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Warning: This article contains spoilers from “It Lives Inside.”
Children of immigrants are no strangers to battling inner demons on their journeys to self-acceptance. In the new horror movie “It Lives Inside,” those demons are very much real — and they prey on the distress of diaspora kids.
Against the backdrop of suburban America, a monster conjured from scary South Asian bedtime stories feeds on the characters’ souls. The film, in theaters Friday after debuting at South by Southwest in March, follows Indian American teen Samidha (Megan Suri), who rejects her parents’ language and culture in order to fit in with her peers. That changes when she accidentally unleashes a demon known in Hindu mythology as the pishach, which is said to infiltrate people’s thoughts and feed on their energy.
In order to contain it, she realizes she needs the help of her Hindi-speaking immigrant mom, played by Neeru Bajwa, whom she pushes away and dismisses as a “Desi housewife” in the film.
Suri, known most recently for playing Aneesa in Netflix’s “Never Have I Ever,” says this story of cultural discomfort and acceptance is dear to her. Throughout the movie, her character quietly endures microaggressions from her peers, abandons her packed Indian lunches and cringes at the thought of speaking Hindi.
Born in the U.S. to Punjabi immigrant parents, Suri said habits she picked up while living in India for two years as a kid made her feel like a foreigner when she came home.
“I understood on a cellular level what it was like to experience those emotions,” Suri told NBC News. “There were things I had been doing for years in India, and then I did them in the U.S. and kids just looked at me like I was a complete weirdo.”
The movie also explores the push and pull of first-generation kids relating to their immigrant parents, with Suri’s character saying in the movie that she doesn’t want to end up like her mother. Ultimately, though, when it comes time to take on the pishach, her mom’s spiritual knowledge is the only thing that can help her.
“My mom, she immigrated here when she was 8 … so she had some Americanized ways, yet she still very much acted like a traditional housewife would, that was expected of her,” Suri said. “I think that what’s great about this movie is that we are able to delve into these conversations that we’ve been wanting to for quite some time, but we haven’t yet seen in mainstream cinema or T.V.”
A self-described horror nut, she grew up watching “Jeepers Creepers” and “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” but also going to bed listening to her parents’ and grandparents’ tales of mythical monsters and ghosts.
“I don’t even know if this is a real Indian word, but my dad would always say, ‘If you don’t go to sleep, the ‘babudola’ is gonna get you,’” she said, in reference to a legend told to children across the subcontinent.
She hopes “It Lives Inside” isn’t the last U.S. audiences see of South Asian horror. There are centuries of legends to be explored, and a growing number of Indian Americans ready to take on the task, she said.
“I just hope that this opens more doors, and that we continue to get to see more stories like this,” she said. “Our culture is so diverse, and it’s not a monolithic experience. And there are so many stories that I’m sure we could make a gazillion movies out of them.”
But as her name becomes more of a staple in Indian Americans circles, Suri says what’s next for her will be determined by the status of strikes in Hollywood, which have halted the production of film and television projects.
“I hope that they end soon,” she said. “I hope that we get a fair deal so that we can continue shattering ceilings and opening more doors and extending the ladder.”