Dybbuk: from Jewish folklore, an evil spirit that possesses a living human with malicious intent
Hamsa: a hand-shaped amulet, traced variously to Jewish, Christian and Islamic origins; believed to ward off the evil eye
Ruchim: spirits in Judaic myth
If you wish to fully understand these terms, you could either turn to an encyclopedia or watch the new Malayalam film Ezra, a supernatural thriller starring Prithviraj Sukumaran and Priya Anand. The pre-release chatter surrounding Ezra seemed to suggest that it would provide insights into Jewish culture in Kerala. Taken at its face value, the film does quite the opposite, seeming to exoticise rather than familiarise audiences with the community. Look closer though and you may see Ezra’s larger purpose: its subliminal messaging on forbidden love across the ages, how the more things change the more they remain the same and ultimately, love conquering all divides.
The blend of modern city life, mythology and under-stated politics rooted in the tragic tale of a young Jew from pre-Independence Kerala becomes absorbing in the hands of debutant director Jay K.
The events in the film kick off when the last living Jew in Kerala passes away and the state media is abuzz with talk of the end of an era. Meanwhile in Mumbai, Ranjan Mathew (Sukumaran) and his wife Priya Raghuram (Anand) prepare to shift to Kochi where he must take charge of a giant nuclear waste disposal plant run by a company he co-founded.
Once there, they move into a spacious villa which Priya packs with antiques. Her acquisitions include a box from the dead man’s house which – unknown to her – is already connected to a recent local murder. When the couple (expectedly) starts hearing strange sounds and seeing a scary figure in their house, they seek help from medics, the police and finally, religious folk.
Ezra is not the kind of horror flick that is replete with mammoth scares. The film’s USP is its low-key tone and all-pervading feeling of foreboding. Jay K is unflinching in his purpose, never once slackening the sense of impending doom that permeates every nook of the narrative. Editor Vivek Harshan and cinematographer Sujith Vaassudev are able partners in this mission.
When you shoot a geographical landscape as stunning as God’s Own Country, it must be tempting to capture it in all its explosively colourful beauty. Vaassudev’s achievement in Ezra is that he holds back, giving us instead a Kerala of grays and muted shades and at one point, sepia tones, still spectacular of course, but hauntingly atmospheric too in this avatar. He also keeps strategically switching vantage points, sometimes standing with the audience, sometimes with Priya or Ranjan, sometimes seeming to stand by the spectre in their house as it watches these two go about their business and sometimes watching them through the eyes of other characters.
The other leading light of Ezra is its production design, in particular in the flashback to an earlier Kerala and in the present, the intimidatingly grand interiors of Ranjan and Priya’s home.
It is all very eerie and filled with dread for what is to come. Though the film uses familiar motifs from the horror genre – a spook in a mirror, glazed eyes, the attic of an old house, a wild-haired child (who, by the way, remains unexplained) – it does so sparingly.
If you get down to thinking about it, much of the paranormal stuff is silly not just for atheists, agnostics and cynics – as is the case with most such films – but for other logical minds too. (Spoiler alert) How, for instance, did they so quickly find 10 Jewish tourists willing to expose themselves to an invisible monster late one night in Kochi? Why does a maid, who shows no signs of understanding English until then, watch a Hollywood hit? A couple of the red herrings strewn around (that maid’s aggressive behaviour, a rabbi’s initial weirdness) are grating in their obviousness. (Spoiler alert ends)
The film’s success lies in the fact that it leaves a viewer with little time to dwell on these and other loopholes while battling the unrelenting heebie-jeebies.
Ezra’s other USP is that its scares stand shoulder to shoulder with a solid story. The theme of inter-community romances runs right through the film, and has great resonance in this age of ‘love jihad’ campaigns and overtly, publicly expressed prejudice. Jay K’s storytelling style is non-preachy, but the commentary is unmistakable.
Hints of Ranjan and Priya’s liberalism are also unobtrusively scattered about. Theirs is a mixed marriage (he is Christian, she is Hindu) but neither has imposed their faith on the other. A passing reference reveals that she has not changed her surname. In such a film, it would have been nicer to see evidence of Priya’s career as an interior designer rather than a mere passing mention of it in the midst of her wifely activities. Perhaps next time, Jay K?
In terms of performances, Sukumaran stands out for his conviction in a genre that often has actors come off looking silly. He even manages to pull off an exorcism without going too over the top or being too cliched considering the scores of such scenes we have seen down the decades. Anand does not do quite as well in scenes in which we are supposed to believe she is possessed, and Sujith Shanker playing a rabbi falls prey to the deliberately confusing writing of his character – can’t blame either of the actors though.
The rest of the supporting cast is sturdy. Sudev Nair is especially memorable in the very poignant flashback.
While the detailing in the film’s sound design is impressive, the decibel levels needed to be brought down a couple of notches in several scenes, considering that as viewers we are now accustomed to standard efforts at manipulation with loud noises and background scores in supernatural films.
So yes, Ezra is not perfect. Overall though, it is an unusual and thankfully not superficial experience. Without straying too far from the conventions of its chosen genre, the film conjures up enough novelty value to remain interesting throughout. We are not a country that does horror very well. A hat tip then to Jay K for defying the norm.
Footnote about the subtitles: A hat tip to Vivek Ranjit too for remembering to subtitle the signage in Ezra. Too many writers of subs forget that if a viewer cannot understand a language in its spoken form, chances are they cannot read it either. One suggestion for Ranjit, since he seems to care enough: keeping in mind the needs of hearing-impaired viewers, next time please also subtitle English dialogues. Almost no one does that.