Too many times we see films lose the plot after intermission—a concept as old as the movies that India, and a few other countries, have retained. Some call it The Curse of the Second Half. Some movies recover miraculously post-interval, like tail-enders winning a match after the team's main batsmen have failed. In this series, we write about films that are half good, and half bad. Or the other way around. Thank god for the loo break though.
A childhood trauma comes back to haunt Bobo (Emran Hashmi), a famous Magician, in the middle of one of his performances, leading to a near-fatal accident of an assistant. We learn of an incident that caused the death of his father and six-year-old sister. But we don't know how. Bobo is hesitant to talk about it, even with his fiancé Tamara (Huma Qureshi). He confides in Dr Ranjan Palit (Rajatabha Dutta), a psychiatrist who knew him and his family since he was a child.
While the initial bits of Kannan Iyer's Ek Thi Daayan (streaming on Netflix) feel perfunctory to get to the main part of the story, that of Bobo's childhood, there's some impressive foreshadowing. The foreboding "Kaali Kaali", with lyrics by Gulzar, allude to, both, the allure of Tamara's eyes, and the deceptive ways of the witch ('kaala kaala jaadoo hai'). Bobo sees a woman in a black sari walking on a beach, leaving behind footprints that are turned backward—the sign of a daayan. When Bobo visits the old house where they used to live, he hears a lizard, another sign. But it could be all in his head.
The flashback is told like a chilling bedtime story. We meet eleven-year-old Bobo (a very good Visshwesh Tiwari, with his wiser-than-age genius hairstyle), who has an unhealthy obsession with occult literature; his kid sister Misha ((Sara Arjun), his partner-in-crime; and their father Professor Mathur (Pavan Malhotra): a nice little family despite their mother not being alive. With Mr Mathur staying out all day for work, Bobo and Misha spend most of their time in the house, taking trips in the elevator to the basement. They think of it as hell, where the worst people of the building go to die, including evil stepmoms.
It's no surprise that Diana (Konkona Sen Sharma) turns up in that elevator one day, as if appearing out of thin air. Bobo has a nagging suspicion that she is a daayan. Friendly with the children and flirty with their father, Diana soon enters their lives as a trained governess, and before you know it, Mr Mathur's bedroom (Malhotra is excellent as a loving father who can't help succumb to Diana's charms, ignoring his eleven-year-old son's warnings about her being a witch). One by one, all of Bobo's worst fears come true. Now he has a stepmother who may be a daayan. (Hashmi's deadpan narration has a strange appeal to it: 'Mujhe yakeen hai ki Diana daayan hai.')
The governess, her sexual relations with the employer, the mother-less children, the games of hide and seek: we are in the domain of gothic fiction. The house that is so central to the genre becomes a character in itself. One of the first glimpses is a shot which features a gargoyle in the foreground, enhancing the gothic-ness of the building. Iyer, working on a screenplay by Vishal Bhardwaj and Mukul Sharma—the late author, whose short story Mobius Trips the film is based on—transpose Victorian tropes to a believable Indian setting: a housing society—filmed in what seems to me one of those beautiful old houses in Mumbai's Dadar-Parsi colony. This segment of Ek Thi Daayan use details of daayan lore to construct tense sequences. Lines that could have gone wrong, sing in Bhardwaj's hands: 'Shaitani duniya mein pishach din ka raja hota hai, aur daayan raat ki rani…'
Iyer, working on a screenplay by Vishal Bhardwaj and Mukul Sharma—the late author, whose short story Mobius Trips the film is based on—transpose Victorian tropes into a believable Indian setting: a housing society
I won't reveal the suspenseful final moments before the interval. But there's a scene that scares the bejesus out of me every time I watch it. And it's in the daytime, in the middle of people. Children can be seen playing in the ground of the society compound. There's an old man from the third floor of the building who Bobo sometimes talks to. Even though the old man doesn't talk to him. He has lost his voice due to a paralysis and is wheelchair bound, being attended by a caretaker. He freaks out when he sees Diana, his eyes stunned with terror. He has lived long enough to have seen that face. Only she had a different name—if equally creepy as Diana. 'Lisa Dutt. She was in Arthur Road Jail,' he starts speaking out of shock, 'She was supposed to be hanged'.
Konkona—who is Sharma's daughter—is wickedly good as Diana. Notice how she says the lines I could just eat you up, or I just lurrrve children, or the singsong way she calls out Misha's name when they play hide and seek. Wonder what it says about Ek Thi Daayan that its best segment is bookended by the entry and exit of the actor.
It was always going to be difficult to maintain the momentum of the scenes leading up to the interval. The whole Bobo-the-Baffler thing was a little ridiculous to begin with. I remember watching the film in a press show in Juhu, going out during the break, spooked, but having my doubts about how the film was going to handle the second half, now that we have to go back to Bobo's present. But nothing prepares you for the catastrophe. It feels like a different film.
Sample the scene right after the interval, where Hashmi—who is with Dr Palit in a restaurant, trying to convince him that his childhood story is real—attacks a stranger by pulling her hair because its long and dense like that of the daayan's. It's not only jarring in terms of tonality from where we had paused before the interval, it's also unintentionally hilarious (there are many such unintentionally funny moments in the second half). Bobo's childhood story is scary, but it's also tragic. A family was ravaged by an unfathomable evil. You were scared for the children, the brother-sister bonding, their loving father. The second half of Ek Thi Daayan should have built on this underlying sense of sadness. Instead we have a potential love triangle, with Lisa Dutt (Kalki Koechlin) entering the picture, an NRI who claims to be a fan of Bobo. The only interesting thing may be that the film tries to play with the audience's dilemma about who among Qureshi and Koechlin is the witch (with her foreign looks and strangeness, Koechlin is the more obvious suspect).
It's easy to see why the second half falls apart: the flashback part of Ek Thi Daayan is built on the material provided by Sharma's short story, which the rest of the film doesn't know what to do with. Add to that, two producers whose sensibilities are diametrically opposite. Indeed, the first half of Ek Thi Daayan feels like Vishal Bhardwaj, and the second like Ekta Kapoor. My advice would be to watch the first half and skip the second. Leave the rest to your imagination.