Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Like most occult horror, Kriya will have its most profound effects on those raised within the minority traditions it addresses, or at least something close to them." | Photo: Courtesy of Fantasia

It's a hot night in the club, bodies packed close together, lights a blur of colour. DJ Neel (Noble Luke) keeps the music pulsing but is eager to get onto the dancefloor himself, to share in the mood, especially when the glamorous, alluring Sitara (Navjot Randhawa) starts moving his way. There's something hypnotic about the atmosphere on a night like this. Both their bodies respond to it, moving in time; and when the night is over they're outside, in a car, tangled together. only at the last minute does she pull back.

"I thought you wanted to!" he protests.

"Yes," she says, "but not here."

If you're an aficionado of horror films like the viewers who saw this at Fantasia 2020, you'll realise that agreeing to go back to her place could be a very bad move on Neel's part - but events are about to get a lot stranger.

For a start, her place turns out to mean her family home, and it's not just a suburban house but a sprawling mansion some distance outside the city. for another, her family is at home, and they're not just watching TV - they're providing her emaciated, dying father with the last rites. Sitara is dismissive. He's been dying for years, she says. Her mother (Avantika Akerkar) reacts as many a mother might when discovering that he daughter has brought a strange man whom she's probably sleeping with into the middle of such a delicate situation. Younger sister Sara (Kanak Bhardwaj) and the attendant Hindu priest (Sundhanva Deshpande), however, petition Neel to stay for a while. Pulled in different directions, he does his bet to compromise and keep everybody happy.

As the night wears on and Neel begins to feel the effects of whatever they've been giving him to drink, experiencing strange visions, he tries again to leave. Sitara tries to keep him there with everything from sexual bribery to the implication that she and her sister are in danger. There are whisperings about an ancient curse, and even Neel himself begins to suspect that meeting Sitara might not have been the happy accident that he thought it was.

Like most occult horror, Kriya will have its most profound effects on those raised within the minority traditions it addresses, or at least something close to them. It builds atmosphere well, however, and the sense of dread that lingers in the house can be understood by anyone, as well as rooting it firmly in the Gothic tradition. Director Sidharth Srinivasan struggles with pacing and devotes too much time to internal family dynamics, which sometimes make it feel like a soap opera - again probably more culturally resonant for a Hindu Indian audience than an international one - but the film comes together in the second half as Neel finds himself drawn into participation in an ancient ceremony which could lead to something terrible.

There's a lot of focus here on generational difference, with the sisters looking at life very differently from their mother and the family serving woman, whose attitudes to appropriate gendered behaviour are much more rigid. Neel, meanwhile, is an outsider not just to the family but to the patriarchal tradition with which the rites are associated, and priest's attempts to draw him in seem to represent the effort being made by India's male traditionalists to reclaim young men from modern ideas like gender equality and caste equality. Srinivasan has described it as a reaction against religious traditionalism in the politics of his country, and there is certainly an effort to interlink the more unlikely and damaging aspects of both religious and cultural tradition whilst retaining a respect for the uncanny and the possibility of non-material realms.

Though it's overlong and never quite gels as well as it might, Kriya has some very effective moments and suggests that Srinivasan's work could well develop in interesting ways.

Reviewed on: 05 Sep 2020
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Kriya packshot
A DJ encounters a beautiful woman at a club, goes back to her home, and finds himself thrust into a nightmare odyssey of ritual magic, patriarchal death customs and unusual family conflict.

Director: Sidharth Srinivasan

Writer: Sidharth Srinivasan

Starring: Navjot Randhawa, Noble Luke, Avantika Akerkar

Year: 2020

Runtime: 96 minutes

Country: India

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