Bishal Dutta makes his feature directing debut with It Lives Inside, a tense horror film he co-wrote with Ashish Mehta, that won the Midnighters audience award at this year’s SXSW. The movie, which opens in Bay Area theaters on Fri/22, is one he has been perhaps prepping for his entire life. He was born in India and immigrated to North America at four, raised in two cultures and well aware how important fitting in can be to a kid.
Being part of the crowd is certainly vital to Samidha (Megan Suri). The teenage daughter of Indian immigrants, she constantly locks heads with her tradition mother in her zeal to be an ordinary American high school student. So eager is she to completely assimilate that she’s even dropped her lifelong best friend, Tamira (Mohana Krishnan), who still clings to old ways. But when Tamira approaches Samidha for help battling an ancient Indian demon and then disappears, that culture she disdains may be the only thing that can save her, Tamira, and everyone else she loves.
“I remembered a lot of these ghost stories that were passed down through the generations,” Dutta says during a recent Zoom call. “My grandfather told a story about supposedly meeting one of these demons once, and I loved that. These stories are so universal that they’ve lasted for decades, sometimes centuries, and I felt like I could bring that to a western audience and share the same fear I felt.
“At the same time, I also grew up kind of feeling like I was trapped between two worlds and I felt like I had to synthesize an identity out of the two. I felt like that was a great conflict for a horror movie. I hadn’t seen that done. So, it was really those two impulses that came together and ended up becoming this movie.”
It Lives Inside’s script delighted Suri, who recently starred in the film Missing and has recurred on the Netflix series Never Have I Ever. A horror fan for as long as she can remember, acting in a horror movie has long been an ambition. She would have been happy to have been offered a supporting role in which her character dies within the first 15 minutes. Instead, she was shocked to discover that only she was up for the lead, it was a role written with such specificity.
“I instantly felt a connection to Sam, there are so many shared experiences,” Suri says. “And upon meeting with Bishal, I knew this was something I needed to be part of under any circumstances.
“The film is the first of its kind in so many ways, despite having the traditional horror elements” she adds. “It’s really cool to see two Brown girls that really need each other if they are going to conquer this beast. It was exciting to have those scares that we all grew up with and that I had nightmares over but it was important to add that extra element that separates it from the mix.”
Dutta quickly name checks Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as fright night films he grew up loving. At the same time, he can remember wondering what a family like his might do if plunked down in one of those scenarios. He answers his own question with a film set in a seemingly safe suburbia, the kind of place Freddie Krueger or Michael Meyers might terrorize, that suddenly finds itself home to a murderous, soul-sucking ancient entity.
“Part of the project became to take the genre and create the aesthetic world of a horror film, and then populate it with a very specific sort of family with a very specific culture,” Dutta says. “That mix of the familiar with the unfamiliar, that’s what I always want in a movie and that’s how I wanted to balance it here.
“I wasn’t born here,” he adds. “I was born in India and moved here. And Megan has had some very interesting experiences as well. We talked so much about how do we use this very universally affecting genre to convey some of that? At the end of the day, the Indian American experience is too large for us to make a statement about it, but it felt like there was an opportunity for us to bake in so many of these real moments that affected us.”
Suri sees something else at play beneath the film’s horror. Samidha is so frustrated by her mother, asking her at one point why she left India. So intent is she on being an American that she chafes at Indian culture, only to discover that that is the very thing she needs to embrace when a demon comes calling.
“It’s really that universal experience that every child of immigrants or first generation, experiences, but I think in Sam’s case, it’s just expedited,” Suri says. “She experiences those emotions of acceptance in the course of a movie, whereas I feel like in real life took me some years to be able to fully accept who I am and own who I am, but we see Sam do it at such a young age and so quickly.
“I think that will resonate with a lot of actual teenagers,” she adds. “I think it’s an important message and one that they’ll come to on their own anyways, as life gives them more experience in time. But I think it’s beautiful to see that represented on screen.”