By Pranjali Wakde
A messy braid of multiple narratives and half-baked characters – Durgamati, the latest addition to Bollywood’s overused genre of horror.
It is a common knowledge that Bollywood remakes Tollywood movies – especially the popular ones – in Hindi. The former sometimes picks up the essence of these movies, giving it a twist of their own, or just go for a scene-to-scene rendition, where most of the things rely on the actors’ flawless performance. Durgamati, the latest Amazon Prime Original, falls in the latter category. It is a Hindi remake of Bhaagmathie, a Tamil-Telugu bilingual, directed by Ashok, the same one who went on to direct Durgamati.
The movie falls in the political-horror genre, which is quite unheard of in Bollywood. There’re all kinds of horror films but rarely do directors indulge in political-horror, making Durgamati one of a kind (and by default, Bhaagmathie as well). The movie starts with an ominous cold open of villagers being killed, with roaring sounds being heard in the background. The scare factor is realistic enough to have you on your toes, increasing your fear-cum-excitement for the rest two and a half hours.
The villagers being killed is a part of the idol-thefts, a crime shown to have gained nation-wide importance. This case goes to CBI’s Satakshi Ganguly (Mahie Gill), who suspects the doodh-ka-dhula Minister of Water Resources, Mr Ishwar Prasad (Arshad Warsi). Staying true to his name, he boasts of a bedaag political career of 35 years and wins the hearts of the people. His actions are too good to be true, according to Ganguly, and his coincidental presence nearby the temples where the thefts took place, just added fuel to the fire.
Ganguly, authoritative and stubborn – and very obviously forced to use Bengali words to show that she’s Bengali – decides to interrogate Ishwar’s ex-secretary, IAS officer Chanchal Chauhan (Bhumi Pednekar). Chanchal, however, is already in jail, on grounds of shooting her fiancé, Shakthi, fondly referred to as ‘the voice of the voiceless’ – and ACP Abhay Singh’s brother (Jisshu Sengupta). The ACP gladly agrees to hand Chanchal over to CBI, as he still grieves for his brother. Her interrogation is off the records – and for that, she is shifted to (cue sinister music) Haunted Haveli, i.e. the Durgamati Mansion, in the middle of practically nowhere.
Durgamati Mansion fills all the criteria of a haunted place; cobwebs-clad walls in dusty rooms, extravagant chandeliers, fluttering flimsy curtains, flickering lights and forbidden rooms – which have the rumoured spirit trapped in there and which is set open by the reckless protagonist (“Mujhe iin sab cheezon mei vishwaas nahi hai”). Chanchal is forced to be kept there in isolation, with two fattu policemen stationed in an outhouse. A series of mysterious happenings take place in the initial nights, while the days are filled with Chanchal’s interrogations and the associated flashbacks.
Queen Durgamati’s spirit, quite predictably, manifests herself in Chanchal’s body and what we get in the middle of the film is a dramatic announcement of her return (“Durgamati hu mai!”). What follows hereon is the unentangling of the messy braid which has been spun till this point, with a very unanticipated climax.
For those who have already seen the Tamil-Telugu bilingual, Ashok, the director, they’d claim that Durgamati is its copy-pasted version. However, coming from a person who hasn’t watched Bhaagmathie (yet), I think this film really shows potential. The storyline is unique and crisp and makes the audience see that Bollywood has the potential to handle multiple-storylines, without focusing mainly on the love story or the horror narrative. Another plus point of the film is the setting – the Haveli is brilliantly set up and seems haunted enough. The background score meshes well with the scenes, though at some points, it becomes suggestive and sort of reveals what is about to happen.
And that’s where the best points of the film end. The scares are sort of repetitive, which would not appeal to a horror-movies lover. There are some elements added in the film, such as the mention of a blatant attack on Hindutva, Ishwar electing ‘kisaan ka beta’ as his successor and Chanchal’s Kakorrhaphiophobia. These could have been given a substantial shape, but unfortunately, these elements stay neglected, like the stray hair in the braid.
The actors give mixed performances. Bhumi’s Chanchal is really good, but her Durgamati lacks the powerful, larger-than-life presence on the screen. Her acting in those parts is particularly painful to watch and you can’t help but think of some other actresses who would’ve done Durgamati better (Are you thinking of Vidya Balan? Me too!). Warsi fits comfortably in his role as the wolf in a sheep’s skin; he’s amazingly smooth. Mahie Gill’s Satakshi tries hard to be serious, but her, “I don’t like negativity!” is kind of hilarious, just like the way she peppers Bengali words in her dialogues. Jisshu Sengupta’s role as the ACP, though with less screen time, is effortless and charming. And as for Kapadia’s Shakti, he could have been more convincing, if not for his seemingly childish rendition of angry-young-man yelling angry monologues.
All in all, Durgamati can be certainly a one-time watch (especially if you haven’t watched Bhaagmathie) and happens to be a half-baked film. It seems as if the director overconfidently went to work on a ready script – and casually overlooked several important elements. If only there had been someone to tell Ashok about the movie’s flaws and point out to him, as Satakshi’s daughter did to her – “Aap toh bass apni hi kahani sacch maanti ho, dusron ki kahaan sunti ho?”