Cast: Amala Akkineni, GV Bhavani, Brahmaji
Director: Pushpa Ignatius
Even as first-class roles are being written for middle-aged women in Hindi cinema (Priyamvada, played by Neena Gupta, in Badhaai Ho; Simi, played by Tabu, in Andhadhun), majority of the content still revolves around men and women who are in their twenties. This new wave hasn’t yet hit the shores of Telugu cinema (or the other cinemas of the South, so to speak). But the digital space has taken a leap to give Amala Akkineni the status of a headliner for an eight-episode series on Zee5.
Swathi Reddy (Amala) is called a world-renowned psychic by an impatient character in the pilot. This extravagant statement sets things in motion as the psychic-cum-tarot-reader gets in touch with dead people whenever the need arises and frees them from this unforgiving world.
Swathi speaks softly and haltingly as if she’s taking time to rummage through her clients’ chaotic minds. There’s no doubt about this series being in the supernatural realm, but there’s much empathy shown for the dead and the departed. Almost every episode digs into a story of deceit, or destruction, and it is left to the skills of the protagonist to find a solution for it. As part of the narrative device, writer-director Pushpa Ignatius puts two college sweethearts, Swathi and Vikram (Kishore), under the same roof.
Vikram walks into Swathi’s palatial abode unannounced and surprises the living daylights out of her. She’s seeing him after 17 years, but that doesn’t call for a tight embrace or a stern look of disapproval either. She’s just too stunned to let her thoughts run ahead of her. He ghosted her after marrying somebody else, and she moved to the US to put her sorrow away. Now that he’s in front of her, she has an option of bursting into tears—like women usually do in Telugu series—or begin a fresh chapter by putting the past behind them. Pushpa makes Swathi choose the latter, and, after some moments of hesitation and utter confusion, the old lovers sit down to have a chat on their corroded memories and the cases that Swathi has worked on.
Female infanticide, accidental killing, a kid disappearing into the hollow of a washing machine, and a plotline inspired by M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense make it to High Priestess. Like Amazon Prime’s Made in Heaven, all the individual tales work within the larger construct in spite of them belonging to different areas. A possessed doll (a nod to the Annabelle doll, perhaps) that wreaks havoc on a family of three, and a fun-filled narrative about a friendship gone sour due to jealousy are also amongst the hand-picked stories that Swathi tells her ex-boyfriend.
Each object that’s put on display in Swathi’s consultation room has a dark, and violent, history that only she knows about. We keep hearing sordid accounts of villagers teaming up to burn women alive as they’re brainwashed to believe that they’re witches who are on a mission to turn their green lands into desert sands. While the incident with the washing machine has happened all over the world (kids tend to play inside machines that have an opening in the front), witch-hunt has gained infamy in some rural parts of India. The lack of education and healthcare makes the people living a hand to mouth existence rely on the powers of the occult. And when the rich tap into their insecurities, they’ll go to any extent to make sure that they’re not harmed by the prayers offered to the gods of the underworld.
Brahmaji, who appears as a lawyer in the witch-hunt tale, is excellent as a guilt-ridden person. He fights for the accused and gets him released, but he finds it difficult to take his eyes off the victim’s daughter. He’s easily the best actor amongst the dozen odd faces that pop up in High Priestess. The series, which is mostly set in Vizag, would have worked in any other metropolis as well. The city’s streets and beaches aren’t used as a necessary commodity. They’re rather present for the aesthetic value.
Pushpa’s writing makes it seem as though you’re reading Ruskin Bond’s short horror stories. I mean this definitely as a compliment. And the leads, with their formal gestures and vacant stares of might-have-beens, deliver a theatrical performance that sometimes looks too rehearsed, but I’m okay with it since it doesn’t tilt the scales toward mockery. High Priestess doesn’t break new ground in digital entertainment—for that matter, even in Zee5–but it gives a warm, fuzzy feeling of having watched a show that’s pillared by social commentary and unshaken love.