Lee

How I met Dracula
Vampires are the epitome of cool. Like so many other fat kids, I longed to be a thin vampire all through my teens (my enemies think I succeeded) and spent most of my butter-seeking adolescence pouring through Anne Rice novels and magazines documenting the quasi-true history of Vlad the Impaler with salty relish. Mind you, this is way before True Blood or Twilight was a thing, but I believe vampires are one of those constructs that have always been en vogue. (It also occurs to me now that vampires are like fashion models: glamorous, enticing, seductive, forever young and always hungry.)

So it was with sadness that I read last week of the death of Sir Christopher Lee, who famously played Count Dracula all through the 1950s and 60s among so many other iconic characters. Younger viewers will more likely remember him as Saruman, the evil white wizard in The Lord of the Rings franchise. He beat the crap out of Gandalf (in itself a feat) and so was known as the face of movie villainy to a whole new generation of fans. More relevant to our little neck of the burning woods, however, is the fact that Lee played our beloved Quaid-e-Azam in the train-wreck of a disaster that was the movie Jinnah.
I remember Lee complaining about some op-eds that had unfairly harpooned his casting as Mr Jinnah

I had the honor of meeting Christopher Lee when he was in Lahore to film that movie, and the encounter has stayed with me as one of my more glamorous memories of years past. It was a Saturday in 1996 when my parents woke me up early to say that I was going to meet Dracula. I was, I confess, slightly confused but terribly excited. I knew of course that actors were not the characters they played but the idea that Dracula from the movies was actually in my city was more than I could handle and I had lots of cake for breakfast as a coping mechanism. How would he look? What would he say? Would he bite? It was the first time I was going to meet someone who I only ever saw on TCM. This was huge.

Once we left the house I realized that my parents were taking me to my school, which I thought deeply uncool and not part of the day’s promises. “I knew it,” I thought. “That place really is the palace of Evil.” We drove up to the movie set, a location where our school morning assemblies used to be held in the summer. Where the day before there had been hundreds of boys wearing coats and badges, now there were vintage Rolls Royces and large sets of lights. Anything modern had been removed from as far as the eye could see and a mostly English crew was scuttling around from one corner of the building to the next setting up props and exterior shots. It looked like I had stepped into a portal and come into a Merchant Ivory production.

I remember we met someone who escorted us somewhere else and then suddenly we were standing in the corridor and Lee was right in front of me. He was very, very tall. Tall and white-haired but not at all the scary fanged creature I had obsessively imagined. Instead, rather disconcertingly for a schoolboy, he was dressed in character as Jinnah. No one had told me he was shooting for Jinnah. They just said let’s go and meet Christopher Lee who played Dracula. (It turns out they had been using the school as a stand-in for the viceroy’s residence.) I was not mentally prepared to see the Quaid. He wore a grey sharwani, a white shalwar and the unmistakable Jinnah hat. For an 11-year old, it was all rather strange. We were taught (ad nauseum) about the myth of the superhero that was meant to be Jinnah and here I was face-to-face with the Dracula dressed as the founding father. It was, I believe, a moment that would come to shape how I thought about nationhood.

A scene from Jinnah
A scene from Jinnah

I was introduced to him but kept completely silent, shell-shocked in the surreal scene of being at school during a period piece and watching a talking Jinnah. He was affable and funny, and I remember him at one point complaining about some op-eds that had unfairly harpooned his casting by saying how awful it was that Jinnah was being played by an actor more famous for portraying a blood sucking being. I vividly remember him listing out his Shakespearean roles, almost defensively. I think that, as with anyone who gets typecast, he probably resented the comparison to Dracula as much he as relished the success the role afforded him.

Eventually we took some pictures together and the next thing I remember is running into a man dressed as Gandhi as I went to the car.  He was speaking with a Cockney accent to one of the film crew and smoking a cigarette. It was a very, very strange day for an 11-year old doing Pakistan Studies.

Eventually I told my school chums about the experience but no one seemed to really grasp the monumentality of my experience. When the movie came out I saw it with great excitement.  I confess a little part of me hoped I was in the background in the one scene I witnessed. In retrospect, I’m glad I wasn’t. It was a terrible movie. Really, really bad, and this was mainly the fault of the script. Observe: the movie ends with the character of Jinnah walking through an afterlife that looks like a film editing room. There, a scantily clad Gandhi is sitting at the controls and asking deep and searching questions about how things could have gone differently.

The film was panned everywhere and it isn’t mentioned in any of the obituaries about Lee that have been in the papers. Even here, we seem to have forgotten that he played the title role of the movie that was once meant to have defined our nation’s narrative but instead (like so much else) flopped spectacularly.

But no matter what, I will remember for the rest of my life the day I met Dracula, and he was dressed as Mr Jinnah.

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