Director: Vikram K Kumar
Cast: Naga Chaitanya Akkineni, Parvathy Thiruvothu, Prachi Desai, Priya Bhavani Shankar
Runtime: 348 minutes, 8 episodes
Available in: Amazon Prime Video
There’s a scene in Dhootha in which an investigating officer arrives at the scene of a death and figures out through the pattern of the blood splatter that the case is not as straightforward as it first appears. Later, there’s a scene in which three fire extinguishers ricochet off a stairway, bump into a woman and cause her to fly across a hallway into conveniently placed spikes, impaling her to death. The first belongs in a sober, cerebral procedural; the second is too camp even for a Final Destination movie. The problem with the show is that it doesn’t know whether it’s going for David Fincher or Rob Zombie, and it is too timid and scattered to alchemise the two and grow a voice of its own.
In the latest mystery-horror Telugu web series on Amazon Prime Video, Naga Chaitanya plays Sagar Varma, an acclaimed journalist on his way to becoming chief editor of a new newspaper called Samachar in Vizag, when he comes across mysterious newspaper clippings that foretell the deaths of his acquaintances and his family. As the deaths begin to mount, Kranthi Shenoy (Parvathy Thiruvothu), a special investigating officer steps in to determine who is at fault and whether deeper conspiracies lie under the seemingly supernatural events.
Dhootha has a lot that should make a Telugu film critic root for it. It features a morally grey protagonist, an exploration of the ethical conundrums of journalism, a female detective who frequently upends the men in the show with her clever deductions, and it is unafraid to depict violence (even police brutality) and death—all rarities in Telugu cinema. It has the structure of the web series down pat—with every episode ending with a cliffhanger or a death that keeps you clicking on the button that skips the end credits to start the next episode.
For the first few episodes, this manages to work—you overlook the slightly questionable lead performance, the awkward dialogue which seems to be translated into Telugu from another language, the pedantic text on screen which tells us that we’re in “Sagar’s Apartment.” at “11:41 AM” as if the former wasn’t evident and the latter was somehow significant. But soon, the show struggles with balancing its procedural elements with its more extravagant flourishes, its slasher movie deaths with a poor attempt at earnest political engagement. At a certain point we learn of a crime in the past that might have laid the foundation for the show’s present—and despite good performances from Tharun Bhaskar and Tanikella Bharani in this section, you can’t help but be disappointed at the vapidity with which it engages with its underlying themes (It doesn’t help that an excellent locked-room mystery in this section is revealed in the worst way possible, robbing the denouement of the thrill of revelation).
What the show lacks is an artistic vision that coheres its disparate influences into a compelling piece. For most of its runtime, it feels scattered, a bits-and-pieces affair that is throwing an assortment of cliches at you—hiding behind genre though it can’t resist its pretence towards a soul. It’s set in a world which seems to be permanently drenched in rainfall because that’s how Fincher’s Se7en (1995) went about weaving its atmosphere, but if one of the most noteworthy things in your show is a reference, that’s saying something.
(Mild Spoilers below)
Parvathy Thiruvothu is excellent as Kranthi Shenoy, the determined lead investigator, and she’s given a few great scenes of Sherlockian deduction—but the show’s convoluted writing prevents her from impacting the events of the plot, and this is a symptom of a deeper problem. The secret of really good mysteries is that we must be invested in them, we must care about the murdered, who did the murdering, and whether the moral plane of justice that is unbalanced will be balanced again by the end. (There’s a reason Agatha Christie continues to sell today whereas her contemporaries like John Dickson Carr are mostly forgotten—for her the mystery is much more than a strictly cerebral puzzle). There is much moralising in the show, but its platitudes about the unholy marriage of politics and journalism come across as surface-level and vapid (although the scenes about the ethics of political parties purchasing ad space and columns in newspapers are timely). The show ends with a hamfisted expression of rage against a villain whose crimes we haven’t really witnessed and there’s some implicit moral reasoning to do with bloodlines that’s all the more tenuous.
Towards the end of the show, the violence begins to seem excessive, particularly against women—a pregnant woman is assaulted twice by the same man, once in a fake-out dream sequence, and later, for real. This drags on for too long and by this time, the show can’t hide its excesses behind the veil of genre or use the excuse of brutal realism.
Dhootha also shares the problems of many recent Telugu films—the journalists don’t seem to be based on real journalists, but rather, on journalists from the movies. Locations in Vizag are mispronounced frequently—we see Akkayyapalem on the GPS on-screen, but the characters call it “Ankayapalem”—there’s a generally flimsy quality to the post-production that grates. There are lessons to be learned perhaps from last year’s excellent sleeper-hit horror film, Masooda, which had a distinct voice and was sure-footed with its tone. I hope that shows to come will build on what Dhootha does right—its structure and its attempts at genre storytelling. As for the show at hand, it frustrates not with incompetence, but with mediocrity.