When Madhuri Shekar was penning the story that would become the Megan Sandberg-Zakian-directed audio play that new Blumhouse film Evil Eye was adapted from, she knew that she wanted to tell a horror story set in her own context. Steeping the tale in Indian culture, Shekar crafted a nightmarish narrative about the the complicated relationship between two close (but very distant) women.
The story of Evil Eye follows mother Usha (Sarita Choudhury) and daughter Pallavi (Glow's Sunita Mani), a pair attempting to work out the kinks of their fractured relationship from continents away. Things go awry for the family when Pallavi falls head over heels for Sandeep (Omar Maskati), a charming Indian-American man who is more connected to Pallavi than she could ever think possible. Building upon the abstracts of karma and reincarnation, Shekar explored the very thing that scared her even more than axe murderers or demons: the possibility of not being able to prevent something bad from happening to someone that she loves.
"My husband encouraged me to explore what might be interesting in terms of Indian horror tropes, monsters, and myths, and I thought about reincarnation," Shekar told Refinery29 during a recent phone call. "It's not necessarily scary, but it could be if you think about it in a certain way. So I did."
"I'm not a scary movie person," she continued. (Ironically, none of the film's cast is particularly fond of the horror genre either.) "So I was mostly thinking about how terrifying it would be for something bad to happen to the people I love, especially when they're very far away. That feeling of wanting to protect them but not being able to...that in itself was beyond scary to me."
Yes, Evil Eye is a psychological thriller about a family's dogged fight against their fate, but it's also a dynamic love story — between a mother and her daughter, between a man and a woman (with all of the heat but not the standard happily-ever-after you'd expect from a romance), and to the culture that shaped it.
To build her Evil Eye world (as well as the other universes she created in other works like A Nice Indian Boy, House of Joy, and Dhaba on Devon Avenue), Shekar relied on the concepts that were familiar to her — aunties worrying over the futures of their children, kids bristling against the traditional antics of their parents, and the evil eye protecting them all from the bad energy being directed their way. From Pallavi and Usha's frequent long distance calls to Usha's dutiful prayers at the personal altar in her family home, Shekar constructed a scenario based on her lived experience as an Indian woman, an experience that immediately attracted each member of her cast because it's so rarely depicted in the mainstream.
Choudhury, who stuns as the paranoid matriarch, revealed that she was initially shocked when she was approached for Evil Eye; a natural rebel, she had never personally identified as the conservative Indian mom that the role called for her to be. Yet as she read the script and learned more about the character and her turbulent backstory, the veteran actress was blown away. For Choudhury, the film was an opportunity to deliver a nuanced and authentic narrative of family and the consequences generational trauma from a uniquely Indian vantage point.
"None of us wants to be examples of ambassadors of our race or ethnic group, but where we are in time right now, there is so much lack," said the actress succinctly. "Anything that we can do to show who we are and tell our stories, we have to do."
"[The cast] is composed of South Asians with all different backgrounds and contexts from various parts of India," she continued. "So the task was to tell our version of all of those experiences and be truthful."
For Choudhury's younger co-stars Mani and Maskati, the chance to finally play such nuanced characters as Pallavi and Sandeep was, in itself, mind-blowing. In an industry that's just now attempting to right its long history of ignoring actors of color, brown talent has always gotten the short end of the stick — and the current push to make Hollywood more diverse and equitable still hasn't been very progressive when it comes to the South Asian community.
"I've never been presented with the opportunity to play an Indian-American lead before," explained Mani. "Pallavi is like an alternate reality version of myself. There's so much of me that is her, and I think I was drawn to the vulnerability of finally being able to play someone that's so close to me."
"So many kids are trying to connect with their cultures and their parents' cultures, so it was something that I was really protective of portraying because much of it mirrored my own experience as an Indian-American," she added. "This movie basically lets you into the household that I grew up in."
"I don't typically get to play the main villain," Maskati said of his role as Sandeep, the charming love interest who quickly devolves into a murderous antagonist. "This movie, centered on Indian and Indian-American culture, is the first of its kind in this space, and that's really cool. There was this comfort in knowing that this story and its stars were coming from real places with real experiences, that we were going to serve it with a measure of authenticity as best we could."
I remember the feeling that I got watching Get Out for the first time in theaters; the unapologetically Black Jordan Peele production allowed me to tiptoe into a genre that seemed to never make room for people who looked like me. That sense of recognition onscreen is likely akin to what South Asian audiences felt when they first came across Evil Eye's trailer.
"This is insane to see a brown female lead in a horror movie based in the west?!?!?!??? Like I could see myself here?" wrote one Twitter user when the trailer dropped last month. "I'm HYPED."
The horror genre seems to be leading the charge when it comes to diversifying its narratives, and the rest of Hollywood would do well to follow suit. Aside from big names like Mindy Kaling, Dev Patel, and Kumail Nanjiani, actors of South Asian descent in Hollywood haven't really had the opportunity to take on lead roles. Evil Eye might be among the first steps in correcting that oversight — and it's just another hint that there are so many more valuable stories that have yet to be told within the film space.