Before it succumbs to the Bollywood curse (ha) of a listless second half, Ek Thi Daayan is a shiver-inducing blast. We start with Emraan Hashmi's magician botching up a trick on stage, induced by hallucinatory visions. A strangely paced love song with Huma Qureshi later is followed by a trip to his childhood psychiatrist. The good doctor pushes our magician into his pre-adolescent past, in the months leading up to the death of his young sister. And then, for a glorious 45 minutes, Ek Thi Daayan soars like no other Bollywood horror film I've seen.
As our young child, our protagonist shows an unhealthy obsession with the occult. In one of the most spine chilling scenes of the movie, he takes an elevator ride with his sister down to hell - an act that may also have inadvertently summoned a witch. Atleast, that's what the kids believe Konkona Sen's Diana is - their single father on the other hand is besotted by her. Soon enough, Diana enters their home for good, and as far as the kids are concerned, the games begin.
The genius of this segment of the movie is the playful use of metaphor. Diana may just be a witch - but she could also just be the wicked stepmother our protagonist needs to project his anger on to. Konkona Sen is perfect for walking this tightrope of a performance - the brief flashes of menace across her face could just as well be the frustrations of a woman facing rejection from the children she yearns to reach out to. Particularly delightful is a sequence where she plays a game of hide and seek with the children - note the manner in which her voice floats from playful to spine tingling while still somehow maintaining an element of ambiguity. It also helps that this entire segment sparkles with humour. The kids in particular have great comic timing, aided by a witty script that knows enough about the horror genre to not take itself too seriously.
But, but, but.
The flashback only lasts for half the movie, at which point we are pulled back into the dour present. And it is here that the cliches begin to pile, dramatic deadweight sets in, horror movie logic becomes rampant. Kalki Koechlin's appearance gives the movie a jolt of energy, but the strange extended loop of the plot, and the overbaked climatic sequence squander that goodwill. Director Kannan Iyer has admitted that commercial considerations plagued the direction this film takes eventually, and that seems about right.
For a while, Ek Thi Daayan builds its power through the faint suggestion that nothing is at it appears, that the paranormal evil is just the other side of our lived experience. Besides Diana, Kalki's character could be a witch - or she could be an obsessive lover. Both narratives work, and the mere suggestion of ambiguity is the most tantalizing idea. However, rather unfortunately, the movie decides to come down rather hard one way, dumbing itself down and losing some of its potent first half magic.
Still, I'd say, go watch this one. Even half of a great movie that tries to overreach is better than the banality of cinema that doesn't try at all.