Ek Thi Dayaan: Bollywood’s Modern Witch Myth

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.)

mother! and the Art of Sacrifice

Yet another festival film has divided the masses in the way of Darren Aronofsky’s latest film Mother!  Making its rounds in Europe and playing TIFF 2017 in Toronto; and much like previous TIFF premiere The Witch from over a year ago, critics and viewers either love or hate this allegorical masterpiece that confounds the horror genre and elevates the artistic experience.

A married couple live in a secluded house in the countryside. This rambling manor is a restoration project for the young wife (Jennifer Lawrence) and a place for solitude and concentration for her writer husband (Javier Bardem). While she is his muse, he is still looking for inspiration and having difficulty putting pen to paper, but when a stream of strangers come to their door looking for a place to stay, things start to change. These guests are unwanted by the writer’s wife, disturbing her solitude and her vision for the home; yet they fuel and invigorate her husband, creating a fervour that will soon divide them in their lifelong pursuits.

Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) and Him (Javier Bardem).
Photo credit: IMDb

When my boyfriend and I showed our tickets to one of the theatre staff, she immediately let us know that we could get a refund within the first half hour of the film. The staff member felt she had to warn us about the disturbing nature of the film, as many movie-goers thought it was a family drama because of the title. With that red flag waved before we even sat down in the theatre, I wasn’t sure what we were about to witness, but I was scared I might find something to take issue with. This apprehension also came from some earlier discussion during TIFF about the age difference between Jennifer Lawrence’s character only know as Mother, and her husband Him, played by Javier Bardem. The May/December coupling was something to think about as it mirrored the real-life relationship of Aronofsky and Lawrence, but I couldn’t condemn the film simply because of that one detail without having seen it. I tend to avoid any reviews until I’ve seen the film and written my own thoughts about it, and I made an extra effort to avoid as many articles as I could with Mother! I did see a few snippets of review headlines screaming the film’s shortcomings or brilliance in a few choice words, making me even more curious. My final verdict, although I tried in vain to find something to dislike about Mother!, is one of complete adoration for such a brilliant film.

There is so much to say about Mother! and so many layers to explore that I imagine theology, psychology, film and sociology PhD students will have at it for decades. Aronofsky himself has said in several interviews that this film is about Mother Earth and her destruction but you can see other themes based on the artist and religion.  Whether you believe the film to be about the perishing earth, art, or the Bible, there is a common thread that shows the struggle of creating and the sacrifice that the creator and those around them must endure.

*Some may find the next part of this review/analysis spoiler-filled, so reader be warned.*

As a creative person and someone who values solitude, I felt Mother’s horror as intruders destroyed her sanctuary.  Her experiences are very close to a recurring nightmare I used to have about constant, unwanted visitors, and I felt her husband’s frustration with not being able to create, desperately looking for an outlet or inspiration. When the intruders start to fuel his creativity, allowing the floodgates to open and his masterpiece to unfold, it’s a wave that many an artist or writer wants to capture and ride forever, constantly feeding the ego with praise and celebrity.

Mother and her husband are fairly archetypical in nature. The rosy-cheeked, blonde, blue-eyed representation of Mother Earth/Mary/the female side of creativity is young, vibrant and innocent, just the type of personification that is needed to feed the creativity of her older, more worldly husband. Aronofsky has said that Rosemary’s Baby was among the influences for the film, and like Rosemary Woodhouse, Mother is used for her spouse’s gain without her being in on the larger scheme of things, but here there is a cyclical feel to her life and death. She will not be forced to choose to look after her child like Rosemary, in fact, Mother is in constant opposition to what is happening around her even though she is a major part of the cycle. She is there to tend to the home while her husband creates, but her efforts will be overshadowed and thwarted by intruders. Her role is so utterly mired in the feminine and her partner so male, that the yin and yang of their relationship and power dynamics, while stereotypical, are poignant. Her desire to have children and bear fruit like Mother Earth is stunted by her husband’s own overbearing God-like desire to create and be adored, and when she does have a child, it is taken from her for his own egotistical reasons, to placate his worshipers who have supported Him in his work and who treat his writings like scriptures, confirming his role as an all-seeing, all-knowing deity.

Mother’s experience is very relatable as she struggles with her intuition. Her need to restore the house, listening to and nurturing its spirit is acknowledged but not heeded and she is placated by thin excuses or shunned for not going along with the crowd. At times her physical voice is drowned out by the chaos as her hard work is destroyed. The insecurity that comes with the terror of being completely alone in your pursuits needs a strong person to stand up for what they believe in. She does this over and over again, as she sacrifices herself not as a victim but as a martyr and saviour, only to be resurrected in this weird and crazy cycle of life.

Technically speaking, I really enjoyed the camerawork that was reminiscent of the long takes in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman and the claustrophobic close-ups and tracking shots of Mother like in Rosemary’s Baby. It gives us Mother’s perspective and we witness the action along with her. We were also in the dark with her, getting no clues as the audience, save for some biblical references like Adam, Eve, Cain and Abel (played by Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, Brian and Domhnall Gleeson respectively); as well as the birth and devouring of Mother’s son seemingly symbolizing the sacrifice of Christ as one interpretation.

I must mention a wonderful surprise (at least for me!). Stephen McHattie appears as the zealot; a rabid follower of the writer’s work, stirring up the masses to worship the word of the writer. Those who know me, know I love Mr. McHattie, so to see him in such a spectacular pageant of a film made me love and respect him even more. And speaking of pageants, I had the sense that Mother! could somehow work as a stage play with the exaggerated chaotic action, and I would love to see that in the future.

I really can’t tell you how to react to Mother! only what I’ve seen and experienced as I immersed myself in this film. Yes, you can see obvious influences of the Bible, Rosemary’s Baby, Birdman (in my opinion for the cinematic style), and all the other films mentioned by Aronofsky himself, but these influences melded to create something that is unique, new and quite simply brilliant. Whether you see it as a creationist story, an 11th hour commentary on the state of the earth and environment as the director intended, a modern-day scripture about the artist ego, sacrifice and their art, there are allegories and symbolism for days in this film. It’s not to be missed.

[Previously published on Rosemary’s Pixie]