Director: Ashok G
Writer: Ashok G
Cast: Bhumi Pednekar, Mahie Gill, Arshad Warsi
Cinematographer: Kuldeep Mamania
Editor: Unnikrishnan Payoor Parameswaran
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video
Dreamy-eyed storytellers of previous generations long imagined 2020 as the Space Age with flying cars, talking dogs and evolved artforms. Their hope knew no bounds. I don't have the heart to dig their graves up and tell them that we're still only making movies about flying cars and talking dogs. Or that the only thing "Space age" about this year has been the space derived from social distancing. Or worse: that the Bollywood cottage industry of remaking South Indian hits has finally reached its zenith (and nadir) with Durgamati, a film so terrifyingly outdated that the only futuristic aspect about it is its existence on the internet rather than the big screen. A psychiatrist provokes a troubled woman by making up a story about a gruesome gangrape. An entire village of farmers is slaughtered on video; a little girl is vividly hung to death on a tree to drive home the badness of the villains. To be fair, Durgamati does feature flying humans, talking spirits and evolved tone-deafness.
Akshay Kumar – who recently starred as a Muslim hero possessed by the spirit of a jilted transwoman in Laxmii – is the co-producer of Durgamati, which stars Bhumi Pednekar as an imprisoned female IAS officer possessed by the spirit of a jilted Goddess. Pednekar, a fine actress on a good day, spends most of her time here dodging restless cameras that swerve dangerously and rapidly from every conceivable angle across empty spaces in the hope of offsetting the film's crippling creative inertia. If the characters or writing can't move, the camera will. The "supernatural social" thriller is a remake of Bhaagamathie, whose plot revolves around this stricken officer's interrogation by the CBI in a haunted mansion (don't ask), led by a female joint director who wants her to implicate the pristine-clean politician she once worked for. Priceless idols are being stolen from temples that just happen to be in the vicinity of the minister's travels, and his rivals are determined to frame him.
This politician named Ishwar Prasad is played by Arshad Warsi here, who instantly places the film in fairytale space when he reacts calmly to a journalist who mocks his legacy at a press conference. In fact, almost every reporter seems to be…fearlessly questioning the minister. None of them get fired, lynched or trolled out of their jobs. Flying cars, talking dogs, freedom of speech and all. I've always liked Warsi. The lazy thing to say would be "he deserves better," but maybe some actors are simply meant to make the most laughable roles in the most laughable situations look strangely enjoyable. He's often the only one who gets the memo. One can't say the same about Mahie Gill as the CBI director. Fierce-Bengali-lady appropriation aside, she shuts down any male who criticizes her theories with a terse "I don't like negativity!". She reminds me of the many disgruntled moviegoers who react with this exact same phrase when film critics call out a bad film. Pednekar's backstory features a fiance that she killed in mysterious circumstances. I can't get into the details, but perhaps the most remarkable part of the backstory is the scar on his cheek that resembles the Nike logo. As it turns out, "just do it" is an actual spoiler once the revelations surface. (It involves a gun, what were you thinking?).
I'd like to believe that, in an alternate universe, Durgamati is a clever meta movie about the power of storytelling and superstition in India. But the problem with projects like these is the commerce constructed around the art of cleverness. The language – Tamil, Telugu, Hindi – becomes irrelevant when the cinematic language feels corrupt. If the premise has even an iota of potential, the craft – which ties in with the typically Indian superstition of "paisa-vasool entertainment" – insists on putting most crayon-wielding first graders to shame. For 155 deafening minutes, Durgamati goes hammer and tongs to deliver what is essentially a 3-minute message. It's the last month of a difficult year, and if this is still the future that awaits us on the other side, pardon me for saying: I don't like negativity.