A major draw for SXSW (at least for me) is to see all the up-and-coming filmmakers and witness their debuts. Bishal Dutta’s IT LIVES INSIDE is one such film that stood out because of how it presented the fest with an underrepresented culture in the horror world. Like many films in the genre, IT LIVES INSIDE tells the story of a monster and the pain and death it unleashes. However, this particular film creates a more unique monster story because the demon in this tale not only comes from Hindi myth but also represents the struggle many immigrants face with assimilation.

Samidha (Megan Suri) lives in a predominantly white community and this fact never seems to leave her mind. We never witness her facing any danger because of her race, but she does experience covert racism on a daily basis based on how people around her (including her best friend) make assumptions about her culture and exoticize her mere existence. Samidha’s insecurities about her identity control her life and make it hard for her to connect with others and also connect with herself.

Very quickly in the film the audience sees the riff between Samidha and her mother and how much the daughter desperately wants to distance herself from her family. Her mother (Neeru Bajwa) represents Hindi traditions and superstitions because she puts a lot of emphasis on celebrating her holidays and speaking her language. Samidha, on the other hand, represents iPhones and assimilation. She desperately wants to fit in with her classmates, so she distances herself from her roots and anyone who might associate her with the Hindi culture.

While Samidha can go to school to escape her mother, she cannot escape the other Hindi student, Tamira (Mohana Krishnan). Once best friends, Tamira and Samidha long ago went their separate ways, but teachers and students still heavily associate the two together due to their shared culture. Tamira is a quiet and awkward girl with unrelenting staring eyes, and more curiously an empty mason jar she insists on taking everywhere.

Embarrassed with her old friend’s bizarre behavior and how everyone at the school seems to view them as one and the same, Samidha acts out and destroys the protected jar. So, what comes off as an innocent teenage outburst actually unleashes an evil spirit. Now, Samidha must reconnect with her culture and language to save Tamira’s life. The lead actress Suri does a spectacular job pulling the audience into all the emotions and dread her character experiences.

The bright and colorful costume design might seem out of place in a horror film, but it only adds to this visually impressive film. IT LIVES INSIDE offers plenty of startling jump scares and an eerie atmosphere and, considering it is PG-13, you have to wonder how much was held back when it came to the more violent deaths. But the fear or the discomfort experienced when watching this film does not just come from the featured demon, but also from the struggles of assimilation and the cringe-racism Samidha struggles with throughout the movie.

Some other reviews have complained how IT LIVES INSIDE is the same old horror story, just instead of a Christian demon it is a Hindi demon. This is so incredibly inaccurate and even offensive. Is Chanukah just Jewish Christmas? No! Dutta did not create a film about Christian mythology and merely insert Hindi actors. The story of IT LIVES INSIDE is a Hindi story and the traditions, cultures, and language are such integral parts of the narrative that dismissing the film as just another demon movie completely ignores the cultural representation. So, don’t go to this movie expecting the same old demon story. Instead, go to experience a perspective and a type of fear you may not be familiar with.

IT LIVES INSIDE had its world premiere at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival.  Make sure to check the rest of our SXSW coverage here.

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