Friday 11 December 2020

"Durgamati: The Myth" (Guardian 11/12/20)

Durgamati: The Myth **

Dir: Ashok. With: Bhumi Pednekar, Mahie Gill, Arshad Warsi, Jisshu Sengupta. 156 mins. No cert.

Censorship may have been an issue, but it’s striking how few horror films the Indian commercial cinema has produced relative to other genres. Things are changing, however. DVD-schooled younger creatives have taken up the challenge of splicing local traditions with spooky tropes, yielding such recent highlights as the sprightly chiller Stree and the darker-hued Tumbbad. (Arguably, India’s submission for this year’s Oscars, the thunderous runaway-buffalo picture Jallikattu, could itself be classified as horror – not least for its terrifying social commentary.) The Blumhousification of Bollywood continues with this big, dumb haunted-house runaround, adapted by writer-director Ashok from Bhaagamathie, his own regional hit of 2018 – though adaptation, in this case, has meant not much more than cranking the dial to eleven.

Initially, we’re in House of Cards country, watching corrupt politicos – and a CBI officer who makes Priti Patel look chummy – plot to besmirch one of their few honest colleagues; the idea is to put a literal squeeze on his jailed PA Chanchal (Bhumi Pednekar) in the hope of extracting useful juice. No question what territory we’re in once these bad apples decide on the venue for their off-grid interrogation: the titular abandoned mansion, rumoured to be stalked by the vengeful ghost of a slain queen. “Her thirst for blood is insane!,” yelps the property’s wild-eyed, no-armed watchman, offering both a potential tagline for poster designers, and a handy warning for everybody else. Abandon any expectation of subtlety, all ye who enter here.

That political melodrama, expanded upon in flashbacks that push the running time over two-and-a-half hours, promises a far cannier night in than we get. The horror element mostly finds Ashok rolling out tropes tried, tested and tired out in American features: Sinister-like film reels, power cuts à la everything else, hefty soundtrack parps when inspiration really fails. Pared down or sent up, it might have held the interest. As it is, Ashok plays deadeningly straight everything Stree made mischief with, generating some very ripe, sub-sub-Hammer scenes as our heroine is possessed by the restless queen’s spirit. Here, the capable Pednekar is limited to bellowing while someone points a wind machine in her face, and it’s really not as if the film needs to get any louder.

Durgamati: The Myth is now streaming via Prime Video.

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