Durgamati Movie Review: A loud, overlong horror-thriller
This Hindi remake of Bhaagamathie is let down by screechy performances and a simplistic moral scheme
Twisty movies need to play out in a twisted universe. Films like Primal Fear and The Usual Suspects are classics not just because their protagonists get away, but because they inhabit a world that lets them get away. Such is rarely the case in Indian cinema, though. In a culture where words like ‘insaaf’ (justice) and ‘imandari’ (honesty) still hold genuine cinematic sway, it’s only a matter of time till a film spills its beans.
I was borderline sold on the concept of Durgamati, a remake of the 2018 Tamil-Telugu hit Bhaagmathie, when it became clear which way the wind was blowing. Chanchal Chauhan (Bhumi Pednekar), an honest IAS officer under arrest for murder, is hastily shifted to Durgamati Haveli, a secluded mansion in the middle of nowhere. There, she is interrogated over a few days by a team of CBI officials and cops. They want her to tattle on a powerful minister, Ishwar Prasad (Arshad Warsi), whom she used to assist. But before the operation can proceed, strange occurrences begin to happen. Chanchal, it appears, gets possessed by Durgamati, the spirit of a despotic queen whose mansion it is. She turns increasingly violent—slithering backwards into dark rooms and shouting manically in Arabic—though the cops keep on with their little experiment.
Cast: Bhumi Pednekar, Arshad Warsi, Mahie Gill, Jisshu Sengupta
Director: G Ashok
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video
This is where the film oversteps itself. It’s one thing to keep us guessing if Chanchal is possessed or not, quite another to do so in such a loud and relentless manner. The visual effects are forcibly gimmicky—supernatural intervention or not. Bhumi, an otherwise talented actor, is a terrible on-screen shouter, her appearances as Durgamati unbearably screechy and outlandish. “Mein Durgamati hoon…,” she screams assertively in one scene—just in case you were starting to doubt that claim. This isn’t a horror comedy, though it often feels like one: in addition to Chanchal’s crazed trident-wielding, there are the three constables nervously watching her (Priyadarshan’s Bhool Bhulaiyaa had struck this balance effectively, keeping the humour and the intrigue on separate tracks).
Director G Ashok also makes the mistake of writing black-and-white characters into his plot. Mahie Gill (as CBI officer Satakshi Ganguly) and Jisshu Sengupta (as ACP Abhay Singh) are grim, astute figures, while Karan Kapadia—as Chanchal’s dead boyfriend—is so tame you hardly regret how things turn out for him. Only Arshad Warsi as Ishwar manages to suggest a sly ambivalence even as his character is framed as a demi-god (Chanchal talks him up as a model of integrity in the interrogation scenes, and, in an odd flashback, he likens her to his daughter).
In shifting the setting to North India, the film accommodates the political talking points of today. There are nods to appeasement, exploitation, protests. At a press conference, Ishwar bows sadly and says it’s every politician’s job to answer questions. There’s also a plotline about missing idols from local temples—and how it can shake up the entire politics of the state. Mostly, though, the conspiracy is kept slapdash, and can be figured out once you have the basic pieces in place. Not that the film cares—well after the ‘gotcha’ moments have passed, it keeps rolling out exposition until your ears begin to bleed. “Everything makes sense,” Abhay ventures at the 150th minute. “But there’s one doubt.” Oh, come on, dude...
The mark of a good suspense thriller is its ability to duck and dive, to not reveal its intentions till the very end. Durgamati, while piling on twist upon ludicrous twist, does not heed this logic. Instead, it takes every passing chance to moralise, even at the cost of giving away its plot. The fears of Indian cinema are primal, its ingenuity doubly so.