Movie Review: Dybbuk (2021)

1 Star (out of 4)

Watch Dybbuk on Amazon Prime

There’s a temptation to look for symbolism or thematic parallels in Dybbuk. Don’t bother.

Writer-director Jay K — who also wrote and directed Ezra, the Malayalam film on which Dybbuk is based — introduces potential themes and subplots that should be relevant but ultimately are not. As I describe the plot, I’ll put an asterisk (*) next to each theme that goes nowhere.

Married couple Sam (Emraan Hashmi) and Mahi (Nikita Dutta) are moving from Mumbai to Mauritius for Sam’s new job. Mahi worries about leaving her support system*, but Sam assures her she’ll be fine. Besides, her parents have never accepted their marriage since she’s Hindu and he’s Christian*.

They arrive at their colonial-era mansion in Mauritius, which comes complete with a suspicious maid* and an attic full of creepy junk*. Sam gets busy at his new job trying to turn Mauritius into a dumping ground for European nuclear waste*. His uncle, Father Gabriel (Denzil Smith), calls to ask how Mahi is coping with the move, especially after her recent miscarriage*.

Mahi shops at an antique store, which looks surprisingly tidy for a place that was the scene of a violent murder of possibly supernatural origins days earlier. She buys an obviously cursed box — part of a collection belonging to a deceased Jewish scholar — takes it home and opens it. Trouble ensues.

The symbolism of opening the box could have paralleled any of the dead-end plot points highlighted above in order to explore a particular theme: commonalities across faiths in times of spiritual crisis; the danger of putting work before personal relationships; how partners respond differently to a miscarriage; the threat of environmental catastrophe; continuing efforts by wealthy countries to exploit their former colonies (perhaps with the mansion being itself a cursed symbol of colonial oppression); etc.

Dybbuk isn’t about any of that. It’s just about a mean ghost. The rules governing how the ghost operates are flexible and dependent upon bits of information dropped into the story without setup. When asked why Sam and Mahi are so unfortunate as to be the ghost’s victims, Father Gabriel says, “There’s no logical explanations for these things.”

If Sam and Mahi were a happy couple, Father Gabriel’s explanation might be fine. But Jay K introduces these points of potential conflict to give the impression that there’s more to the story than just supernatural hijinks, when there isn’t.

For Dybbuk to have any depth or subtext, characters would have to have meaningful conversations with one another about more than just the mechanics of exorcising a ghost. After Mahi becomes pregnant again, she and Sam don’t talk about her feelings or fears given her past miscarriage. If they aren’t going to discuss the specific emotional trauma that comes from miscarriage, why make it a plot point?

Emotional depth isn’t possible in a story where Mahi is hardly a character in her own right. She exists to trigger the supernatural crisis and to give Sam someone to worry about. With a better script (and better direction of the mostly expressionless actors), Dybbuk could have been about something. Shame that it isn’t.

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