The internet tries to tell us that Evil Eye (2020), written by Madhuri Shekar and directed by Elan and Rajeev Dassani, is an “American” “horror” film. Having watched the film, I find myself to be in a slight disagreement with these claims. Firstly, while its production may be based in the US, the essence of Evil Eye is quintessentially Indian. The film is about an Indian diasporic family, created by members of the Indian diaspora, including Shekar, the Dassani brothers and co-producer Priyanka Chopra Jonas. Consequently, the machinations used to arouse the feeling of horror are undeniably Indian too. Secondly, Evil Eye is more of a social commentary than anything else. Instead of being a “horror” film in a conventional sense, Shekar’s story is a family drama about a horror that so many Indian women face almost routinely – stalking. The story will vividly remind the Indian viewer of the many examples of men who cannot ‘handle’ rejection and who resort to stalking, hurting and violating the women they claim to love.
Usha (Sarita Choudhury), a New Delhi teacher, was stalked by a disgruntled ex-boyfriend when she was pregnant with her daughter Pallavi. Upon a violent encounter with her stalker, Usha manages to protect herself by pushing her tormentor over a bridge, thus drowning him. After this incident, Usha moves to the US with her family to leave her past behind. Almost three decades later (in the present-day storyline), Usha has to relocate to Delhi with her husband Krishnan (Bernard White) due to his new job. Meanwhile, Pallavi (Sunita Mani) stays behind in New Orleans, slowly pursuing a career as a writer.
The source of all the tension in Evil Eye is Sandeep (Omar Maskati), a seemingly nice (and rich, as we are told quite often in the film) guy whom Pallavi starts dating and eventually agrees to marry. Pallavi’s decision is much against Usha’s will, who, after suspecting something fishy and doing thorough research (read: hiring a private detective), has reason to believe that Sandeep is a reincarnation of her stalker ex-boyfriend. What follows is a strong reminder of the age-old gimmicks that many an Indian film has used and abused – an overprotective mother adamant on finding the right husband for her daughter, and a daughter who dismisses her mother’s superstitious beliefs only to find out that they were not so unfounded after all (there comes a classic ‘told you so’ moment when Pallavi finds out that her mother was right all along). To add to this, the film employs many clichéd Indian means of suggesting looming danger, like accidental bleeding while chopping vegetables, a sacred amulet getting damaged right before things go haywire, unsavoury horoscopic revelations, untoward memories suddenly being triggered by routine actions, and ample references to karma.
Despite a plot that is way too familiar to the Indian audience in more ways than one, Evil Eye does have its merits. The fact that the story is primarily based in New Orleans – an enigmatic city of legends, myths and folklores, a city where the vampires and werewolves of The Originals resided and the horrors of American Horror Story: Coven transpired – works in its favour. It almost seems like a clever mechanism to better engage the American audience with the story since they may be unfamiliar with the use of reincarnation as a horror tactic. In a way, it primes the audience to the idea that since ‘anything’ can happen in the New Orleans of cinema and television, why not reincarnation? Non-Indian viewers unfamiliar with the concept might be reminded of the It films, in which Pennywise stalks and haunts the same group of people (after 27 years of dormancy) only because they escaped being ‘consumed’ by him the first time. Also, because Sandeep uses Usha’s daughter to take revenge on her, one might also be reminded of Ma (2019), in which Octavia Spencer’s character stalks a group of teenagers to get revenge for the humiliation she had faced at the hands of their parents in her own teenage years. Such comparisons, however, do not serve to diminish Shekar’s sincerity and seriousness in writing about a woman being stalked by an abusive ex-boyfriend.
The performances are all very calculated, but they fail to command unwavering attention from the audience sitting at home (even though I thoroughly appreciated Choudhury’s use of an apt amount of hand gestures to solidify Usha’s Indianness). However, the film’s deficiencies in acting performances and screenplay are easily made up for in direction, cinematography (Yaron Levy) and editing (Kristina Hamilton-Grobler). One example of this is how light has been contradictorily used to represent ‘evil’ in this film. In the beginning of the film, Usha’s home in Delhi is always shown as dark, barely lit with candles or dim lights, devoid of any sunlight even when it is shining brightly outside. This is supposed to protect Usha and her family from being exposed to the evil eye. As the film progresses and Sandeep starts to disrupt her life, Usha’s home becomes brighter and we see sunlight penetrating her living room, representative of the intrusive evil eye gaining access to their lives. In one scene towards the later part of the film, we see Pallavi sitting in Sandeep’s brightly lit apartment under lamps that look like inverted candles. This scene is cleverly interspersed with another where we see Usha praying in her house, with actual (and upright) candles barely lighting the dark room. The Dassani brothers and Hamilton-Grobler prove their prowess in another crucial scene, when Pallavi’s father tells her about Usha’s past and Usha and Sandeep talk for the first time. Pallavi, who is at her place in New Orleans and Usha, who is in New Delhi, are both standing with their backs to dressing mirrors. Pallavi is in her bathroom, while Usha has just come out of hers. This scene works perfectly to depict how Pallavi’s relationship with Sandeep at that point in the film is ‘mirroring’ Usha’s past relationship with her ex-boyfriend.
Sadly, even though such observations make Evil Eye an engaging experience, the film fails to cross the threshold to make it to the class of modern-day and, dare I say, feminist Indian horror films with similar underlying themes, like Stree or Bulbbul. These well-appreciated films attempted to present Indian folklore as utterly human backstories disguised in overtly supernatural horror elements. On the other hand, the horror element in Evil Eye is underwhelmingly disguised as a human story. It is only towards the end of the film that we realize why the makers of Evil Eye might be justified in calling it a horror film. When Pallavi asks her mother about the reincarnated stalker they both killed together, “What if he comes back?”, Usha knowingly replies: “Men like this are always going to be there.” Sure enough, it is suggested as the film closes that the stalker has been reborn yet again. Herein lies the true horror in Evil Eye – the realisation that perhaps, as the film shows, stalkers can never truly be eliminated from society, much like the poly-headed Hydra. Destroy one and another one takes his place.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.