A new Prithviraj movie is worth a 40 minute drive, and his latest is Ezra which finally came to a few US theaters this weekend (it released in Kerala on Feb. 10). Margaret of Don’t Call It Bollywood and I met to see a matinee, and the movie was playing at a theater that doesn’t usually play Malayalam movies, so there was a sparse crowd.
I didn’t see the 2012 horror film The Possession, but remembered the trailer with the family finding an antique box that turns out to house a dybbuk, an almost demon like spirit that possesses the body of a living person (from Jewish folk lore). The Yiddish word that dybbuk is derived from is “cling”. There was even a handy featurette for the The Possession movie explaining dybbuks:
The Malayalam film Ezra, directed by Jay K, is not a direct copy of The Possession but it is obviously inspired by it. The Possession film, in turn, is inspired by The Exorcist, as the possessed person is a young girl.
In Ezra, the possessed person is Prithviraj’s young wife, played by Priya Anand, who buys the dybbuk box while shopping for their new house in Kerala. The couple have moved to Kerala from Mumbai for Prithviraj’s job with a nuclear facility. Priya has a strained relationship with her parents because she married a Christian. The box has ended up in the antique shop, because the last Jewish person has died in Cochin. One of the most ancient Jewish diaspora communities in the world used to be in Kerala, but as this article says, the numbers are down to the double digits. That last Jew dying releases the curse put on the dybbuk in the box.
I don’t generally seek out horror films. They’re not my thing, but it’s Prithviraj. Horror movies don’t need to have a big budget to be scary. This one relies on the usual dark haunted house kind of jumps and scares. It’s just not tight enough of a movie. There’s a lot of excess time spent establishing that Prithviraj and Priya are a loving couple (song montage!), and then a lengthy back story on how the dybbuk got in the box. Jay K has used a lovers prevented from marriage story which is similar to the one in The Dybbuk Russian/Yiddish play from early in the 20th century, but he makes it interfaith, to mirror our modern couple.
I have several issues with Ezra. I did jump a few times, but it wasn’t scary enough for me, and the narrative should have been tightened up. Horror films shouldn’t be two and a half hours long.
But the biggest thing is that the movie made me laugh, which I don’t think was the intention. I didn’t grow up Jewish, but my husband is, and I’m on the board of our synagogue. The way the rabbis and the Jewish people in this movie dressed made me giggle hysterically.
For someone who only knows Jews from Seinfeld and Woody Allen movies, I guess dressing up rabbis in Catholic bishop vestments seemed perfectly logical. How else are Mayalalis to know that the rabbis characters are clergy if they don’t have white priest collars? And the tallit (the prayer shawls) are worn in the movie like sari scarves wrapped this way and that.
For the record, rabbis in the US generally just wear suits and the small yarmulke skullcap, but Hassidic rabbis, who practice Kabbalah (mystic Jewish faith) would look like the below, and I actually found a Chabbad rabbi in Kerala. Jay K, Google is a wonderful tool.
The exorcism scene made me laugh the hardest, because they had to drag in 10 random Jewish tourists to complete the ritual (yes, many Jewish prayers need a minyan of 10 Jewish men, so that’s real). It was the random tourist thing with their weirdly draped prayer tallit that made me guffaw. That, and the HUGE shofar horn the rabbi had to blow.
Prithviraj, I love you, but your red eyes were much scarier in Stop Violence.
I have another bone to pick. The flashback for the dybbuk’s story goes back to 1941, and Ezra’s father actually says that the Jews want to take over the world. Argh. Let’s think a moment just what was happening to the Jews in 1941. Again, smh. That deserves a double Seth.
There were some Jewish touches they got right, like an older rabbi gives a priestly blessing over some kids, a hand gesture familiar to Star Trek fans, because Leonard Nimoy used the Cohen hand position for Spock:
I could see how The Possession would have been creepier just because a child was the one possessed. I wouldn’t urge you to race out to the theater to catch Ezra. It’s not Prithviraj’s best, and it’s not the greatest horror film. It’s an okay timepass once it comes on streaming services.