Director: G Ashok
Cast: Anushka Shetty, Unni Mukundan, Jayaram
The latest incarnation of the haunted-house movie is titled Bhaagamathie – and it's at least a little different from others of its ilk. It's a haunted-palace movie. The police force, though, prefer to call the mansion a guest house. It's in the middle of a forest, and it's where a convict named Sanchala (Anushka Shetty, whose statuesque presence does more for these parts than her performance) is being taken for interrogation. (The police suspect that this former IAS officer knows something about antiques being smuggled out of the country.) As Sanchala is being taken there, an ominous crow trails them. The weather report warns of a storm ahead. The insides of the location are filled with dim lighting, ear-shattering music, and – you'd better be sitting down for this – cobwebs. Someone is heard muttering, "Adhu guest house illa. Ghost house."
Soon, people are being tossed around like puppets. (Literally!) Is Sanchala possessed by the spirit of a queen? A tantrik is brought in to find out. He says there's only one way to ascertain that there are two souls inside Sanchala's body, and that's to check if she's giving off a bad smell. He isn't talking about BO. But something else stinks, and it's the lip-sync. The film is meant to be in Tamil, but half the actors seem to be speaking in Telugu.
Still, G Ashok, the writer-director, is on to something. He wants to make you jump out of your seat. But he's also pulling the rug from under your feet. I'd tell you the name of the famous Hollywood crime thriller that's the obvious inspiration if it wouldn't be such a major spoiler. The presence of Asha Sharath as the relentless investigating officer brings another thriller to mind: Drishyam. Here, too, we have cover-ups, lies, an unexpected killing. What's missing is the gradual ratcheting up of pace. For the longest time, Bhaagamathie is too reliant on easy jolts. When the big reveals (there's a twist upon a twist) show up, we greet them less with awe than impatience.
I liked the approach, though. Ashok gives us what appears to be a romantic flashback – but there's no romance. Sanchala is committed to her work (Jayaram plays her superior), and that's how she meets Shakti (Unni Mukundan), a social activist. Instead of ill-fitting duets, we get a stretch that shows the director is as committed to his cause of making a different film as Sanchala and Shakti are to their cause of serving people without a voice. The story, in other words, is solid. (When was the last time a horror film came with political wheeling-dealing?) But the screenplay is slack, and the open ending is a cheap shot. The desire for a sequel, I suppose. The reincarnation of spirits pales before the multiple lives these films seem to possess.