Director: Jay Krishnan
Writers: Chintan Gandhi, Jay Krishnan
Cast: Emraan Hashmi, Nikita Dutta, Manav Kaul, Denzil Smith
Cinematographer: Sujith Vasudev
Editor: Sandeep Francis
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video
Unbelievable. Kya keh rahe ho tum? But how is this possible? These lines are uttered by a character in Dybbuk but they are also likely to be flitting through your mind as you watch this horror film, which is rooted in Jewish folklore.
Dybbuk is an evil spirit that can possess a human being. The Dybbuk in the film is quietly biding time in an antique wine cabinet. The cabinet is purchased by Mahi, who along with her husband Sam, has recently moved to Mauritius. The couple live in a sprawling colonial bungalow, which Mahi is hoping to spruce up. He is the vice-president of a company that handles nuclear waste. She is an interior designer. Mahi of course has no idea that evil lurks within. She inadvertently lets the Dybbuk out and all hell breaks loose.
The film has been remade by director Jay K, who also wrote and directed the Malayalam original, Ezra. In an interview, Jay K said that the Hindi version is crisper and scarier than the original, but having seen both, I can attest that this isn't the case. Ezra had football-size loopholes in logic but Jay K, making his feature debut, delivered a gripping yarn with enough dramatic tension and one solid twist.
Ezra is located in Kochi. The film exoticizes the Jewish community but Jay K was able to utilise the locales effectively with soaring shots of the water and greenery. A flashback to Ezra's story, set in pre-Independent India, had some lovely sepia-toned moments. The change of location to Mauritius in Dybbuk sucks the specificity out of the story. This saga of forbidden love across the ages, violence and revenge could happen anywhere. Jay K does little with this new location or with the native customs and language. Every character in Mauritius speaks Hindi fluently.
Of course, horror films are, by design, unrealistic. But the best ones are constructed so tightly that the viewer doesn't have the breathing room to ask: How is this possible? Dybbuk misses this goal by miles. Jay K relies on familiar horror tropes – point-of-view shots, an empty chair rocking, a child's toy that squeaks when someone steps on it, the ghost in the bathroom mirror, incessant rain and more. There are one or two mildly effective jump scares. Dybbuk has more horror moments than Ezra but too often, they don't land. For instance, Mahi and Sam's housemaid – Jay K projects her as sinister but eventually, this doesn't amount to much.
Ezra benefited from the presence of actors like Prithviraj Sukumaran and Tovino Thomas who have the ability to add gravitas to the most ridiculous situations. Still, Bharat Dabholkar playing a black-magic wielding Jewish businessman had touches of unintentional comedy. In Dybbuk, Emraan Hashmi and Manav Kaul, who plays a rabbi named Markus, do the heavy-lifting. Emraan is a veteran of the horror genre with films like the Raaz franchise and Ek Thi Daayan. He knows the drill but here, he seems oddly casual about the events that are unfolding around him. The feeble dialogue doesn't help. In one scene, when Mahi comes to Sam, terrorised after seeing a spirit, he coos: Take it easy baby. Main hoon na.
Nikita Dutta, who you might recognise from The Big Bull, is either perplexed or horizontal, lying in a hospital bed or having collapsed on the floor. The one bright spark is Manav doing his best to give Markus mischievousness and authority.
Jay K repeats himself, almost frame to frame. Even a close-up of a man's ear dripping with sweat when he hears the Dybbuk behind him is recreated. But one of the places Jay K deviates from his earlier film is in the staging of the key twist in the film, which binds the narrative threads. We finally understand the reason for Sam's unique job. But the way this is constructed in Dybbuk is confusing and downright silly.
Since Ezra and Dybbuk are essentially replicas and both are available on streaming, I recommend that you watch the Malayalam original.
That does have a few surprises.