Fantasia 2020: “Kriya” is Subversive Hindu Folk Horror

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Review By: Jason Oliver

Playing Fantasia 2020 is director and writer Sidharth Srinivasan’s first feature film in 10 years, KRIYA. The word “kriya” here loosely means, “last rites” and can more broadly be defined from its root in Sanskrit as a “completed action”. A discipline of yoga named Kriya defines three types of completed actions or efforts: asceticism, recitation, and devotion. While Srinivasan’s film is centered around the ceremony of last rites in Hinduism, it’s interesting that the 3 actions of Kriya Yoga could be described as the three elements of a film. Asceticism is the photography and sound. Recitation is the story, the writing, and the acting. While Devotion is the direction. All three are well on display over this 95 minute hypnotic and sometimes impenetrable puzzle of a film, but no more than Srinivasan’s devotion to making a film that subverts and transgresses the fundamentalist Hindu patriarchal customs and ritual. From the director’s note:

Kriya thus came into being as a reinvention of the social drama, a twisted genre-inflected tale which sets out to subvert the sanctity of the Indian family and ritual tradition, exposing its inherent patriarchy and debasement of women

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Now, I am not at all familiar with Hindu custom or Indian culture at a level that I feel comfortable commenting on the film’s effectiveness in this pursuit. In fact, not having a starting point of reference for Hindu ritual made the first two acts of Kriya difficult to comprehend. It slowly dawned on me that the ritual at the heart of the story was being subverted, almost like a Satanic Black Mass. There is a curse on this family and they are desperate to break it.

While I was slow to pick up on some of the cultural themes of the film, I am a white male raised Catholic, so I understand and recognize the inherent privilege my gender and skin color afford me, as well as the patriarchy of a religion and society that treats women as inferior to men. So while I was watching Kriya at a surface level as a genre horror film (which it completely works as) most should also be able to identify and make parallel that Srinivasan is driving a stake into the heart of a repeating and self-sustaining cycle of patriarchy that can and should be identified and exposed in all areas of society. Much of this comprehension comes from the third act, which not so subtlety exposes the metaphor and subtext for what it is. But honestly, some of us men living in our protective bubbles need these things connected for us.

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I haven’t gotten into the story of Kriya, so I’ll again let the press kit do the heavy lifting:

DJ, Neel, encounters the ravishing Sitara while working a club set one night and is transfixed by her. They return to Sitara’s home (a crumbing stone mansion which doubles cleverly as a sort of Indian “old dark house”) where Neel is horrified to see the gagged and shackled body of her dying father – Sitara’s grieving family keeping vigil around it. Caught completely unawares, Neel’s compassion is nevertheless aroused and he stays on. In India, patriarchal custom dictates that only a son can perform a parent’s last rites, but no such person exists in Sitara’s family. So when her father actually dies during the course of the night, Sitara coerces Neel to officiate the rituals of death. Thrust into a world of magic and trangression, Neel finally attempts to flee his waking nightmare. But as dawn breaks, it becomes evident that Sitara’s family is afflicted by an ancient curse. One that Neel is now very much a part of.

Perhaps it is my own selfishness, cynicism, or an ignorance of Indian culture, but I had a difficult time believing that Neel would hang around as long as he does. Sitara’s mother is cold to him and it’s a pretty heavy situation to walk into when 5 minutes ago you thought you would be making love with a beautiful woman, not sitting vigil to her father’s deathbed. He does make halfhearted attempts to leave, but is easily manipulated. Perhaps he feels duty bound to stay, is curious, or is simply naive, but he stays to his own detriment. Neel represents several aspects of any thriving patriarchy. He first shows avoidance and thus privilege – he could leave and nothing would change for him; deny his role or privilege even exists. He then establishes himself as a patronizing white knight savior and protector, when it is he who is the perpetrator and may also need protecting of his own. And he ultimately participates as patriarch, thus sealing his own fate as another victim in the never ending cycle.

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While Kriya is eviscerating to how men use and perpetuate the subservience of women through religious and familial custom, I’m not sure how I feel about how women are actually portrayed in this film. Are they unwilling participants or are they pulling the strings? Sitara’s mother says several things that make me wonder what role she plays. She tells her daughter that “rituals are to be followed, not understood” reinforcing the idea that blind faith in something that keeps us in shackles is not to be challenged. Yet, her husband and Sitara’s father is in literal shackles and a muzzle while he painfully spends his last minutes of life on a rug on the floor. But again, everything is subverted in Srinivasan’s Kriya. In reality, women are muzzled and rituals should be questioned.

Kriya is a film I expect to be rewarding on multiple viewings. Character motivations and actions will reveal themselves for what they are once the viewer has an understanding of where things are going. It gets high grades for asceticism, recitation, and devotion and I hope more men will make transgressive films like this that challenge their own privilege and unearned stature in a society that is built to reinforce and perpetuate their status. Srinivasan’s intention with this film is to “rattle the cage” and as a filmmaker working outside of the Bollywood system with films already banned in his own country, I see no reason why Kriya won’t have the desired effect.

Kriya is playing twice at Fantasia 2020, first on August 26th and again on August 29th.

 

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