Directors: Elan Dassani, Rajeev Dassani
Writer: Madhuri Shekar
Cast: Sarita Choudhury, Sunita Mani, Omar Maskati
Cinematographer: Yaron Levy
Editor: Kristina Hamilton-Grobler
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video

Thanks to Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Indians are center-stage in a Blumhouse movie. Which I have to admit is thrilling. Because over the last decade, Blumhouse Productions has kickstarted the horror genre with films like Paranormal Activity, Insidious, The Purge and Get Out, which won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Evil Eye is a co-production between Priyanka’s Purple Pebble Pictures and Blumhouse. It’s one of 4 feature films in the ‘Welcome to The Blumhouse’ anthology. The ad for which states: Four unsettling films. Under one roof. 

Unsettling is the note that the directors, twin brothers Elan and Rajeev Dassani, are going for. Evil Eye is about a mother who suspects that her daughter’s new fiancé is the reincarnation of a stalker who tried to kill her 30 years ago. The film is based on an audio play by Madhuri Shekar, who adapted it for film. The screenplay alternates between New Orleans, where Pallavi lives, and New Delhi where her parents have settled after many years in the US. Usha, the typical Indian mother, attempts to mastermind her daughter’s life from across the globe.

Pallavi is 29 and still unmarried, which of course constitutes a crisis. Usha keeps setting up dates with prospective grooms. While waiting at a coffee shop for one of these potential husbands to show up, Pallavi meets Sandeep. Sandeep is attractive and rich. Also, as Pallavi tells her mom on the phone – he’s more Indian than I realize. It’s like you found him for me. But instead of being elated, Usha starts to behave so erratically that Pallavi and her father suspect she needs medical attention. Usha is convinced that Sandeep isn’t who he says he is.

Reincarnation is a standard theme in Hindi cinema. Bollywood has been telling these stories since Mahal in 1949. One of my favorites is Subhash Ghai’s Karz, in which Rishi Kapoor plays the tortured pop star Monty who must avenge himself against the wife who murdered him in his past life. But how do you make punar janam palatable for Western viewers?

Evil Eye is more supernatural than full-blown horror and the directors toss in as much desi masala as they can

It’s a tough one. The Dassanis make Usha an exotic earth mother, who from the beginning, is overbearing but also, slightly unhinged. In the first few minutes of the film, she calls Pallavi to say that a cousin, younger than Pallavi, is engaged. She also reminds Pallavi that her horoscope says that if she doesn’t marry by 29, she will remain single. Meanwhile Pallavi scrolls through Instagram and says, “I’m not cursed.”

This fraught relationship is the strongest part of the film. Usha’s love is smothering. Her expectations are unreasonable. Pallavi loves and rages against her mother with equal ferocity. This drama between mother and daughter has moments of emotional authenticity. Sarita Choudhury, who plays Usha, finds the sweet spot between hysteria and strength. She’s creepy and yet, oddly comforting. Bernard White, who plays Usha’s supportive husband is also solid. I think there’s a film to be made about their relationship and how their marriage withstood her tragic past.

The story must have worked well on audio because it has the power of a fireside tale. But visuals make it hard to take the plot seriously.

But ultimately, Evil Eye collapses under the silliness of its own premise. The story must have worked well in audio because it has the power of a fireside tale. But visuals make it hard to take the plot seriously. Especially because it puts too much of a burden on Omar Maskati who plays Sandeep. His performance is bland. Instead of being sinister, he just seems bored. Sunita Mani, who you might remember from the series GLOW, does better as the harrowed Pallavi but the writing is flat and her character, unlike Sarita’s, is too generic. Also I couldn’t figure out why Pallavi wears so much makeup even when she’s at home.

Most of the US portions are curiously banal. New Orleans is a city rich in history and character but the directors don’t mine that. Instead, we get homes that seem like they haven’t been lived in and wide streets that could be in any city in America. In contrast, New Delhi is bustling and noisy. The film begins with shots of a road, teeming with traffic and monkeys. Usha’s home is bursting with candles, paintings and color. The Delhi portions are beautifully lit.

Also Read: The Haunting Of Bly Manor, On Netflix, Is Exquisite Storytelling

Evil Eye is more supernatural than full-blown horror and the directors toss in as much desi masala as they can – mother and daughter wear evil eye bracelets; we get a dialogue about the impossibility of escaping Karma; the titles play out against chanting; an astrologer shows up and compares janam patris. But after all of this mumbo jumbo, we get a women empowerment message. It feels unearned, like a sneaky attempt to give the narrative heft it doesn’t have.

It’s exciting to see Indian stories get showcased on global platforms but if we are to make an impact, we’ll have to up the artistry – can I suggest Tumbbad be the bar for horror?

You can see Evil Eye on Amazon Prime Video.

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