Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 08/28/20 14:32:52

"This is weird, right?"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED VIA THE 2020 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: As I watched "Kriya", I was somewhat reassured that the main character spends much of the movie in the same place I was as an audience member - extremely uncertain whether he was in the middle of something weird and creepy or just culturally outside his own experience. It's the sort of movie where that could very easily be misinterpreted, especially for someone for whom it is much further from the usual, but instead it's especially effective (although it does make me wonder how all the movies with various bits of Christian weirdness play to members of other cultures).

It opens in a club, where Neel (Noble Luke) and Sitara (Navjot Randhawa) catch each other's eyes. As they make out in Neel's car after his gig as DJ is done, Sitara feels uncomfortable about going further there, so they drive to her place - an unexpectedly large mansion - only to find that Sitara's father is laid out in the living room, apparently breathing his last, surrounded by her younger sister Sara (Kanak Bhardwaj), their mother Tara Devi (Avantika Akerkar), and a Panditji or wise man (Sudhanva Deshpande), nurse Magdali (Anuradha Majumder) off to the side. Neel isn't sure he should be there, and the mother agrees, but he also doesn't want to leave the distraught Sitara. Something feels badly off to him - shouldn't a family with this grand house have more friends and family here - but maybe that's just the unsettled feelings he has regarding the deaths of his own parents.

As is often the case with films this steeped in the specifics of another's culture, I'd be genuinely interested to hear from Hindus just how fast and loose this film plays with various traditions, although writer/director Sidharth Srinivasan has seemingly taken pains to note where this this "black funeral" diverges from the norm in order to invoke dark magic and attempts to break a curse through unholy means. Whatever the case may be, it does a really terrific job of placing the audience in Neel's place without making him a complete everyman placeholder. He's not in every scene, but it's close, and Noble Luke does an impressive slow-burn freakout as the film goes on. For a large chunk of the movie, there's almost an awareness that his situation could be darkly funny under slightly different circumstances, which Srinivasan and Luke use to make things creepier - every time Neel tries to use the social awkwardness to escape, he gets pulled in a little deeper and finds himself a little more disturbed.

Of course, when a person finds their way into a cursed house, it's seldom entirely his story, and though the exact details of the situation are a bit deliberately obscured, the actresses playing the late Kamalkant Kumar's family dig into it with the sort of gusto that Luke can't as the viewpoint character. All of them tackle the idea of being part of a cursed family from a different angle - Avantika Akerkar's Tara Devi is effectively stern and rigid, lashing out at anybody whose actions aren't properly pious, while Kanak Bhardwaj is delightfully, snarkily modern on the other end as Sitara's 15-year-old sister. In between, Navjot Randhawa goes for broke as Sitara, complementing and causing Neel's nervousness by going from extreme to extreme in a way that works as both out-of-control grief and mania.

The film eventually matches Randhawa's intensity as it makes its inevitable way to the dark ritual, which may not be completely familiar to non-Hindu audiences but still gives the feeling of something more and more twisted, especially as Luke gets the chance to bounce between shell-shocked and crazed by the finale. Srinivasan's film isn't frantic even at that point, but it's interesting that he recognizes that he's built up enough of a head of steam that he doesn't even bother stopping to explain some things that feel like they could really use it, either because something is a weirdly elaborate deception for relative amateurs (if not impossible under the circumstances) or because maybe not everybody is able to slow things down so that they can consider how gross what is being implied about the curse actually is.

Then again, it's a good enough movie to bounce around in one's head for a while after the credits roll, so most viewers will probably get there eventually. Even if they don't, that initial feeling of not knowing how strange a situation one has stepped into is pretty great - something that's at the core of so many movies like this but which the audience seldom feels along with the characters.

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