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DVD Review:  Naina

In many respects, Bollywood has a long way to go in the world of horror. There are aspects of the Hindi film world which I have always adored such as their inclusion of rich Indian mysticism, quirky melodramatic humor, and visually colorful art direction, to name a few. The bizarre Broadway production style exaggeration is endearing and usually makes me smile (and sometimes cringe a bit). However, when it comes to horror, and I think most true horror fans would agree with me, the sweetness factor of the Bollywood spirit hinders its ability to build a terrifying viewing experience. It’s hard to stay scared when people are frolicking in a fountain or making cute giggling motions at a grandmother’s attempts at matchmaking. A horror movie really shouldn’t leave you with a warm fuzzy feeling and an anime “Go Team!” smile at the end. Adorable simply doesn’t make a good bed-buddy with fear unless you go with a Gremlins Gizmo type character and personally I think Gizmo is far creepier than Spike ever was.

This particular Bollywood story begins upon the day of a solar eclipse. A young girl by the name of Naina is traveling with her parents when they collide with violently with another vehicle. The terrible collision kills both adults and blinds Naina permanently. Twenty years later, Naina’s vision is restored through a corneal transplant procedure. However, what should have been a time of rejoicing quickly turns to a new form of darkness when Naina begins to experience bizarre hallucinations of reaper-like shadows and corpses. Over the course of a week, Naina begins to realize that these visions are not merely the illusions of a demented woman, but actual deaths that have happened in the time since she regained her sight. Naina decides the only way to put an end to the visions is to find out the identity of the person who donated their eyes to her. The quest leads her back to India, to a small village where she learns the depressing truth behind the drowning of the woman and the curse she carried with her before her death.

The 2005 Indian release Naina, starring Urmila Matondkar (Naina) and Anuj Sawhney (Dr. Sameer Patel), is a remake of the Hong Kong film Jian Gui or, The Eye. Not only is it a remake, but also the movie appears, at times, to be an exact scene-by-scene reproduction of the original. If you are unfamiliar with The Eye then this fact will probably be of no importance to you. However for those who have seen it, you may find this detail highly irritating. The creation of a remake, especially when the original is now considered somewhat of a classic, is an extremely delicate process. It relies heavily upon the creative vision of the screenwriters and director in order to take the first idea and breath a fresh and exhilarating voice into it. This is especially true when considering Asian horror films (Japanese, Korean and Chinese to be specific), which are notorious for their ability to evoke a twisted, horrific dread from the viewer with an apparent effortlessness. Western directors have a hard time recapturing the innate fear of the originals. Bollywood directors have had an even harder time because of their tendency to melodramatize the storyline in a distinctly Disneyesque way in order to give it a happy ending, no matter what.

While director Shripal Morakhia has sprinkled throughout the film a colorful Hindi personality and eventually ties the storyline into a metaphysical aspect of the Hindi philosophy of death, the differences between Naina and The Eye really end there. Naina then becomes a pale imitation of the original hit. The inclusion of a classic Bollywood love story into the mix, which flits carelessly about for several scenes in the middle of the movie, the quirky cartoonish dialogue of the grandmother character and the “everything’s going to be A-OK” ending simply shatters any building suspense or feelings of dread the viewer might have been experiencing at some point in the film. Asides from the obvious duplication of many aspects of The Eye, Naina also borrows near direct recreations of images from other Asian horror films such as a spooky little girl wearing a raincoat sub-plot, which is memorable from Hideo Nakata's original Japanese horror movie, Honogurai Mizu No Soko Kara, otherwise known as Dark Water. Apparently, Morakhia has failed to be able to be inspired by something without directly copying it, whether intentionally or subconsciously. There are also several medical elements of Morakhia’s version of the story, which are simply absurd. One such detail is the idea that they salvaged the corneas transplanted onto Naina’s eyes from the body of a drowned woman in a remote Indian village and sent them to a hospital in London days later for the operation. Last time I checked, organs had to be harvested within an hour of the person’s death and definitely NOT from a body that’s been floating in a polluted river for nearly a day. Another scene in the hospital morgue shows apathetic morticians gutting their patients and flinging organs carelessly into jars. While these details may have been meant to be disgusting in their own way, they came off as ridiculous and unbelievable, serving only further to discredit the film and its creators.

Though the bizarre, saccharine quality is fairly standard in most Bollywood films, that I have seen, I have begun to wonder if, in this particular movie, the directors took it upon themselves to intentionally amp up those elements due to the controversy this movie apparently caused in India before its release? At the time of its premier the superstitious fear that one would indeed be able to see ghosts after the corneal implant surgery was, in fact, a true concern for many people throughout the country. Many believed that Naina would discourage already fearful individuals from seeking out the life changing procedure or from donating their corneas after death. Controversy or no, the team behind Naina should have chosen to break out of the constraints of the traditional Bollywood mould and create something unique instead of injecting an oozing syrup of predictable melodrama into the film. If nothing else, at least change up the story a little and check the medical facts before shooting the final take.

With all of the other DVDs available right now it’s hard for me to say that this is still, despite its extreme flaws, a movie worth renting. As I said, there are some positive aspects to Naina that make it an entertaining 105 minutes. First of all, it is extremely well shot with excellent camera angles and color usage that make it look like a high dollar production. And with the exception of a few awkwardly abrupt scene cuts and amateurish looking special effects makeup instances (a cancer patient obviously wearing a rubber skullcap and corpses floating around coated with layers of talcum powder, to name a few…), Naina is a visually beautiful movie, taking place in both London and Bhuj in Gujarat, India. However, this is simply not enough to redeem the film from the ridiculous overacting and general bad design. What a waste! I always wonder what a team with actual talent would do with the obviously substantial budget Naina had for production? I do know this, however; Morakhia should definitely stick to what he knows best, Bollywood melodrama, and leave the horror classics to the directors who know that life doesn’t always have a happy ending.

Trailer Link on India Glitz: