• Poster of Ek Thi Daayan
  • Konkona Sen Sharma in Ek Thi Daayan
  • Poster of Aatma
  • Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Doyel Dhawan in Aatma
TBIP Take

Things That Go Bump in the Movies

Warning: Spoilers Ahead

Sometimes the lost possibilities of a movie are more depressing than any poignancy the movie set out to achieve. There is a half hour stretch in Ek Thi Daayan in which everything comes together to show you the movie it could have been. Bobo (Emraan Hashmi) has the feeling that the hauntings have begun again and goes to a therapist he knew as a child. Under hypnosis he remembers a time when he lived with his younger sister and nerdy college professor father (Pavan Malhotra). 11-year-old Bobo (Vishesh Tiwari) uses parlour magic to charm adults and entertain his adoring sister Misha. He is curious, chatty and quite confident. He plays around with an old lift to see whether hitting ‘6’ three times would actually take him down to hell, and only succeeds in scaring the pants off himself and his sister.

Into this wonky life comes Diana (Konkona Sen Sharma) who Bobo immediately suspects is Diana-the-daayan. Why? Just. For a while a delicious tension ensues while Bobo tries to protect his family from the double whammy of Diana’s sex appeal and maternal pretensions. Is she really a witch or is Bobo just terrified of stepmothers? Is his father just happy to be getting an afternoon quickie or is he under a spell? It’s all quite tantalizing, primarily because young Vishesh is superbly convincing. Also, I’ve never liked Konkona Sen Sharma as much as the fork-tongued moment in which she says to Misha, “So sweet. I could just eat you up.”

There is a kind of goofy-yet-thoughtful Wes Anderson air to the flashback (where young Bobo thinks viciously in the backseat that his father in the driver’s seat needs a roundhouse kick to stop letching at Diana, or when his curly head bobs disembodied above a fish tank) which is very appealing. If the register of this flashback had been the whole movie, director Kannan Iyer would have had the kind of movie that terrified generations.

The problem with the rest of the movie is not that Hashmi, (who has that Keanu Reeves blank canvas persona, which makes him quite replaceable but not objectionable) replaces Vishesh. The problem with the rest of the movie is that it is just not scary. It does not tap into any lode of fear that we carry around with us.

The irrational, ancient fear of the stepparent or any manner of attractive cuckoo (such as Diana/ Daayan) that will ruin the picture-perfect family has genuine power. Rising divorce rates in India bring us new versions of this terror. Aatma recently made a ham-handed attempt at exploring the fear of custody battles. The exorcist that Maya Verma (Bipasha Basu) consults to get rid of the ghost of her ex-husband tells her that she can only fight her husband Abhay’s (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) attempts to kill their daughter (from beyond the grave) with love. In one unintentionally hilarious sequence Bipasha finds her tiny daughter Niya on the railings of the balcony of their high-rise apartment. Her homicidal ghost husband at ground level is holding out his arms and urging Niya to jump. Bipasha is edging towards Niya begging her not to jump. Meanwhile Niya is bargaining with ghost daddy: “Mujhein Barbie Doll nahin milin. Main nahin aaoongi.” If Doyel Dhawan, who plays Niya, was a better actor (like Sara Arjun who plays Misha in Ek Thi Daayan), her mouthing the jealous, possessive insults of her dead father would have genuinely creeped parents out. Sadly, Doyel is not scary even when making demonic leaps for her mother’s throat.

An unscary child in demonic possession is an achievement by itself given how pop-culture has trained us to be scared of children (Witness this Spanish Candid Camera style show which plays a brilliant trick on hotel guests with a child actor). Really, the only moment in Aatma which is worth it is when the dead Bipasha gives dead, evil, yet hot husband a jolly good shove across the railway tracks. Why hasn’t anyone made a superhero movie with Bipasha Basu? She could save my life anytime.

But back to the missed opportunities of Ek Thi Daayan which for most of its running time wanders about. And loses an excellent cinematic head start it had in Bobo’s adult career: high-octane, spectacular magic. In one of his opening tricks in front of a huge audience, Bobo sends his assistant up a very high, mildly phallic rope and sets it on fire until she apologizes for coming late— all part of the act. His lover Tamara (Huma Qureshi) is the producer in a glass cubicle enjoying his prowess but also watchful so the show is on track. We never quite return to the flair of this sequence or ever use the exciting world of the magician to plumb our fears. What is adult Bobo scared of? Women with long plaits. I wondered whether the long plaits would resonate again in the sinuous, braided rope he makes his assistants perilously climb, but no luck there.

It is too much to expect Ek Thi Daayan to be the kind of psychological thriller that Malayattoor Ramakrishnan’s Yakshi was— where the hero disfigured by an accident wonders whether the only reason a beautiful woman is in love with him now is because she is a blood-sucking yakshi. The movie could have explored (a tiny bit) the life of a man with a difficult childhood, still stuck with his juvenile nickname (Bobo’s real, adult name Bejoy Charan Mathur is mentioned only once), who hides his fear of women under his shiny shirts, and sexy backchat with his girlfriend. Since he must be the only Hindi film hero whose dead mother does not make an appearance even in a framed photo we would have been (a tiny bit) interested.

This is a country where women and young girls are regularly murdered after being branded witches. It is a widespread, violent paranoia that the movie fails to plug into, regardless of what the Censor Board thinks. The movie instead just has a kind of mealy-mouthed, ambient fear of women that only seems like a variation of the money-grubbing, husband-oppressing viragos of Indian television ads. They can’t be zapped with credit cards but those sinuous, threatening braids can be cut off and then they will be dust. Ek Thi Daayan just mucks about in unreconstructed pentagram-waving, candle-lighting waffle about witches who return on lunar eclipses on Februrary 29 in leap years. Who knew that even Indian witches functioned according to the Gregorian calendar and had a Judeo-Christian Satan? The rules of this fictional universe are so sloppily tacked down, there is no chance for our terrors to take root. (Unlike Ragini MMS with its Marathi-spouting daayan which scared the atavistic pants off me, without ever losing its grip on the Zeitgeist— a young, horny girl, her smart-talking, horndog boyfriend, a dirty weekend away in a lonely house. And the daayan disapproves. Specific. Funny. Terrifying.)

In the one of the last sequences we see Bobo and his adopted son (Zubin, a son acquired without Bobo mixing genes with a woman) doing that ultimate act of cinematic male bonding: barbecuing outside. Bobo tells Zubin that everyone has power in them and we just have to choose whether we use it for good or evil. Sadly, Bobo’s recapturing of his inner power under a full moon and defeating of the many avatars of the daayan, in this less than enthralling context, again seems like an ad for some forgotten branch of the 1970s Men’s Movement, which practised primal scream therapy.

***

I must confess I was often distracted from the collective hotness of Bipasha Basu, Huma Qureshi and Nawazuddin Siddiqui by the alternate-universe real estate on view in these two movies. Did anyone track the square feet of Bobo and Tamara’s aalishaan bungla? Or the size of Maya Verma’s flat (“change the font and background on this design” must be a very well-paying job)? And when someone offers to pay Rs 2 crore in white, by cheque, for a Bombay flat you should call an exorcist.

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7 comments
NishaSusan
NishaSusan

 @vinjk  Looking forward to it. I had wished that I could have seen it before writing this piece. What fun things have you watched lately?

vinjk
vinjk

 @NishaSusanMissed a lot of Malayalam movies that got a release here. Heard great reviews about Amen and Shutter.

Watched Da Thadiya...a fun film about an obese guy. doesnt match up to the director's last two films...a decent watch though.

SureshM_
SureshM_

 @NishaSusan  @vinjk 'Amen' is different from the usual Mallu comedy zone. It is refreshing in large parts, but the second half is just tooooooo long and stretched beyond belief and that kills the film.

TBIP Take

Opinion
April 2013
By Nisha Susan

Nisha Susan is a writer and critic based in New Delhi. She was Features Editor at Tehelka magazine and has worked for several non-profits. Her short fiction has been published by Penguin and Zubaan and she's currently working on a novel and a book on Malayali nurses. Her expectations of cinema were permanently raised from watching pulp films as a three-year-old in her grandfather's village theatre.