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Bishal Dutta’s impressive directorial debut is a chilling allegory for a painful identity crisis told through a unique lens we rarely see.

It Lives Inside

Few things are more exhilarating as a cinephile than watching the debut film from an up-and-coming filmmaker and realizing you are witnessing the emergence of a breakthrough talent — someone with the potential to change the game.

It’s how many genre fans felt watching Ari Aster’s Hereditary, Robert Eggers’ The Witch, Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, and Jordan Peele’s Get Out.

With those films, it was evident from the first frame that you were watching something special, something important; something people would be talking about for years and decades to follow.

It’s truly remarkable how many of the genre’s most influential and enduring films were helmed by first-time directors: From Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, 1968) to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974), Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978) to The Evil Dead (Sam Raimi, 1981), The Blair Witch Project (Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick, 1999) to Raw (Julia Ducournau, 2016).

We may not realize how dominant a filmmaker will be until the benefit of hindsight. But we instinctively know we’re witnessing the genesis of greatness when we see it.

Such is the case with Bishal Dutta, bursting onto the scene with the Indian-American supernatural horror film, It Lives Inside.

It Lives Inside

Bishal Dutta introducing “It Lives Inside” at SXSW 2023 (Photo credit: Stephanie Malone)

 Dutta’s debut just made its World Premiere on the prestigious SXSW stage.

And though the title feels a bit uninspired (sharing a name with a lackluster offering from 2018), the film itself is anything but.

I knew very little about It Lives Inside before entering the theater, as I was offered only a brief synopsis — no visuals or trailer.

And honestly, it’s how I wish everyone could experience cinema, free from bias, expectations, hype, and marketing. Sure, going in blind means you’ll inevitably be disappointed on multiple occasions. But allowing a film to surprise you truly is one of the most rewarding things you can do.

One thing I did know about It Lives Inside was that it had garnered the attention of some influential players on the indie genre scene.

Having your first film get produced by QC Entertainment (Get Out, BlacKkKlansman), scooped up by Neon (Titane, Possessor, Infinity Pool), and showcased at SXSW Midnighters is a mighty impressive calling card.

I sat down in front of that big screen, prepared to be wowed, and was not let down.

It Lives Inside

“It Lives Inside” SXSW 2023 post-screening Q&A; L-R Producer (QC Entertainment) Raymond Mansfield, Director Bishal Dutta, Actor Gage Marsh (Russ), Actor Megan Suri (Samidha) (Photo credit: Stephanie Malone)

When you’re an avaricious consumer of genre content like me, it’s easy to believe you’ve seen all there is to see.

You know all the beats, the tropes, the tricks, and the plot twists. And in a subgenre like supernatural or possession horror or a wildly oversaturated category like teen horror, being surprised is a lot to hope for.

And yet, filmmakers with a true passion for the genre, a strong command of their craft, and an innate gift for storytelling can still subvert your expectations.

One way Dutta immediately signals his intent to tell a different kind of story is by populating his film with faces you don’t typically see in Western cinema and centering his story around rarely explored mythology.

Samidha “Sam” (Megan Suri) is a typical high-school girl living in the American suburbs. As an Indian-American teen, she feels somewhat self-conscious about anything that might make her appear different from her peers. She does everything she can to fit in, distancing herself from her Indian roots and clashing with her traditional Indian mom, Poorna (Neeru Bajwa).

Poorna desperately wants to maintain the family’s ties to their Indian culture and resist complete Westernization.

She still wears customary Indian garments at home, prepares food from her homeland, and plans significant cultural celebrations. She continues to speak in Hindi, despite her husband and daughter opting almost entirely for English.

To her mother’s dismay, Sam has very little interest in anything related to her heritage.

“It Lives Inside” SXSW 2023 post-screening Q&A; Actor Mohana Krishnan (Tamira), Actor  Betty Gabriel (Joyce), Producer Sean McKittrick (QC Entertainment) (Photo credit: Stephanie Malone)

She prefers high-school parties and spending time with her new American boyfriend, Russ (Gage Marsh).

In an effort to assimilate, she’s also been distancing herself from her ex-best friend, fellow Indian-American Tamira (Mohana Kirshnan).

Tamira has made herself an outcast at school. She looks disheveled, carries a strange jar around, and appears meek and afraid all the time. It’s not a good look, and Sam worries it makes the Indian students stick out more than they already do — emphasizing their differences. It doesn’t help that the only other Indian student recently died under mysterious circumstances.

One day, a very clearly traumatized Tamira approaches Sam in the locker room at school and begs for her help. She explains that something evil is trapped inside the jar she’s been carrying, and she fears she can’t contain it much longer on her own.

Nervous about what others will think and frustrated by Tamira’s unsettling behavior, Sam snaps and breaks the jar, unwittingly releasing an ancient Hindu demon.

The now-freed entity soon kidnaps Tamira and begins to torment Sam, who must race to figure out what kind of evil she’s dealing with and how to stop it before it wreaks more havoc.

There’s a slow build to the horror, but the payoff is well worth it.

“It Lives Inside” SXSW 2023 post-screening Q&A; L-R Writer/Director Bishal Dutta, Actor Gage Marsh (Russ), Actor Megan Suri (Samidha) (Photo credit: Stephanie Malone)

Dutta spends ample time developing his characters and grounding you in their world before ramping up the terror. Rest assured, however, when the film is ready to get down to business, it’s every bit as gnarly and terrifying as you could hope for.

The internal conflict of a young woman torn between two cultures and struggling to keep part of her identity hidden — along with the inherent horror of adolescence — creates tension even before the supernatural shit hits the fan.

With the help of her sympathetic teacher, Joyce (the extraordinary Betty Gabriel, Get Out), Sam learns the truth about the threat she’s up against: a Pishacha demon that feeds on pain, despair, and loneliness.

Throughout much of the film, the demon is kept hidden — a fitting metaphor for the parts of Sam she feels she must keep in the shadows to be liked and accepted. But when Dutta finally brings his monster into the light, it’s a showstopper.

He deftly delivers a horrifying and memorable creature design that will give you nightmares.

Dutta is a filmmaker who clearly loves and respects the genre, and his work is infused with that reverence for other genre films. He wears his influences on his sleeve, but that takes nothing away from how fresh and innovative the film feels.

Despite being familiar in some ways, It Lives Inside remains distinct and refreshingly original, offering a compelling perspective we don’t typically get.

“It Lives Inside” SXSW 2023 post-screening Q&A; Actor Mohana Krishnan (Tamira), Actor  Betty Gabriel (Joyce), Producer Sean McKittrick (QC Entertainment) (Photo credit: Stephanie Malone)

The film reminded me somewhat of another spectacular debut, The Babadook. That’s primarily due to the compelling way Dutta uses demonic possession as a metaphor for emotional distress and inner conflict.

The Pishacha feeds on darkness. It terrorizes impressionable young Indian teens torn apart by their dueling identities — between their native culture and their new life in the white American suburbs.

The demon represents the shadow self, the part of Sam’s identity she must keep hidden; who she really is. Sam lives in fear that part of her core identity, her rich Indian heritage, will keep her from being accepted. So, she locks it away, just as the Pishacha must be kept locked in a vessel lest it destroys everything it touches.

It Lives Inside explores what happens when you lose yourself in an effort to adapt, making it as thought-provoking as it is absolutely chilling.

It all builds to a riveting climax that will keep you on the edge of your seat.

With outstanding performances, plenty of solid scares and stellar creature design, and confident direction from a promising new filmmaker, It Lives Inside is definitely one to add to your must-watch list.

Overall Rating (Out of 5 Butterflies): 4
It Lives Inside made its World Premiere at SXSW and is now headed to The Overlook Film Festival. Neon will release theatrically later this year.

1 Comment

1 Record

  1. on March 16, 2023 at 8:46 pm
    Umesh C Tahbildar wrote:
    Knowing is half way to annihilating the demon inside The pain and suffering emanating from the existential need of a muti-cultural kid to negotiate between two dominant and conflicting imperatives is indeed a devil and the deep blue sea reality. A sympathy is certainly in order and I hope " It lives inside ' throws light to the needy to gather strength based on the knowledge of the harsh reality.

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