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.