I used to work in a library situated in Toronto’s Little India, where I would come across a heavy rotation of Bollywood DVDs, magazines and TV series. I finally took the plunge one day after asking a co-worker what she would recommend and was seduced right away. From comedies like Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998), to traditional love stories like my all time favourite Taal (1999) and yes, the songs still make me cry, those colourful cinematic smorgasbords with dancing and singing interjected into the meat of the film worked their way into my heart.
Bollywood has been throwing its hat into the horror ring for decades too, with 1949’s Mahal, said to be the first true Hindi horror film, the ghostly comedy Bhoot Bungla from 1965, and coming to the forefront in the 70’s with the Ramsay Brothers fun and schlocky low-budget horror films. There are a couple of cool short YouTube clips about the brothers and their impact on the horror genre in India: Part One and Part Two. They opened the floodgates for modern horror, and now there are many, many films drawing on things that go bump in the night Bollywood style.
(Unfortunately, Bhoot doesn’t seem to have a proper trailer with subtitles, but watch this one for the feel of the film.)
One of the more memorable films for me is Bhoot (Ghost). Directed by Bollywood’s controversial horror maverick Ram Gopal Varma, this 2003 multiple award winner tells the story of a man who scores an apartment for a steal due to its previous resident’s suicide. Things get weird when his wife is tormented by the former resident’s ghost. It impressed me with the creepy atmosphere, nary a traditional musical number, and could stand up to any J-horror at the time. Unfortunately, I would soon change jobs, and access to films weren’t as easy as sifting through returned items. I fell off the Bollywood bandwagon until my sister, who still has her finger on the Bollywood pulse, recently passed 2013’s Ek Thi Dayaan (There Was A Witch) my way. She swore up and down that it was one of the better, less schlocky horrors she’s seen in a long time, so the horror boyfriend and I settled in for the 2 hours and 15 minutes of foreign horror fun.
Adapted from a short story Mobius Trips by Mukul Sharma, Ek Thi Dayaan tells the tale of celebrity magician Bobo the Baffler (Emraan Hashmi), India’s answer to Criss Angel and David Blaine, who has a dark past. He’s haunted by his sister Misha who died when he was just a boy, but he can’t remember any details of her death. His doting girlfriend Tamara (Huma Qureshi) wants to get married and adopt Zubin (Bhavesh Balchandani), a boy they befriended at a nearby school, but his distant demeanor and jumpy nature puts a damper on their plans for the future. To move forward, Bobo decides to get to the bottom of his fears. Visiting his childhood psychiatrist, he succumbs to a hypnotic trance to access those memories.
Those memories leave him even more confused than before, but he pieces enough together from his buried past. After losing their mother, 11-year-old Bobo and his younger sister (Sara Arjun) try to make a life for themselves with their doting father Sharan (Pawan Malhotra). Bobo is preoccupied with a book on the occult, and decides that a finicky elevator in his building is a direct ride to Hell. When he and his sister fool with the elevator, a mysterious woman named Diana (Konkona Sen Sharma) appears. She immediately charms his father who invites her to be their governess, and soon his wife. Bobo is determined not to like her, and mistrusts her to the point where he believes she is a witch and out to sacrifice them. When a double tragedy destroys the family forever, Bobo has to face his childhood delusions and trust that the deaths that stole his innocence and family wasn’t the end result of supernatural forces.
That’s the film in a spoiler-free nutshell, but there are plenty of juicy details in between. Being a Bollywood film, there’s a quick interval between the first and second hours (which is actually a shorter film than usual. Most clock in at 2 ½ to 3 hours). In this case, it’s as if director Kannan Iyer presents 2 different films. Bobo’s recounting of his childhood has a Harry Potter-esque feel to it, while the second half embraces a more traditional horror film, bringing up distant comparisons to Rosemary’s Baby, and even Anabelle. Once you get past the slightly ridiculous name of the main character and focus on the musical numbers (of course!), some cool special effects and fun jump scares, you’ll find yourself with a great contemporary South Asian horror film.
While the story gets a bit patchy from time to time, the production value is fantastic, and the performances aren’t of the usual Bollywood fare; bringing a touch more substance than you would expect. It seems that the horror genre gives a lot of theatrical wiggle room for the performers to explore. The kids in the first half were quite good, and there’s some great possession performances later on in the film.
One fun fact that caught my eye was the disclaimer at the beginning of the film stating that the filmmakers don’t stereotype women as witches. This strikes me as a really interesting angle. Even though the witch myth has been used to keep women’s power at bay, from a feminist view, the disclaimer actually acknowledges the mistreatment of women throughout the ages globally, and specifically in India, that have been ostracized or accused of being witches for being childless, widowed or single. In a 2013 interview, Iyer mentions that he went to great lengths to avoid the typical village dayaan or witch folklore, and the disclaimer also puts an enlightened spin on it as well.
While Robert Egger’s The Witch (2015) divided a whole legion of horror fans, I think Ek Thi Dayaan is a supernatural crowd pleaser that bypasses the usual Bollywood melodramatic themes and gives you lots of witchy chills. It’s got some decent horror aspects, a great plot twist and a haunting theme song you’ll catch yourself humming as the end credits roll.
*I mentioned the singing and dancing in Bollywood films, but movie music is actually a huge industry in India. In most of the films, the songs are sung by “playback artists”, or professional session singers while the movie stars lip sync the lyrics. The songs are just as important as the film itself, with a soundtrack often being the driving force for making a film a box office hit. Composers and singers like legendary A. R. Rahman, Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bosle created memorable melodies marking a film’s time in the spotlight. Ek Thi Dayaan is no exception. Here’s that haunting theme song Kaali Kaali sung by Clinton Cerejo and written by well-known composer and director Gulzar. It basically talks about the magic a man finds in his lover’s eyes and how he’s bewitched by her and the treasures she hides there. It’s actually much more romantic with the full translation, which you can find here.
(Previously published on Rosemary’s Pixie.)