Ezra – A Malayalam Horror movie about a Jewish dybbuk that I found hilarious

ezraA 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.

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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.

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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.

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Yes, that’s a real hamsa Jewish amulet still used to ward off the evil eye.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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2016 – My Movie Year

 

Letterboxd.com is where I keep a diary of all the films I watch, including films I rewatch.  They have a very cool year in review feature.  I was inspired by this Matt Bowes post about all the media he consumed in 2016, to make this post.  I’ll just talk about the movies here, but I love how he listed all the comics, podcasts, etc., too!

So, according to Letterboxd, I saw 222 films in 2016, which includes short films and rewatches.  That averages out to over 18 a month, and over 4 a week.  Weeks like our visit to the Sundance Film Festival, where we saw 30 films (including shorts) certainly help to bump up that average, but I am an avid movie viewer no matter how you slice it.  I just started this blog in April, but I had been posting short reviews on most films to Letterboxd before that.

2016 started with The Hateful Eight (which I didn’t love) and ended with Zootopia, which I did love.  There were mostly older films, but I did watch 82 films that were released in 2016.  It won’t surprise any of my readers that fully half were films from India, 111 of them.

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Interestingly, the actor with the most films I saw was not Shahrukh Khan (who was second with 12), but Nasser with 14!  That man is in EVERYTHING!

This year I discovered Telegu cinema megastar Mahesh Babu (9 movies) and Malayalam cinema star  Prithviraj.  I’ve got a stack of more Prithviraj movies to watch — the man has made so many!  I’m amused that Prithviraj’s early film Stop Violence – which I watched without subs! – Letterboxd lists as my “most obscure movie”.

The highest rated (by people on Letterboxd) film I saw in 2016 is Moonlight, which is heading to the Oscars.  The lowest rated is Yoga Hosers.  Yeah.  Have to pretty much agree with that — but Assassin’s Creed is giving it a run for it’s money on that score. Yoga Hosers is just crazy silly (Brat Nazis!) but it was worth it to go to the midnight premiere just to see Kevin Smith.

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2016 will always be in my memory, because this was the year that a movie I helped get made premiered at Sundance.

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 How To Tell You’re A Douchebag is the movie I saw the most times this year, as I attended screenings of the film, and showed it to friends and family.  I’m so proud of writer/director Tahir Jetter’s achievement.  It was bought by BET and aired this summer.  You can watch it on iTunes, Amazon video or Google play now!

Top films from 2016 I saw in Hollywood and Indian cinema coming soon.

Stop Violence – Prithviraj as Satan, for me as mindblowing as Colin Firth playing a gangster

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Can you review a movie when you watched it without subs and didn’t understand a single word?  (OK, I’ve watched enough Malayalam movies that I know illa means “no”, but that’s basically all I can get.)

 

Prithviraj is a fantastic Malayalam actor who has I think over 100 movie credits, and he’s only 33.  I’ve seen him in several romances and intense dramas, and in interviews I can tell he is a quiet, reserved, serious kind of person.  When I reviewed the medical drama Ayalum Njanum Thammil, someone suggested I should watch Prithviraj in Stop Violence, one of his very first films back in 2002 when he was only 19 and a notable negative role for him.  NINETEEN!  One my sons is nineteen, so it’s that much more incredible to me.

The entire movie Stop Violence is available on Youtube and ErosNow, but without subtitles and there are no subtitle overlay files I could find.  Just from watching his entrance scene, I had to watch the whole thing.  I even checked MyIndiaShopping.com to buy the DVD, but the DVD release doesn’t seem to be available with subs either.  I read the Wikipedia summary of the plot, and figured, heck, it’s mostly action, I’ll just try it without subtitles and it’s under 2 hours.

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I’m so glad I did.  Yes, the movie is a B-movie crime flick by a debut director who likes splashing fake blood around — a lot.  But Prithviraj commands the screen from the first moment he appears.  Look at that intense stare and that snarl on his mouth!  Someone told him to grow a beard so he would look older.  His character is named Saathan and he wears a “666” necklace that he fondles menacingly all the time.  I didn’t realize at first that his name is literally Satan!

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Stephen (Vijayaraghavan) is both a corrupt cop and the leader of a gang, and Prithviraj is his right hand man and enforcer.  Stephen sends Prithviraj to kill a rapist, and Angel’s (Chandra Lakshman) first glimpse of Prithviraj is watching him fling acid into the face of his victim.

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Angel has to take refuge with her cousin (? I think?) who is a female gang don, because Angel’s been raped, is pregnant and has been kicked out of her nunnery where she was a novice.  I was told this is not a fantastical plot but based on the real life rapes of some nuns in Kerala.  Prithviraj is sent to be their bodyguard.  Not completely clear all the relationships without subs, but that’s what I gathered.

There’s actually a scene where Angel is praying in a church, and Prithviraj hesitates to cross the threshold, and when he does all the candles blow out.  Yep, Satan!

Prithviraj delights in teasing and tormenting the naive Angel.  There’s a chemistry there, and she has a dream about him coming into her room one night.  Psych!  It’s just a dream.

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Prithviraj’s Satan has this thing, where he chews razor blades, I think with paan, and then spits razor blade pieces and red pulp into his enemies’ faces.  At one point, Angel thwarts him in his intimidation of someone who owes Stephen money.  He’s kidnapped the guy’s baby, but Angel gives it back to the mother, so he spits razor blades into Angel’s face.  Then tenderly picks them off after she just stands there and takes it.  He picks the razor shards off her face tenderly, which she feels as if he’s kissing her.  Oy.

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Prithviraj as Satan is falling under Angel’s spell, and he wants to reform, but Stephen won’t let him out.  Angel is let back in to the nunnery and Prithviraj visits her one last time.  To confess to her that HE is the one who raped her!!  I asked a friend who speaks Malayalam to translate that one last scene, and Prithviraj doesn’t even ask for forgiveness, just wanted her to know he was the cause of all her misery.  (And she doesn’t know that he confessed to the Archbishop so she can return to the church.)

Then he confronts Stephen on a railroad track and won’t let go so that both are killed by an oncoming train.  There was a HUGE splash of blood onto some goon cops who had jumped out of the way that made me laugh out loud.  Prithviraj was so intense in his death scene, and the director went a bit crazy with the fast flashing back and forth between the faces and then all that blood!

I think this is a fan made trailer, but it gives you a taste of what the movie is like:

 

There’s a fun movie within a movie reference, as the gang all watches Satya on TV together at one point, and the very end has the movie poster for Saathan’s story slapped onto a wall.

If you’re a Prithviraj fan, I’m not saying you need to watch the whole thing, but you should watch at least a clip or two to see how a nineteen year old Prithviraj commands the screen in one of his very first movies.  (I’ve tried to mark the video above at his entrance, about 11 minutes into the film.)  It was such a trip to see him in such a negative role.  For me, who had never seen Prithviraj like this, it was like watching Colin Firth be a mafioso goon in Mean Streets.  Mindblowing.

Two and a half stars out of five, being generous just because Prithviraj was intensely awesome.