Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Story Doctor: Ek Thi Daayan

Here comes the Story Doctor, to fix sick stories, show them the error of their ways, tell them what went wrong, prescribe a soothing twist or two, and send them off, healed and ready to hold audiences everywhere in thrall.

[Warning: This is not a review of Ek Thi Daayan. Rather, it is an analysis of the story. So don't read further unless (a) you've already seen the film, or know the entire story in intricate detail, and (b) fancy yourself a storyteller, like I do (or your wife calls you a baal ki khaal nikaalne wala). ]

First Impressions of the Patient

I'd been looking forward to Ek Thi Daayan for a long time. (After 13 B, this is probably the first horror movie that isn't a sleazefest.) So, went over the past weekend, and came back impressed enough to keep thinking about the movie.

The credentials of the movie are impressive - Vishal Bharadwaj and Gulzar on the soundtrack, an impeccably pedigreed first-timer, Kannan Iyer directing, an all-powerful female starcast, and the scene-stealer in Shanghai as the lead.

Overall, the movie lived up to part of the expectations - the soundtrack is generally awesome and worth looping, and the acting and direction is great. The very boldness of the concept- let's take a traditional Indian monster and update it to a modern urban context- puts the movie above other horror offerings lately.

But the promise held up by the story, particularly the first half, never quite gets fulfilled.  By the time it's over, you're conflicted about whether to like it or not. It's later in the night when you're trying to sleep and the Lautungi Main song and title sequence keeps playing through your head, that you realize that the movie has had an impact despite the shortcomings.(And of course you've kept the night light on tonight for no real reason.)

All the way up to the midpoint, things are going swimmingly. The device of using the hypnosis adds a layer of ambiguity to the flashback, and during the interval, we're all busy formulating theories about what is really going on. Lisa's introduction livens things up, and we seem to be heading for some major shock. And then, suddenly, the movie goes southwards. The last 'fight' comes straight out of a Ramsay brothers movie, and convenient last-minute world-building that gets thrown around ("Pishaach do tarah ke hotey hai!!!???") absolutely kills any subtlety left in the movie. Even the so-called Big Reveal - that Tamara was a Daayan all along - makes you yawn rather than be shocked. On top of that we have an absolutely cheesy penultimate scene at a outdoor grill that belongs to My Friend Ganesha rather than a horror movie.

Referring back to the Medical Textbooks

So does that mean that if only they'd directed the climax 'fight' better, the movie would have been a classic? I thought about that for a bit, and finally came to the conclusion that even the most slickly directed fight wouldn't have helped. The weakness was in the way the story itself panned out. There are more problems than one here, and several missed opportunities within the framework of the existing story. Let's go over these.

(a) A horror movie featuring monsters or otherwordly happenings can go one of two ways:
- The monsters are absolutely real in the world of the movie. You as a viewer know it early on, possibly some or more of the characters know it, and by the time the movie is done, everyone who matters knows it. We follow the characters as they too discover it, fight it, and either subdue it or fall before it. There are thousands of these movies, and I don't even need to give an example. Godzilla? Aliens? A Nightmare on Elm Street? Let's call these movies Type A. These movies are impressive either because the monster is unique, or the storyline unfolds in a good way.
- The second, more subtle type: There's some sort of suspense about what they really are and where they come from. We as the audience are given the viewpoint of one or more of the characters, who are under danger from the monster. We see the movie only through their biases and fears. Somewhere down the line, the later the better, we realize that the monster is not who or what we thought it was, and there's a shift in perspective. A few examples of this type are The Descent, Paranormal Activity, Identity, Kaun (with Urmila Matondkar) and Psycho. Let's call these Type B.

Now ETD starts out by being type 2 - we are seeing events undoubtedly through Bobo's eyes. When we're being set up for a flashback, we are first introduced to a doctor who will be more sympathetic with Bobo's viewpoint, and then the actual flashback happens through a hypnotism session - again, as the doctor says, this is something completely through Bobo's 11-year old eyes and hence not necessarily accurate. Most of all, the final scene in the flashback is open to interpretation (we'll come back to this in a bit). And for whatever reason, Bobo has forgotten enough about it to require external means of reminding himself of what happened.

What that means is that we're expecting some sudden revelation later on - that there was a trick of memory, that something hidden to us from the past will come out, that there is some actual suspense, in short.
But towards the end, the movie flips over and turns into a Type A - everything told to us so far was absolutely true, and the one guy who didn't believe it - the doctor - is forced into belief by the sudden appearance of Diana. We never know whether or not Tamara believes Bobo, so that point is moot. And further from there, the whole fight scene behaves as if the existence and nature of the monster had never been in doubt - when *that* should have been the big reveal.

(b) Continuing from above, if the movie was to have been a Type A from the beginning, we need the standard tropes related to that style: the disbelief of everyone else around the hero, the hero being conflicted and doubting himself, the signs that we the audience see that convince us the hero is right, and finally the one-by-one convincing of the necessary characters to force a showdown. Not a single one of these happens.

(c) While the mythology of the Daayan herself comes through fine, the whole Pishaach addition is done almost as an afterthought - as if the writer couldn't think of a better way to end the movie, and relapsed into Twilight "Saga" mode. The so-called plot twist - which is that the one person built up to be trustworthy (Tamara) was the villain, and the doubtful person (Lisa) was actually good, is so old that people probably groaned when it happened in the Bible. It's not that you can't see it coming, it's that it's so boring that you don't care when it happens. Even worse, what was that Ramsay style sacrifice to Shaitan bullshit? These supernatural creatures are going to stand in a circle like normal people and chant? Who thought this was a good idea? And the final fight was even worse than Ramsay - these creatures can turn into lizards, or disappear, or god knows what else, and they're slugging it out like a WWF match, in full lighting? We needed a more interesting, or alteast competent, ending.

(d) And finally, that song. That Totey Udd Gaye song. WHY IS IT EVEN THERE? Worse, WHY IS THERE A MUSIC VIDEO AROUND IT? What happened to the repurcussions of that lengthy flashback just before the interval? Who edited this movie, anyway?

Fixing all the above would really mean making a movie with a completely different ending. Since, as you can see above, I see it heading in a Type B direction till some way in, let me propose an alternate resolution that goes all the way.

Preventive Measures

If we had to choose a point where the story goes south, it would be the point where it turns from Type B to Type A. That's the scene where Diana appears, exactly as she was in the flashback, to the doctor, and kills him. So we'll have a brand-new story from then onwards. Even before that scene, though, let's make a few additions and changes:

1. Even before Bobo became an orphan, he was fascinated by the orphanage next door, when Zubin lives in the current day. When his family died (or disappeared in the case of Diana), he did get taken in my some relative, but he kept running down to the orphanage and to the closed flat, staring at it from the street, where he would sometimes see Diana or Misha through the windows, calling to him. In spite of that, he did go into the flat from time to time, drawn by his memories. This explains why they wanted to adopt Zubin from that orphanage.

1.5 Before the eclipse/hide-n-seek scene, something breaks in their house, in the hall - a water pipe or maybe a concealed wire. Workmen were fixing it, and Bobo watched them with great interest.

2. When Bobo would go into the flat as an adult, one of the things he does is to stare at the photo of his sister on the mantelpiece.

3. Tamara hears the whole story about Bobo's family's death, and it devastated by it. She gains further sympathy for him, but there's a leery edge, as if she doesn't quite believe that there was anything supernatural about it. There's an intense scene where Bobo convinces her that it was all true for him. And no matter what, it ended with him losing his family, so isn't that what matters?

4. When Lisa comes into the flat to buy it, she stops and stares at the photo as well. There's some comment to the effect of "you miss your family a lot, huh, Bobo?"

5. Tamara tells Lisa about Bobo's back story to some extent. In particular, she mentions the Lisa Dutt name that has haunted Bobo for some reason. We change the scene of Bobo googling for that name, to Lisa doing it, and then hunting for photos of the time. She doessn't find anything, but it's clear she makes something of it too.

Corrective Medicine

And now, starting from just before the attack on the doctor:

The doctor picks out the old leather book again, after many years, and flips through it. He sees something there, breaks out into a sweat, and decides to call up Tamara. He tells her they are in danger, and to get out of the house immediately. The two of them try calling up Bobo, but he does not answer.

Someone attacks the doctor just then and he dies of shock.

Lisa arrives at Bobo's house, and tells Tamara/Zubin that Bobo is in trouble, and to come with them. They go with her (cue hidden, ambiguous, smile by Lisa).

Bobo reaches home, finds no one there. He has been suspecting Lisa all along, so he decides that she has kidnapped them, and decides to go to her (his old) house.

Tamara and Zubin are nonplussed when Lisa takes them to her home and there's no Bobo around. They remember what Bobo had been telling them about her, and panic. Lisa asks them to hear her out.

Bobo arrives at the building, and again sees Diana and Misha in the windows, calling to him. He starts to rush up, but is stopped by a lizard on the way. Then he sees Diana in her Daayan form, stopping him from going up.

Lisa asks them what Bobo told them about the fateful night, and they tell her. She shakes her head sadly, and then tells them to take the same thing and interpret it as an adult. Misha died of suffocation in the trunk - Bobo's fault for putting her there. Diana went in the room, and could not open the trunk in time. She was screaming in shock and pain (Bobo interpreted this as a daayan's scream). Pavan saw the body, blamed his wife for the death, and she yelled, denying it, and he had a heart attack and died. Bobo is sitting there, lost in his guilt, unable to understand what was happening, and blamed the 'Daayan'. He picked up the knife and stabbed her in the back.

Flashback ends. Tamara and Zubin are in shock. Finally, Tamara asks, if that was the case, where was her body? When the police came there, there was only Misha and Pavan. Lisa smiles sadly, and gestures to them to follow her. In the place where the pipe/wire had burst and wall had been dug up and replastered, the wall has been dug into again with a pickaxe. I looked all over the house, and finaly found it here, Lisa says. A skeleton hand - still with a ring on it - is poking out of the broken wall. If we can swing it, this is close to the mantelpiece where Misha's photo is - Bobo has been drawn to the spot where he hid the body, he wasn't just looking at the photo.

Flashback to Bobo, panicking, guilty, right after the murder. No one has heard anything of the screaming, fortunately. He drags Diana's body over to the hole, and begins to plaster over the wall badly. Then he throws a sheet over the wall and drags the trunk there. A crazy smile on his lips.

Tamara is confused. Why are you concerned about all this, she asks Lisa. Another flashback. Diana implicated in a crime she did not commit - her name actually was Lisa. She left her daughter in the care of a relative, promising to make a new life somewhere and then take her with her. Arrived in Bobo's town, had an affair, fell in lovei with Pavan. Wrote a last letter saying that she had found a papa and a brother and sisters for daugher (daughter is of course 'Lisa' of the present day), and then - no more letters - no more news. Enquiries made by relatives returned saying she was a con woman who fled with money after killing the family. Daughter did not believe it, and waited until she could come here to find out the truth.

Bobo has heard the last part of this. He walks into the room, and see Lisa, Tamara and Zubin all as daayans and pishaaches. It is clear that his mind was basically warped from reading that book in his childhood. He says, you all are daayans, out to get me, but I won't let you. That doctor was one too. Flashback to the doctor finding child Bobo's handwriting in the book, possibly with pictures of Diana stuck into the drawings there, and demented ravings, just before Bobo arrived there to kill him.

Bobo attacks the three of them, raving about cutting their hair. Tamara gets behind him in the struggle and knocks him on the head. Depending on how the story works best, Tamara either dies or is seriously injured.

Final scene, Bobo locked up in a psychiatric ward. A nurse arrives to check on him. He sees her as a daayan, with those large eyes, and cowers in fright. DO NOT show any ambiguity about the nurse being a real Daayan or anything extra at this point, unless you want to be like a crappy 80s movie.

Treatment Successful

The Story Doctor will return!