Durgamati has the feel of a project that evoked less interest than Bhaagamathie from the maker himself.
Anushka Shetty has a formidable screen presence to rival some of the world’s best. Her fans would argue that Bhumi Pednekar is no match for her, but I humbly disagree. Pednekar may not have had the opportunity so far to play characters as larger than life as Shetty’s most famous roles, but with films like Dum Laiga Ke Haisha, Saand Ki Aankh and even her supporting role in Sonchiriya, she has proved that given a good director and script, she is capable of capturing viewer attention and hearts.
So it makes sense that writer-director Ashok cast Pednekar in Durgamati: The Myth, the Bollywood remake of his Telugu-Tamil bilingual hit Bhaagamathie in which Shetty played the lead.
The story remains the same, the location has simply shifted to north India. In Durgamati, Pednekar plays Chanchal Chauhan, an IAS officer currently in jail for the murder of her fiancé. The CBI extra-legally confines Chanchal to a haunted palace in a remote location to extract information from her about her former boss, a seemingly incorruptible politician called Ishwar Prasad (Arshad Warsi). The interrogation is being conducted at the behest of leading politicians in the state to frame Ishwar since his goodness is muddying the waters for everyone else in power.
When the CBI’s Satakshi Ganguly (Mahie Gill) questions Chanchal though, the latter reiterates what everyone else says about Ishwar – that he is a genuinely nice guy with zero tolerance for dishonesty. Chanchal also appears to get possessed by the spirit of Queen Durgamati who once resided in the palace where she is now being held.
Of course nothing is what it seems in Durgamati, but the writing is so bland, the editing so uninspired, the narrative so stretched and the narrative style so unexciting that no surprise is surprising enough to evoke interest.
At one point when the Muslim-sounding name of Queen Durgamati’s close associate is mentioned and Arabic language makes an appearance, I thought the film would go down the path of a stream of Hindi films in post-2014 Bollywood – Padmaavat and Kesari, to name a few – that pandered to the Islamophobia dominating the public discourse in today’s India by stereotyping and caricaturing Muslims. Durgamati even kicks off with a series of thefts of idols from Hindu temples across Ishwar’s state, causing a saffron-stole-wearing individual at a public function to state that this is an attack on “Hindutva” – yes, he uses the word “Hindutva”, not “Hinduism” – and that the government would have fallen at the feet of a minority community in a similar situation. There is also a “gareeb kisaan ka beta” (the son of a poor farmer) who is given prominence at the start, which assumes significance considering the ongoing farmers’ protests rocking the nation. But neither element goes anywhere in particular.
There is even mention of a condition called kakorrhaphiophobia – an abnormal fear of failure – halfway through Durgamati, but it too goes nowhere.
Pednekar’s considerable talent is wasted in a role that demands little of her. Warsi gets a meatier part but does nothing here to live up to his track record of brilliance in films like the Munna Bhai series and Jolly LLB. Gill and Jisshu Sengupta, who plays a policeman, are so-so. And Karan Kapadia – Dimple Kapadia’s nephew – has been cast as Chanchal’s late fiancé, a crucial role that required a more impactful actor.
Overall, Durgamati lacks finesse – look no further than a scene in which a bunch of poor villagers are pleading for their lives from a pit in which they stand, a scene that features perhaps the worst extras ever used in a Hindi film. Even the film’s spook effects are unimpressive.
I am not in love with Bhaagamathie, but it was certainly not an ordinary film – Shetty was far more arresting in it, so were the visuals and the camerawork. To be fair to Pednekar, Shetty was also shot better in Bhaagamathie. And Durgamati makes itself tedious by adding almost 18 minutes to the original film’s running time of 2 hours and 17 minutes.
Durgamati has the feel of a project that evoked less interest than Bhaagamathie from the maker himself. There’s no other word for it but: ordinary.
Durgamati is streaming on Amazon Prime Video India.
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