Dhootha series review: A sparkling addition to Telugu OTT and new-age horror
Vikram K Kumar’s streaming debut is all things assured, competent and…Vikram K Kumar
“How much is a story willing to let its characters die” is not a litmus test I hoped I would be using to determine its narrative strength. But a few episodes into Dhootha, Prime Video’s latest offering, I was convinced that the show is onto something good when I watched a child meet its maker. Considering how Telugu cinema would rather mollycoddle its audience than expose them to inescapable tragedy, it was a total surprise to witness a child’s gruesome death. Was I sad to see the child die? Yes. But did my respect for Dhootha’s makers increase manifold when they placed the story’s larger interests over the audience’s momentary displeasure? Also yes. Big time. There is something beautiful about a sure-footed story. With its unhesitant presence, everything else can take care of itself easily. And it is even more delightful to witness that ease in progress, pick up things carefully where they left off, prancing gently across one’s mind while offering a fair share of aha! (pun unintended) moments to its viewer.
Showrunner: Vikram K Kumar
Cast: Naga Chaitanya Akkineni, Parvathy, Priya Bhavani Shankar, Prachi Desai, Chaitanya Garikapati, Ravindra Vijay
Streaming Platform: Prime Video
A phrase like ‘Don’t shoot the messenger’ acquires a whole new meaning here. At the beginning of the series, veteran journalist Sagar Varma Avaduri (Naga Chaitanya), likens scribes to celestial messengers (dhoothalu). A hallowed bridge between people and the pillars of power. What will happen when this bridge in question has faulty construction? Or else, what will happen if the bridge itself gets absorbed into the shadows of power? While this is not a novel dilemma in the world of newsroom stories, its marriage with elements of the supernatural makes for a worthwhile inspection. Within the span of a single week, which is also the timeframe under which we watch the entire story unfold, Sagar witnesses a series of deaths arrive with a touch of deterministic Death Note-style premonitions. Running in parallel to Sagar’s story are the pursuits of detective Kranti Shenoy (Parvathy, in her Telugu debut) and her trusty sidekick Ranga (Chaitanya Garikapati, in a memorable turn after Middle Class Melodies). Dhootha offers a procedural, with some good old "It is Elementary, Watson" clap backs while riffing off on a selection of new-age horror on the other hand. In a story practically stuffed with deaths, it is one facing the consequences of their wrong actions that bring in the most telling of chills. The imagery is also quite there, be it in blood swirling in water or a gory package filled with the coldest of revenge.
Dhootha is set in Visakhapatnam, but the palette and mood of it all is a customized creation. Cinematographer Mikolaj Sygula, whose credits also include Nani’s Gang Leader, paints a moody world of blues and greys that heighten both crisis and emotional isolation. The visuals are aptly complimented by Varun Venugopal’s textured sound design. Throughout the series, we see a city drenched in rain, and it contributes well to a compact narrative that runs high on intensity and urgency. The first few episodes, while holding enough suspense, do not grab your attention instantly. As a matter of fact, the newsroom terminology it throws off can practically pass off as comedy for actual journalists. I also wonder if people who actually choose to be unethical in their work speak the way they do in films and TV, in such crudely straightforward ways. But Dhootha is probably not the right series to answer these questions or to hold a candle to factual accuracy in the world of journalism. What it does do is use journalism to extract a right-vs-wrong framework and design a supernatural form of vigilante justice.
The bits of newspaper predicting deaths down to the last detail come to Sagar in various ways, mirroring the ubiquity of old newspapers in our own lives. This is not a random plot device and an entire episode — featuring the likes of Pasupathy, Tanikella Bharani and Tharun Bhascker — is dedicated to the origin story of this ongoing curse. While the real world is still asking if ghosts exist or not, Dhootha uses the ghost to put an end to those dhoothas who convert truth to falsehoods and vice versa for their own benefit. If the newspapers remind one warmly of 13 B/ Yavarum Naalum (2009), then the flashback, with its echoes in the present day, doubles up as a delightful Manam (2014) callback. To Vikram K Kumar’s credit, it never feels like he is revisiting his own work as much as it feels like him returning to a set of curiosities to play a new tune. It also helps that Dhootha plays out in a format larger than feature-length cinema, which enables the writer-director to dig deep into a hitherto unexplored darkness.
Naga Chaitanya’s Sagar is the decaying soul of Dhootha. While it is commendable to see him headline a project of this nature, his performance — which should have ideally been filled with sociopathy, angst and pathos — feels feeble and frigid. Parvathy’s Kranti Shenoy provides a calm foil to the madness of Dhootha, coming off as a female equivalent of Athadu's(2005) CBI officer Anjaneya Prasad. While I expected to receive deja vu from Vikram Kumar’s previous films, Dhootha in itself feels like a throwback to the early days of Indian streaming, where clarity, quality and cohesive storytelling were a given. Somewhere, we lost that in the abundance and the sheer saturation of content around us. Dhootha brings that back while setting a decent standard for homegrown Telugu OTT.