Of Spooks & Ghosts: In Conversation with Abhirup Dhar

Abhirup Dhar

Do you enjoy ghost stories or stories of haunting that send shivers down your spine? Meet Abhirup Dhar, a young writer of horror who juggles a corporate job with his love of writing. He puts on his writerly shoes at night – like ‘Nina, Pretty Ballerina’[1] – to create horror stories that are not just taken up by reputable publishing houses but also by Bollywood. His books[2] have been endorsed by a renowned filmmaker, Vikram Bhatt, and Dhar is now scriptwriting for a number of films based on his own books and more. His earlier book, Ghost Hunter: Gaurav Tiwari (2021) was picked for a screen adaptation even before it was published. The book is based on a real-life event where a young paranormal researcher, Gaurav Tiwari (1984-2016), was found dead… And did Dhar, while writing the script, have a visitation? Read on to find out more about the genre, visitations by spirits, the author and his fascination for the paranormal…

You are a banker by profession. What made you turn to writing? Since when have you been writing? What gets your muse going?

Firstly, thank you for having me for the interview. I have been a banker for many years after which I changed the sector and am currently into travel. In the corporate world, it’s important that one keeps a track of the market and switches when it is the right time rather than continuing in a saturated atmosphere.

Coming to writing, I have always been a writer much before I was anything else! As a child, I used to write stories on notebooks and keep them to myself. Some went for the school and local magazines. When I was in college, I blogged and did some freelancing too, also wrote movie reviews for certain portals. It was during a break between my postgraduate course and first job that I utilised a few weeks and wrote my first book at a stretch. Getting published was never in my mind and I had written only for the sheer joy of it. Then I got busy with my job till a few years later when I began writing movie reviews for a portal again. It was then that I had shared the manuscript with a few people who loved the book. They said it was fun and struck a chord and that I should get published. So, I did! I was an amateur then but that’s where my writing career began. My first book was out in 2015 and it was an extremely special and emotional moment for me holding its copies! Passion is what keeps me going. It’s been an interesting and worthwhile journey of learning from successes and failures, unlearning, persevering and also importantly for me, multi-tasking.

Why horror? What made you choose this genre of writing? Your first book was a story of relationships. Why did you move into horror?

I was always a big horror buff. The first book I read was horror. The first movie I watched was horror. The first story I wrote was horror. And I enjoyed visiting deserted and supposedly haunted places. Anything supernatural intrigued me and I was curious about the afterlife. I still am. I was actually supposed to debut with a horror book which came out later. Based on a short story I had written while studying at a boarding school in Darjeeling, The Belvoirbrooke Haunting didn’t really shape up earlier. I guess for a difficult genre like horror, a little more maturity is required. So, I came out with Once Again… With Love! first as the manuscript was ready. My second book — Stories Are Magical — had six stories from six genres, including horror. While writing the book, I went back to my childhood days and realised it was horror which I enjoyed the most. It was a genre hardly focused upon and I knew it was risky. But I just wrote Hold That Breath without thinking about the repercussions. It went on to surprise everyone including me! The idea was to tell horror stories just the way I like them and have a common link – urban legends. It was followed by The Belvoirbrooke Haunting and Hold That Breath: 2 after which we now have Ghost Hunter: Gaurav Tiwari and HAUNTINGS. My horror outings have been enjoyable to say the least though I personally enjoy other genres like thrillers, murder mysteries and romance too.

Would you view horror as the voice of the age or as a genre which brings catharsis to masses? Does horror only entertain or have a larger value than appeasing the appetite of the people who read or watch a film?

We all lived through horror during the pandemic, didn’t we? It’s relevant, relatable and now a voice of the age. I wouldn’t say it is a massy genre in India yet but for those who enjoy reading it, horror provides relief. It also teaches you how to overcome fear and come out strong in life. So, it isn’t only about entertaining. Though I do think, it’s very important for a writer to make the genre fun. My books are relatable, relevant and entertaining for sure. It also helps that I have been a huge horror buff myself so I know how the genre and also a few tropes work for readers.

Your horror novels have been picked up by Bollywood. Tell us a bit about that.

Ghost Hunter: Gaurav Tiwari was acquired for screen adaptation much before its release itself. There are talks on about other books too. An upcoming book is going to be adapted for the screen and I’m writing the script myself. Screen adaptation deals are important because they begin reaching out to a wider audience right from the announcement itself. While the entire process is a very lengthy one, it’s a good validation for writers apart from other aspects. Horror has come a long way now. Thanks to efforts made by Suhail Mathur, a literary agent from The Book Bakers, it is getting noticed by the big traditional publishing houses. I’m sure it will have a better position in the film world too. There are very few filmmakers who have focused on it yet and the best way is to adapt horror novels or get good writers.

You have moved into scriptwriting from novel writing? How is it different?

I write both books and scripts now and I enjoy them equally. Though scriptwriting and books are two different mediums, they are both about one common thing – storytelling. Very different! Books are a lot more about descriptions and one can play with words. But in a script, it’s visual storytelling which means that one needs to be very specific. It’s more about the action and dialogues while books are more about characterisations and inner thoughts.

Your novels are in English. What language do you use for screenwriting for Bollywood? Are you bilingual and is it an easy transition?

Scripts are mostly in English these days. It can later be translated by the dialogue writer. It has become very professional in Bollywood now and smart filmmakers know or should know that the story is the king. I’m fluent in Hindi as well so that certainly helps but I don’t write in Hindi. I love Hindi films though.

What makes the most impact to create the semblance of horror in books and in films? How is it different?

Relatability. And this is extremely difficult in a genre like horror. Most people can relate with a genre like romance as most have fallen in love and even if they haven’t, they want to fall in love. With a genre like horror which is driven on the basic of fear, it becomes important that a reader relates with the characters and the events because most would not have seen a ghost. But they have experienced fear. In a book, a writer can scare readers with the situations. However, what a book misses out on is something extremely integral to the genre – background music. You get that in movies. I wouldn’t say that jump scares and scary faces are the most important things in horror as I personally like to find fear in moments, silence and circumstances.

You are associated with some paranormal societies too. Do you believe in ghosts or the paranormal? Please tell us more about it.

Just one and they are the pioneers of paranormal research in India. I’ve collaborated with Indian Paranormal Society which was founded by Reverend Gaurav Tiwari in 2009. Yes, I do believe in ghosts, the paranormal and the afterlife and I have a theory which I have researched on. The Afterlife or ‘The Other World’ as I call it is simply a phase after death where we wait for reincarnation. The better the karma in the life we led, the quicker the time. But again, there is no concept of time there. One needs to read my books to understand the theory as it is a very detailed one. To make it understandable to the layman, ghosts or spirits dwell in The Other World due to some baggage or unfulfilled desires. They may not even want to accept that they are dead and try to latch on to the living physical world to make their presence felt. There are boundaries not to be crossed either by us or them. That is how the balance remains.

Have you ever had any out of the world/ paranormal experience?

I used to visit many deserted and supposedly haunted places as a child. Also tried calling ghosts with friends. But nothing really happened. I won’t lie here. But something did happen after I completed the manuscript of Ghost Hunter: Gaurav Tiwari that I discussed with the folks at Indian Paranormal Society. I mostly write at late nights because that’s when I get time. And it’s also the best time to write horror. So, I mailed the manuscript to the erstwhile publisher Westland (the book is getting republished by Rupa now) and tried to sleep. It took me some time to close my eyelids as I felt a little uneasy. I dreamt about Gaurav Tiwari that night. I don’t really remember much but there was something he was trying to tell me. I don’t know what it was. I had a word with IPS the next morning and was shocked to know that after Gaurav’s death in 2016, most of his team members had a similar dream. He always wanted a good writer to write a book about him and his cases so I’m guessing he had come to thank me!

Share a few of your most interesting experiences as a horror writer.

Every time I sit to write something, the experience is interesting! My imagination takes me to different places, and I get to meet different characters. But researching on both Ghost Hunter: Gaurav Tiwari and HAUNTINGS took me to a different aspect of being a horror writer – Empathy for the dead is important because they lived once too.

What are your future plans? Do you plan to juggle all your jobs or would you focus on one that is your favourite?

I’m an aspirational person. By being aspirational, I don’t just mean being ambitious about studies, job or career but life as a whole. While I can focus more on writing if I stop juggling it with my job, I see a future in both – of course, in different ways. But you never know. However, in present times, a writer can’t just live in a bubble. One needs to make money out of the craft as you need to pay the bills. So, a more feasible option would be to become a ‘writerpreneur’. If a writer can’t be that, he or she needs to have other avenues of income. No writer earns a living only through books and the royalty. Screen adaptations and scripts are good ways to expand for sure.

Thanks for giving us your time.

[1] A song by ABBA where a girl transformed from an ordinary person to a ballerina of exquisite grace

[2] Hold That Breath: 2 released in 2022

(This interview has been carried out via emails by Mitali Chakravarty. The images have been provided by Abhirup Dhar. )


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Entwined Places

By S Srinivasan

Artwork by Gita Viswanath

Standing on the Juhu beach,
I heard, more than a decade ago, 
The winds from the Marina, 
In a smattering of Marathi and Tamil,
Accompanying birdsongs.

Blame that on a bout of homesickness
But what about last year, when

The Sealdah station, its turf
Pounded by the waves of human feet,
Seemed to me to reverberate 
With the weighty steps of the rush hour, 
Also felt in Mylapore and Nariman Point?

Perhaps, the crowds stirred me then
But that cannot be all, for

Often on cool Hyderabadi afternoons,
I have worn, in silence, the unease
Of Bangalore's woolen evenings;
And sensed in Delhi's nippy nights
The cold grip of other Indian winters...

Extremes sometimes addle the brain
And lull the heart, but…

Even when I take a leisurely stroll
On a summer dusk, around the lake
That girdles my neck of the woods,
I am greeted by the lush sights, of
The long winding ways yonder...

To Darjeeling and Kodaikkanal,
To Yercaud and Dehradun,
To Kashmir and Kanyakumari,
And to all that lies beyond.      

Srinivas S teaches English at the Rishi Valley School, India. He spends his free time taking long walks, watching cricket and writing poetry in short-form (mostly haiku).