Madhavan, Ajay Devgn, Jyotika in Shaitaan
Madhavan, Ajay Devgn, Jyotika in Shaitaan

Shaitaan review: Ajay Devgn, Jyotika, and Madhavan film is occasionally scary

As it stands, ‘Shaitaan’ is occasionally scary and occasionally disappointing. Just like most families, happy or otherwise.
Shaitaan (Hindi)(2.5 / 5)

A family fighting a monster together is the favourite premise of horror and thriller movies. Ajay Devgn did that already in Drishyam (2015), reprising Mohanlal’s unforgettable role as George Kutty in the Malayalam original. In Shaitaan, directed by Vikas Bahl, Ajay once again plays the “I will find you and I will kill you” variety of overprotective father. Even the villain of the film acknowledges that he must be ‘Father of the Year’.  The monster, this time, isn’t a mere boy. It’s the devil himself.

As overused as this premise might be, it always finds resonance with the audience because it’s easy to see ourselves in the terrified protagonists. How far will you go for your family? The question echoes through the screenplay, becoming bigger and bigger, till a (hopefully) rewarding climax. Shaitaan, the remake of the Gujarati horror film Vash (2023), follows pretty much the same pattern. 

Kabir (Ajay Devgn), wife Jyoti (Jyotika), daughter Janvi (Janki Bodiwala), and son Dhruv (Anngad Raaj) are a happy family as families often are at the beginning of such films. The cloying background score places unnecessary emphasis on “happiness” as if this were an advertisement persuading us to buy toothpaste at the end of it. The actors do a decent job of creating a certain warmth together, so why not leave it at that?

Janvi is a Class 12 student and Kabir is her watchful dad. A weekend trip to their farmhouse, though, turns into a nightmare, thanks to a stranger who walks into their home. The portion that builds up to this event is creepy and far scarier than anything else that happens in the film. Vanraj (Madhavan) seems like Mr Nice Guy, helping out Kabir in a spot of bother. But his friendliness comes at a cost – he gains control of Janvi and won’t relent until her parents strike a bargain with the devil. Quite literally. 

Jyoti’s mother radar senses that something is off. Kabir, though, isn’t as concerned. From the time Vanraj walks into their home, things quickly escalate. Blame it on the trailer, but the best moments of the film were already revealed to the audience. We know Janvi is going to dance. We know she’s going to eat tea leaves. We know she’s going to sit on a gas cylinder. We know she won’t hesitate to kill her parents. It’s a credit to the cast – especially Madhavan, Janki, and Jyotika – that we remain invested in how things pan out. 

Madhavan, with his casual one-liners and deliberate arrogance, makes for a good shaitaan. He isn’t terrifying, but he’s certainly discomfiting. Janki, who also played the same role in the Gujarati original, is excellent as his zombie – she’s in a frenzy but you can see the struggle within her as she’s forced to attack her own family. Jyotika is also convincing as the agonised Jyoti who can’t bear to watch what’s happening to her daughter. 

But since the sequence leading up to this night of terror only gave us a generic happy family, we don’t know anything about the characters. So, when Jyoti guesses that Vanraj must have done “kala jadu” on Janvi, we wonder how she arrived at that answer. Is she interested in the occult? Is she superstitious while Kabir isn’t? 

A part of setting up the stakes in screenplay writing is to give the characters a certain fear, phobia, or belief system that they have to confront if they’re to overcome the situation at hand. In Kali (2016), for instance, Sai Pallavi’s character has to face her fear of driving if she is to escape her attacker. In Phobia (2016) and Game Over (2019), the protagonists are survivors of sexual assault, and they have to take a leap of faith to find closure for their trauma. Shaitaan, however, doesn’t give us anything beyond the rinse-repeat routine of Janvi doing bizarre things at Vanraj’s bidding. We don’t even know why he chooses Janvi and this particular family as his victims. Is it random? What is the supernatural logic governing his mission?

The lighting, background score, and camera angles in these scenes create the necessary atmospherics, but the screenplay would have been far more interesting if we also knew just how much effort it takes from everybody to survive the night. Still, a couple of sequences stand out – especially the mother-daughter moment between Jyoti and Janvi when the latter is pushed to do something utterly humiliating. Both the actors are brilliant at that precipice of shared anguish. 

The third act is disappointing, even if Madhavan cuts loose and turns himself into a raging psychotic presence. You also question the writing choices, with two plot twists revealed through flashbacks. These are supposed to make you go “Aha!” but end up looking underwhelming. And was it necessary to throw in a couple of trans women for no good reason other than to amplify the shaitaan’s villainy? It doesn’t help that the disclaimer pleasantly adds “This film does not endorse black magic” when we’re witnessing a scene of, well, black magic. That isn’t the film’s fault, but it does come in the way of suspending our disbelief. When is the CBFC going to stop being a babysitter?

As it stands, Shaitaan is occasionally scary and occasionally disappointing. Just like most families, happy or otherwise.  

Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Neither TNM nor any of its reviewers have any sort of business relationship with the film’s producers or any other members of its cast and crew.

Sowmya Rajendran writes on gender, culture, and cinema. She has written over 25 books, including a nonfiction book on gender for adolescents. She was awarded the Sahitya Akademi’s Bal Sahitya Puraskar for her novel Mayil Will Not Be Quiet in 2015.

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