Was the TV edit of Ek Thi Daayan (“Once There Lived a Witch”) released to theaters by mistake? There’s a lot missing from the story: important stuff like character establishment and a coherent mythology. Absent those, Ek Thi Daayan doesn’t really work.
The film jumps into the action so quickly that it neglects to properly introduce the main characters. Following a stylish animated opening credits sequence, we find our hero at work on stage. Bobo the Baffler (Emraan Hashmi) — one of India’s top illusionists, despite his ridiculous name — levitates his assistant at the top of a burning rope. The trick is monitored from a control room by Bobo’s girlfriend, Tamara (Huma Qureshi), and their young orphan friend, Zubin.
Bobo visually and aurally hallucinates a little girl, later revealed to be his long-deceased younger sister, Misha. Bobo misses his cue, and the assistant is badly burned. Backstage, Tamara complains that this is the third time Bobo has hallucinated mid-performance this month. Has no one in the media noticed that India’s top magician has literally burned through a bunch of assistants recently?
While Tamara complains to the priest at Zubin’s orphanage that she can’t get Bobo to commit to marriage — an apparent obstacle to their plans to adopt Zubin — Bobo wanders into an obviously haunted apartment building. In what turns out to be his childhood apartment, he again hallucinates that he sees Misha. Tamara arrives and points out that it’s not Misha, just the dead girl’s creepy-ass favorite doll.
They head home, a love song plays, and the couple has sex — in front of the scary doll.
Already twenty minutes into the movie, we still don’t have any reason to care about Bobo, Tamara, or Zubin, apart from the fact that they’re our only options. Are they good people? Are we supposed to aspire to be rich, famous magicians? Where the hell did they find this orphan kid anyway?
Doesn’t matter. Bobo gets professionally hypnotized, and the rest of the first half of the film is a flashback to the repressed memories of 11-year-old Bobo and the circumstances of Misha’s death. Was his dad’s second wife, Diana (Konkona Sen Sharma), really a witch, or was the boy just angry at her for replacing his mom?
There are clearly paranormal elements at work, but director Kannan Iyer and writers Vishal Bhardwaj and Mukal Sharma throw lore around willy-nilly, without a clear description of the rules of their supernatural world. Where do witches and demons come from? Can they be permanently destroyed? What does Bobo have to do with them? Are his repressed memories some kind of magical amnesia or the result of childhood fright?
There are so many unanswered questions and unclear relationships that it’s difficult to become invested in the characters. While the movie is atmospheric, the story is so straightforward that it lacks tension. The few jump-scares that exist are telegraphed.
It’s too bad, since there are some decent performances in Ek Thi Daayan. Konkona Sen Sharma is delightfully sinister, while not so overt as to eliminate the possibility that young Bobo has judged her unfairly. The young actors who portray Bobo and Misha are both talented.
Hashmi and Qureshi are solid, though their characters lack depth. Kalki Koechlin shows up in the second half as an obsessive fan of Bobo’s. Koechlin’s performance is similarly good, but it’s overshadowed by the fact that Bobo and Tamara aren’t unnerved by her character openly stalking Bobo.
With a runtime of just over two hours, Ek Thi Daayan isn’t long enough (by Bollywood standards) to become boring, but it never offers the audience much incentive to care. With more careful control of the story structure and establishing a mythology, this could have been quite good. Maybe it will make more sense if the DVD contains a director’s cut.