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'Evil Eye,' new thriller by Priyanka Chopra Jonas, tackles generational trauma

Madhuri Shekar, who wrote "Evil Eye," said that she was excited to give the audience an added cultural layer to the genre.
Sarita Choudhury as Usha in \"Evil Eye.\"
Sarita Choudhury as Usha in "Evil Eye."Alfonso Bresciani / Amazon Studios

The new South Asian American film “Evil Eye” uses a central theme of reincarnation and a mother-daughter duo to tackle toxic relationships and generational trauma.

Produced by Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Jason Blum, it’s the first commercial horror movie created by and starring South Asians.

In the film, the protagonist Usha Khatri lives in New Delhi with her husband while her daughter, Pallavi, is in New Orleans. Her agonizing past experience leads to a near-obsession to get Pallavi married and keep her safe from a perceived curse.

She has an array of evil eye trinkets — protective talismans used in various cultures — around her house and gives Pallavi a similar bracelet.

“Evil Eye” borrows parts of Indian mythology like rebirth and karma as Usha's fear spirals when she thinks Pallavi’s new boyfriend, Sandeep, is a reincarnation of her former abusive partner.

Though the film is billed as horror, critics point out that thematically, it includes elements of a thriller because of real-life dangers in the narrative like psychological manipulation and the long-lasting impact of abuse.

The film, released Tuesday on Amazon Prime, stars Sarita Choudhury, Sunita Mani, Omar Maskati and Bernard White.

It is part of the “Welcome to the Blumhouse” anthology series on Amazon, which showcases diverse casts and filmmakers. Blumhouse Productions has also co-produced Netflix India originals like the zombie thriller “Betaal” and the dystopian supernatural drama “Ghoul.”

“Evil Eye” writer Madhuri Shekar told NBC Asian America that this was her first stab at the genre, and she was excited to give the audience an added cultural layer.

“I didn’t set out to do that consciously but when I first saw the movie, I got shivers down my spine while looking at the South Asianness of it all. It’s so personal to me,” she said.

It helps that the film was led by brown people not only in front of the camera but also behind it. The 90-minute movie is directed by brothers Rajeev and Elan Dassani, who co-created Netflix’s Arabian sci-fi drama “Jinn.”

“It’s not really easy to find that backing but it was important to have producers and creatives on board who understand the nuances,” said Shekar, who based the story on her award-winning 2019 Audible play of the same name.

Omar Maskati as Sandeep and Sunita Mani as Pallavi in "Evil Eye."
Omar Maskati as Sandeep and Sunita Mani as Pallavi in "Evil Eye."Alfonso Bresciani / Amazon Studios

South Asian representation in Hollywood thrillers and horror movies is scarce.

British movies like “Black Lake” and “Darkness Visible” tackle South Asian thrillers but in the United States, only a few recognizable names have left their mark on the genre in general, including M. Night Shyamalan and Aneesh Chaganty, who directed John Cho in 2018’s “Searching.”

Rajeev Dassani said that a film like “Evil Eye” acts as a tool to help cross cultures. “The story has specific and authentic themes, but it’s also very accessible to people around the world who can enjoy and understand it. There’s just a hunger for unique stories of cultures we haven’t seen before.”

The implications of karma and reincarnation have been examined in several Indian blockbusters over the years, ranging from “Karz” in 1980, “Karan Arjun” in 1995,” and “Om Shanti Om'' in 2007.

“Evil Eye” puts a spin on the subject through its portrayal of cultural standpoints and family dynamics between second-generation Indian immigrants and their parents.

Usha can’t help but involve herself into Pallavi’s love life as they try to bridge the distance between them by talking on the phone every day.

The familial and societal pressures of marriage on an Indian woman is a stereotype that Shekar tackles through the lens of generational trauma subconsciously being passed down from Usha to Pallavi.

“Horror to me only really works if there is a deep emotional stake,” she said. “As a new mom, the scariest thing in the world to me is losing family. What happens if you can’t control when something bad is happening to a loved one? That’s what I wanted to show.”

Through this, the film continues the recent trend of movies using horror and thrillers as a device for social commentary.

In just the last three years, successful commercial outings like “Get Out,” “Parasite,” and “The Invisible Man” take advantage of their genre to the fullest while underlying it with a story about timely issues, whether it’s racism, social inequality or abuse.

Under its predictable outline, “Evil Eye” is an effort to do something similar.

“It’s always great to use parts of our own heritage and mythologies in a way they haven’t before, as a metaphor to comment on how things like toxic masculinity and gaslighting work,” Elan Dassani said.

Rajeev Dassani added that it’s the key to a gateway, to speak to something audiences might not even realize is hitting them. “We would love to see more South Asian films that tap into fears stemming from the culture and hope that ‘Evil Eye’ opens those doors.”