They have flipped-back feet. Hair neatly knotted in long plaits, they traipse about at night in human corridors. They kill children. They nurse bruises from their past and plot revenge. Ek Thi Daayan taps into the primal fear of long-haired, ashen-faced female ghosts—often an enthralling horror film archetype.

The daayan is an ancient figure in Indian mythology. Wikipedia says a secret society of women with some supernatural powers was formed in the 15th century in Harangul, a village in Latur district in Maharashtra, India. Society resented them. Daayans are part of folklore and TV soaps. In some states, including Jharkhand and Bihar, the belief that a daayan has evil powers lead to witch hunts, leading to ostracization and murder of these women.

The problem is not the other-worldliness of the witches, but the fact that their world is so boring.

In storytelling and plot, Ek Thi Daayan has no inventiveness. The background sound is over-punctuative, comprising a familiar amalgamation of bangs, creaks and jangles. Iyer is almost desperate in his attempt to ensure his audience does not miss the exact moment of horror. Most of the time, these build-ups don’t end in a big surprise and jolting out of chairs.

The first half hour of the film has a racy, gripping pace. We meet celebrated magician Bobo (Emraan Hashmi) as he is performing big stunts on stage. Bobo has a girlfriend Tamara (Huma Qureshi) and together they are about to adopt a little boy. Some of these situations are far from an India we know—wizardry, for instance, is no longer a profession, but a collector’s fantasy that e-bay can satisfy. Its ideas about how a child is adopted by a couple is fantastical.

Bobo is distracted because he believes he is being followed or haunted by someone. So he approaches a hypnotherapist to find clues to the root of his inner turmoil. A frightening mental picture emerges in this session. When he was a boy, he believed that under the building in which he lived with his father (Pavan Malhotra) and a younger sister, was a hell where dead people waited to prey on children. One day, woman named Diana (Konkona Sen Sharma) meets the family inside the lift, who, Bobo is convinced, is a witch trying to kill him or his sister. In the present, he is baffled by another woman, an NRI named Lisa (Kalki Koechlin), a fan of his wizardry who also buys his childhood home.

Hashmi delivers his role with a balance of restraint and histrionics. Qureshi, an actor whose efforts don’t usually show, is limited by the utter lack of chemistry with Hashmi. For Koechlin, the role of the NRI girl who speaks in awkward Hindi is by now the pigeonhole; she does has done this role as well as she has done the earlier ones. Sen Sharma is seriously creepy as the governess who turns seductress. She convincingly translates young Bobo’s perceptions of her as the wily predator.

Young Bobo’s world and his prism is the only riveting part of the film. You don’t know what is real and what is imaginary, and the mystery, though short-lived, is enjoyable. Two possible realities deliciously overlap, until we are brought back to Bobo’s present.

In the end, the film’s most disappointing thing is its mediocrity in dealing with the supernatural. The supernatural is taken for granted, and it is thrust on you. There is no questioning, and no ambivalence. Even the psychiatrist turns the pages of a dog-eared book about witches. The adult magician’s inner world has no magic.

Watch Ek Thi Daayan if you like Ramsay Brothers films—this is a slicker, more clever version of that genre.

Ek Thi Daayan released in theatres on Friday

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