Directed & Written by Sidharth Srinivasan.
Starring Avantika Akerkar, M.D. Asif, Kishan Bahurupiya, Kanak Bhardwaj, Sudhanva Deshpande, Noble Luke, Anuradha Majumder, & Navjot Randhawa.
Accord Equips / Boum Productions / Reel Illusion
Not Rated / 96 minutes
Drama / Fantasy / Horror
DISCLAIMER: The following essay contains SPOILERS!
I wasn’t familiar with Sidharth Srinivasan’s work before this year’s edition of Fantasia. Shame on me! Because his latest work is the mark of a highly talented storyteller. His previous features, Divine Vision and Soul of Sand, aren’t horror while his new film Kriya is the type of horror that’ll rattle your bones. Srinivasan compliments the terror of his screenplay by centring the story around patriarchal customs and traditions within Hinduism.
The plot follows Neel (Noble Luke) who meets a beautiful young woman called Sitara (Navjot Randhawa) at a club one night. Eventually they’re back at her house. Neel’s waiting to get laid but finds Sitara has other plans for him. Her father Kamalkant Kumar (M.D. Asif) is in the process of dying, and within hours he’s dead. Funeral rites, according to traditional Hinduism, are meant to be performed by the eldest son. This is where Neel realises he comes in, and whether he likes it is irrelevant.
Everything benefits from multiculturalism. Film is no different, in all respects. Horror becomes so much richer the more we see different cultures express what horror means to them. Kriya derives its horror from a focus on death customs in the Hindu religion, turning patriarchy into an ancient curse— as if it’s not already. Possession in horror is so overdone because it’s always post-Exorcist, Christian-based possession. Here, another culture takes over, and the possession we see takes on an entirely new meaning.
Srinivasan does a wonderful job from the very start by juxtaposing modern India with an India of old traditions. The opening refers to Hindu customs and the patriarchy that’s intrinsically part of Hindu funeral rites, then we move directly into a club where we find the modern version of India complete with a killer beat. This audio-visual clash of past versus present juxtaposes an older India with modern progress, all before Neel accidentally tumbles into a terrifying situation born out of tradition. We’ll return shortly to tradition, and particularly patriarchal traditions that are part of death in Hinduism.
Death is all over Kriya, occasionally bound up with sexuality. The experiences of death and sex are existentially connected. The French have a term called la petite mort, or, in English, the little death. It refers to post-orgasm relief, a momentary weakening of consciousness likened to brief transcendence similar to what prefigures passing over into death. A couple different times the closeness of death and sex are evident as Sitara seduces Neel while her father’s dying, and later when he’s dead, attempting to lure him into her family’s trap by way of eroticism. Her free sexuality would seem to go against the values of her conservative, traditional family. Once the story progresses there becomes a clearer reason for the presence of sex, as we discover more about Sitara and her father. The closeness of death to sex is probably the least hideous part of the plot.
“This has been going on for generations”
Kriya deeply and disturbingly explores the patriarchy that’s weaved its way into Hinduism. The real “ancient curse” on the family is that of patriarchy— the reason they’re cursed is because Kamalkant Kumar would do anything to get a son, no matter if that means using his own daughter to try and do so. The perversion of patriarchy has taken over and must continue until a son’s produced. Neel becomes possessed by the soul Kamalkant Kumar, and Sitara takes her mother’s place beside her father in a sick continuation of patriarchy, seeking a son in order to once and for all lay Kamalkant Kumar’s sinful legacy to rest. Ironically, having a son would break the curse, but would also continue the patriarchy, never quite breaking truly free if that son continues in his father’s footsteps. Tara Devi (Avantika Akerkar) starts to see the truth, pleading with her daughter: “We‘re pawns.” She realises they’re female cogs being manipulated as one small part of a male machine.
Before this revelation Tara Devi is “a faithful wife.” She disregards her husband’s abusive behaviour after he takes ill, in spite of it resulting in permanent facial scars for her; she tells Neel it wasn’t her husband’s fault, passing it off. More specifically she takes the traditional place of dutiful wife once she pledges to go be in death with her husband. This is called sati or suttee, a controversial historical practice among certain Hindus that has, in modern India, been subject of preventative legislature. Sati is when a widow sacrifices herself atop the funeral pyre of her husband, willingly or not. Of course, Tara Devi never has to sacrifice herself because this is a “black funeral,” not a traditional one, and the purpose is not to cremate Kamalkant Kumar but to offer his soul a fresh vessel to keep on trying to break the ancient patriarchal curse.
The fact Kamalkant Kumar’s soul is trapped in Hell offers more interpretation of the film’s story. Neel’s proximity to death, where the veil between life and whatever lays beyond is thinned, gets him caught up in his own existential struggle. We find out Neel killed his sick mother in the hospital, so he becomes like an exchange sinner to bring Kamalkant Kumar’s soul back from Hell. The quest to pull Kamalkant Kumar’s soul out of Hell connects with the Hindu equivalent of Christian Hell, Naraka, which is the abode of Yama, god of death— the same name Tara Devi (Avantika Akerkar) calls Neel.
In a sense, Kamalkant Kumar’s entire family is caught in Naraka because of his incestuous trangressions. Yama’s the god of death and justice. He presides over law and punishment. Naraka isn’t necessarily a place of permanence. Hindus believe an individual can come back from Naraka once crimes in a previous life are atoned for, so we can look at the family seeking a son to properly perform Kamalkant Kumar’s funeral rites as their attempt to cauterise the curse, their collective punishment.Horror needs to include all cultures, genders, and races, otherwise it’s only touching on a very minute slice of human existence. We’ve seen all the monsters that have crawled out of Christian mythology, and we’ve had more than a healthy dose of paganism— more often than not, the two go head-to-head in a battle of terrors. Sidharth Srinivasan brings us horror via one piece of Indian culture, hailing from New Delhi where nearly 90% of the population are Hindu. It’s filmmakers like Srinivasan who’ll keep breathing new life into the genre by drawing off their own unique cultures rather than trying to replicate the same old Western bullshit.
Kriya is a surreal film that may take more than one sitting to digest. It’s a dense piece of work, in more way than one. Sitara and her family’s struggle can be taken as an allegory of women grappling with the awful legacy, and seeming inevitability, of patriarchy in Hinduism. Hindu culture is not inherently patriarchal, certain traditions just remain locked in the past. The final scene of the film returns to the beginning with Sitara, restarting her hunt. It’s a full circle moment suggestive of the patriarchal cycles women like Sitara become stuck in, and complicit with over time. However, returning to the club again is another instance of the modern India crashing through the past’s tradition. Although Sitara’s willingly going along with the family plan her dancing and modern sexuality also feel like they long to be free of the patriarchy keeping her trapped in a destructive, incestuous cycle.