Horror films that tap into or draw inspiration from Hindi mythology have enjoyed some success in recent years. There was the critically acclaimed Anushka Sharma-starrer 'Pari', Prosit Roy's vengeful witch pulp thriller with political and feminist overtones. Rahi Anil Barve and Adesh Prasad's period film, 'Tumbbad', was a phantasmagorical visual stunner. 'Ghoul', a Netflix miniseries by Patrick Graham, combined dystopian dread with folk legends and political commentary. Ashim Ahluwalia was one of the directors of the international horror anthology 'The Field Guide To Evil'.
Ilanthirayan Alan Arumugam's 'Aiyai: Wrathful Soul' begins with Kiran (Kabir Singh), a foreign student living in Brisbane, losing his kitchenhand job after his naivety results in muscular meth dealer Tom (Ozzie Devrish) and his one-eyed crony Steve (Korey Williams) robbing the cash register of the restaurant.
With some help from his friend Felix (Vinod Mohana Sundaram) and the support of his girlfriend Sara (Tahlia Jade Holt), Kiran manages to get a job at a sprawling inner-city cemetery, complete with its own funeral home and a spooky crematorium. He is shown the ropes by a shaggy-haired ocker groundskeeper, Darren (William Wensley), and the owner, Albert (Richard Huggert). "The most important thing about the cremation business is that everything we do is well done," Darren advises, loudly, near a funeral service.
Meanwhile, Tom and his henchman are slinging drugs and roughing up homeless people, in particular Amy (Pennyanne Lace). Kiran's storyline eventually reconverges with that of the thugs, after which he experiences a haunting at the crematorium (cue: chairs moving, blood gushing from a sink) and is possessed by a vengeful spirit made of ash. As his behaviour becomes increasingly erratic, he experiences visions of events he is unable to understand or explain.
From what I gather, the word "aiyai' originates from ancient Indian literature, metaphorically meaning "princess", a woman from a homeless clan of gypsies who have remained destitute street mongers for generations. It isn't until the climax of the film that the title's relevance comes into play.
Of the positives, cinematographer Damien Beebe and production designer Tim Hodgman craft some impressive visuals, sometimes with a smattering of effective CGI, other times with agile camera work, achieved via drone and dolly zooms.
In the negatives column, 'Aiyai: Wrathful Soul' isn't very scary, nor does Kiran's storyline and the twisty criminal subplot (which sees Kiran morph into a sort of 'Crow'-like supernatural vigilante) cohere effectively. Instead, you'll be wondering where the film is going, as it hops between the lead character and petty criminals, before suddenly switching gear into paranormal territory with occasional 'Evil Dead' vibes.
Of the positives, cinematographer Damien Beebe and production designer Tim Hodgman craft some impressive visuals, sometimes with a smattering of effective CGI, other times with agile camera work achieved via drone and dolly zooms. The locations, particularly the building used for the funeral home, are well-selected and ooze ambiance - much of the film takes place at Jimbour Homestead in regional Queensland, and features scenes shot in Brisbane's historic Toowong Cemetery. The acting is also quite good across the board, with Tahlia Jade Holt and Richard Huggert making an impression.
'Aiyai: Wrathful Soul' is an ambitious entry into Australian horror from Ilanthirayan Alan Arumugam that could have used more of a focus on its ghostly shenanigans, and less on the crime drama. Instead, it hovers uncertainly in limbo between the two.