Arvind Sastry’s Alidu Ulidavaru opens with two men on a bike approaching a house. They look like they are part of a food-delivery service. Or maybe they’ve got a package to drop off. Either way, neither man wants to do whatever they’ve come to do. Finally, one of them summons up the guts and walks up to the gate — and just then, in front of his terrified eyes, the gate latches itself. The man runs away, screaming. Is this really a haunted house? Or are we meant to think it is a haunted house? Are those two men really a part of this story? Or are they snuck into this scene — and only this scene — in order to make us believe that the latch did indeed fall on its own accord, unaided by human intervention? Fix this stretch in your head and revisit it after The End.
Meanwhile, we move to Sheelam (Ashu Bedra), the anchor of a super-hit television show called Kaarana. As the name suggests, he looks for a reason, a why — which means he is a man of cold logic. In each episode, he debunks ghosts and haunted houses, proving that what was thought of as “inexplicable” can be explained: namely, there is a reason. If you thought it was a ghost, it’s probably a guy in the guise of a ghost. Sheelam has finished 99 episodes and his TRP-obsessed boss asks him to look out for a biggie for the 100th. He’s such a stud, he doesn’t need a crew. He just installs cameras everywhere, waits for the “ghost”, figures out the reason, and walks away coolly with another TRP-busting episode.
The film gets off to a wordy start, but the television-channel ambience is convincing. Sheelam is shown cutting a promo, which is actually something he would do. There are other anchors, notably a “guruji”, who hosts a show on astrology, or some such thing. He keeps arguing with Sheelam: It’s stupid to say you will believe in something only after experiencing it… We need the humility to accept that some things are beyond us. He could be talking about those two men at the beginning. But Sheelam would probably say that those men were already afraid and this fear played tricks on their minds and confirmed what they had decided to believe even before approaching that gate.
Alidu Ulidavaru, thus, is a horror movie with a small twist. On the one hand, it wants us to believe those two men. On the other hand, the protagonist himself is a non-believer. As Sheelam prepares for his landmark episode by researching on Brahmarakshasa-s (i.e. the souls of Brahmins who died gruesome deaths), he is diverted by events that I won’t discuss here. All you need to know is that the show he wanted to do isn’t the show he ends up doing. The interval point is crazy — I mean, good-crazy. Remember the interval point of Kahaani where we thought the protagonist might have ended up crushed under a train? This is that level of crazy.
But it doesn’t add up. Pawan Kumar appears as a man who seems to be mentally unhinged. His character promises much, delivers little. Screenplay-wise, he’s just a conduit, the human equivalent of a courier — he delivers the protagonist to a haunted house. Something similar could be said about Atul Kurkarni, too, who shows up as a cop investigating a murder. But we keep getting flashbacks in parallel. In other words, we are actually being shown what happened — even as the Atul Kulkarni character is trying to find out what happened. Something’s off about the screenplay’s structure. It wastes too much time establishing Sheelam’s work and workplace, and it’s only at the interval point that the plot really takes off. You could argue that the philosophical discussions that came earlier are important, that this isn’t just a mystery but a mystery with meaning. Only, it isn’t.
These discussions might have worked if Sheelam discovered, slowly, that the guruji might be right after all — but these portions where doubt sets in, they are treated like set pieces. It’s a sudden tonal shift. What’s needed, what’s missing is atmosphere, a tension that hangs over the film like a heavy mist. I enjoyed Midhun Mukundan’s score. He mixes electronic effects with creepy, down-to-earth sounds — like a razor being sharpened against a belt, or a tinkling spoon. Ashu Bedra walks through the film with a one-note expression, but I liked that his fight scene was split with his ass-kicking girlfriend (Sangeetha Bhat), who’s a self-defence trainer. These are interesting touches, but they don’t come together in a way that spooks you. In this kind of movie, the house may or may not be overrun by ghosts. But the audience should definitely end up haunted.