October 13, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Elan Dassani and Rajeev Dassani
Culture Representation: Taking place in New Orleans and Delhi, India, the horror film “Evil Eye” features a predominantly Indian cast (with a few white people) representing the middle-class.
Culture Clash: A married, middle-aged mother, who experienced domestic abuse from an ex-boyfriend when she was younger, fears that her abuser has been reincarnated in the man whom her daughter is currently dating.
Culture Audience: “Evil Eye” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in horror movies that have characters and storylines focused on Indian culture and family generational issues.
For better or worse, it’s become a cliché that a great deal of movies with predominantly Indian casts are about families preoccupied with the wedding or marriage of the young adults in the family. Most Indians who follow tradition have arranged marriages where members of the family play matchmaker. The horror film “Evil Eye” adds a cultural blend to this formula by having the story set in two places (the Indian city of Delhi and the American city of New Orleans) that represent the push-and-pull conflict of wanting to follow family tradition and wanting to lead a more modern, independent life. “Evil Eye” might disappoint people who are expecting more action scenes, but the movie is commendable as a sobering reflection on domestic abuse and parents’ fears that their children might be doomed to repeat the same mistakes that the parents made.
“Evil Eye” is part of Blumhouse Television’s “Welcome to the Blumhouse” series partnership with Prime Video to showcase horror/thriller movies directed by women and people of color. Directed by identical twins Elan Dassani and Rajeev Dassani, “Evil Eye” is based on the Audible Original production of the same name by Madhuri Shekar, who wrote the “Evil Eye” screenplay. The audible version of “Evil Eye” centered on a series of phone conversations between an Indian mother and her daughter over the mother’s worries about the daughter’s love life and when she’s going to get married.
The movie version of “Evil Eye” obviously goes beyond those phone conversations to actually show the two different worlds and outlooks on life that the mother and daughter have in the story. In the “Evil Eye” movie, Usha (played by Sarita Choudhury) is a happily married mother who is constantly pressuring her daughter Pallavi (played by Sunita Mani) to find a nice man to marry, preferably someone who is also of Indian heritage. Years ago, Usha and her laid-back and pragmatic husband Krishnan (played by Bernard White) immigrated from India to New Orleans, where they raised Pallavi, but the couple moved back to India some years ago because Krishnan (who’s a science professor) was offered a great job at a university.
Despite living so far apart, Usha and Pallavi communicate with each other on a regular basis. Lately though, their relationship has become strained because Pallavi thinks that Usha is putting too much pressure on her to get married. Pallavi is not opposed to the idea of getting married, but she’s not in a rush to find a husband and she would rather do it on her own terms.
Usha is heavily into astrology and the spirit world, which is a belief that Pallavi does not share. Krishnan is very scientific-minded, but he tolerates Usha’s superstitions with mild amusement. (For example, when Usha prays, she will say something like, “Protect my child from the Evil Eye so that she may be married.”) Krishnan also doesn’t interfere in the squabbles that Usha and Pallavi might have over Pallavi’s marital status. He tells his daughter that he’s proud of her no matter what.
Out of respect for her mother, Pallavi allows Usha to arrange for Pallavi to meet eligible Indian bachelors who are in the New Orleans area. One such bachelor (played by Satya Nikhil Polisetti) has recently moved from Houston to New Orleans. Pallavi agrees to meet him for a casual blind date at a café.
When Pallavi arrives at the café, she sees a handsome stranger in his late 20s or early 30s who’s seated at a nearby table. They make eye contact in the way that people do in movies where you know they’re going to end up being together. Pallavi’s date is more than an hour late, so Pallavi decides she’s not going to wait any longer and she gets up to leave.
The handsome stranger sees that Pallavi has been stood up for her date, and he goes over to her table and asks her if he can join her at her table. He introduces himself as Sandeep Patel, who works in the technology industry. The attraction between Pallavi and Sandeep (played by Omar Maskati) is immediate, and they end up staying at the café while they talk about their lives.
Sandeep tells her that his family also lives in India. He mentions that he used to run with a partier crowd in New York City. And he used to be engaged to a beauty contestant who was a runner-up for Miss India. Sandeep says that the relationship ended badly, and she attempted suicide after their breakup. “She wasn’t who I thought she was,” Sundeep comments morosely.
Pallavi and Sandeep inevitably begin dating each other. He’s romantic, attentive and seems like the perfect catch. He also has enough money where he buys sapphire earrings for Pallavi just one month after they begin dating each other. Pallavi politely declines the gift because she thinks it’s too much, too soon. She jokingly comments that Sandeep can give her the earrings when they get engaged.
Sandeep seems to have all of the qualities that Usha wants for Pallavi’s future husband. Pallavi thinks that Usha will be happy when she tells Usha the happy news that she’s been dating someone special and describes Sandeep in detail to her mother. However, Usha has reservations because she thinks Sandeep is too good to be true. And when Usha hears about the sapphire earrings, she feels even more alarmed.
It’s eventually revealed that when Usha was in college, she dated a fellow student, who ended up being very controlling and abusive to Usha, so she broke up with him. He took the breakup hard and began viciously stalking Usha until something happened to him to take him out of Usha’s life: He died by falling off of a bridge, not long before Pallavi was born. (The relationship is shown in flashbacks, with Nupur Charyalu as the young Usha and Asad Durrani as the ex-boyfriend, who does not have a name in the movie.)
And guess which gift this boyfriend gave Usha when they were together? Is it a coincidence that Sandeep wanted to give Pallavi sapphire earrings too? The more that Pallavi tells Usha about Sandeep, the more alarmed Usha becomes because Sandeep’s personality and the way that he courts Pallavi are strikingly similar to how Usha’s abusive ex-boyfriend was in the beginning of their relationship.
Meanwhile, the romance between Sandeep and Pallavi gets more serious when he asks her to move in with him and quit her boring office job so that she can pursue her dream of becoming a writer. Sandeep offers to pay all the expenses while she lives with him. Pallavi considers herself to be very independent, so she’s reluctant at first to accept this offer.
But the more Pallavi falls in love with Sandeep, the more she thinks it’s likely that she and Sandeep will get married, so she ends up moving into his large, upscale apartment. She also quits her job to work on a writing project that she’s always wanted to do. Usha isn’t pleased when she hears this news because she fears that Pallavi might be losing her identity and that Sandeep might be too controlling.
And now, it’s Pallavi’s turn to be upset because she thought that her mother would be happy that Pallavi is on track to get married to the man of Pallavi’s dreams. She argues with her mother and accuses Usha of being someone who will never be satisfied with the choices that Pallavi makes in her love life. But what Usha is really concerned about is her growing suspicion that Sandeep might be the reincarnation of Usha’s abusive ex-boyfriend.
Usha confides in her husband Krishnan about her fears, but he scoffs at her and thinks she’s being ridiculous. Usha is reluctant to tell Pallavi because doesn’t want to alienate her and she doesn’t want Pallavi to think that she’s crazy. But Usha’s inner turmoil and concerns about Sandeep become too much for her to bear, and eventually something is done about it in a dramatic way.
“Evil Eye” is not the type of horror movie where bad things happen to people every 15 minutes. Instead, it’s a no-frills thriller that mostly succeeds in presenting various dichotomies within a cohesive story that’s not cluttered with too many characters. There are the aforementioned dichotomies of Indian culture versus American culture; traditional marriage arrangements versus modern dating choices; and superstition versus science.
But there’s an underlying dichotomy that’s less obvious: how society viewed domestic abuse before the #MeToo movement versus how society has viewed domestic abuse since the #MeToo movement. Since the #MeToo movement, certain laws have been passed in many areas that give abuse survivors more chances to get justice. Abuse survivors are also getting more encouragement to share their stories as part of the healing process, whereas before the #MeToo movement, survivors were more likely to be shamed into silence.
This shaming is what Usha experiences—not just from society’s discomfort in dealing with abuse allegations, but also the shame she puts on herself. Usha mistakenly thinks she was somehow at fault for the abuse that was inflicted on her. And she still finds it difficult to talk about her abuse trauma to her own family members. It’s this unspoken communication barrier that affects Usha’s relationship with her daughter Pallavi, whom she fears might experience the same abuse that Usha went through when Usha was young.
As Usha, Choudhury gives a very nuanced portrayal of this inner conflict in how much of her past she wants to reveal to Pallavi. Mani is also very good in her role, although at times her Pallavi character seems a little bit underwritten. It would’ve helped if Pallavi had more of a backstory for her past relationships, so viewers would know if she’s the type to easily fall for smooth-talking charmers.
As for Maskati, his Sandeep character really does give off “too good to be true” vibes from the moment he appears on screen, so there really isn’t much to do with this character but play the “perfect guy who might have a dark secret.” Sandeep’s over-eagerness with the sapphire earrings gift is a big red flag that something is “off” with him. Therefore, people with enough experience in life and in watching horror movies know that it’s going to be a matter of time before Sandeep’s true nature is exposed.
However, “Evil Eye” directors Elan Dassani and Rajeev Dassani admirably keep the movie focused on the mother/daughter relationship instead of going down the predictable “it’s all about the boogeyman” route that so many other horror films take. The movie’s climactic scene is a little melodramatic and hokey, but “Evil Eye” capably and authentically depicts the cultural and familial conflicts that American children of Indian parents experience when they have to choose one way of life over another. At the heart of Usha’s and Pallavi’s conflicts with each other is their fear that one of them might lose respect for the other. And for many people, not having the respect of your family or a ruined relationship with a beloved family member is a lot scarier than any spirit that might come back from the dead.
Prime Video premiered “Evil Eye” on October 13, 2020.