Director G Ashok reportedly waited for five years so Anushka Shetty could do Bhaagamathie. And you can see why. There is no woman actor in the south who has the kind of commanding presence that Anushka does. When she's on screen, there's no one else you want to watch. I suppose if I ever met her in person, I'd hear imaginary elephants trumpeting around me because she gets under the skin of these regal roles so convincingly.
The trailer for Bhaagamathie had set the expectation that the film would be along the lines of Arundhati, the 2009 horror thriller, which established Anushka Shetty, the performer. But Ashok uses that very expectation to pull the carpet from under your feet. The film opens with an intriguing sequence that shows a village under attack from some powerful evil. And then, we meet Chanchala IAS (Anushka), who is in remand because of a murder.
From there on, the film moves to an abandoned bungalow, the tired trope of every Indian horror film. But if you've followed the film's promos, you'd know that it isn't any ordinary ghost's bungalow, it's BHAAGAMATHIE's (sorry, I cannot help but get carried away by how Anushka makes that declaration).
Chanchala and Vaishnavi (Asha Sharath in a tailormade role as CBI director), play mind games with each other and the scenes remind one of what the latter did in the Malayalam Drishyam (remade in Telugu as Drushyam). Ashok also seems to have taken inspiration from the Malayalam classic Manichitrathaazhu, which was later remade in several languages.
The film sets up the creeps well initially. There's also the suspense of why someone as upright as Chanchala would have committed a murder. But after a point, the tried and tested boo moments become repetitive. However, just as you start feeling restless, there comes that terrific scene right before the interval which has the audience going crazy. This is the moment that the crowd has been waiting for all along and, boy, do they lap it up!
Anushka alternates between playing the gentle Chanchala and the vengeful Bhaagamathie with ease. This is an actor who can pull off stereotypical depictions of femininity without it grating on your nerves — so when she swoons at the sight of blood in one scene, it doesn't put you off because she takes herself seriously and isn't around just as a decorative festoon.
In another scene, a character comes up with a back story for Bhaagamathie's rage and when he starts narrating the same-old tale of rape-and-revenge, I was beginning to roll my eyes. But then, so does Anushka's character and I was pleasantly surprised.
The brief romance with Shakti (an uneven performance from Unni Mukundan) comes to us in bits and pieces through a non-linear narrative, adding to the suspense. However, the second half of the film proves to be a let-down. It does pack in a few surprises, but the screenplay is bloated and the characters speechify too much. Jayaram, who plays a politician and mentor to Chanchala, makes the best of a poorly written character.
We're made to wait for the revelations for too long and when they finally come, it's long-winded and not very convincing. I shall never understand why villains in Indian films go to such great lengths to explain their actions in detail to their victims. Perhaps if we'd seen more of BHAAGAMATHIE (sorry, I can't get over it), we'd have forgotten all the quibbles.
Thamman's background score is a constant presence in the film. It's unnecessarily loud and tries to compensate for the visuals which aren't all that scary. You know that delicious fear that makes your spine tingle when there's absolute silence? Bhaagamathie has no use for such moments and it's a pity because the abandoned bungalow set-up lends itself to unsettling you with teeny-tiny noises. Instead, what we get are loud bangs and screeches over a throbbing score. The 'Bhaagamathie' moan, however, is haunting and stays in your mind long after the film.
The CGI isn't great – the first visual of an apparition we see is far from impressive. However, the portions when Anushka depicts a possessed woman are convincing. The actor's body language and expressions power these scenes through, making you suspend your disbelief. The camera, alternating between close-up shots and long ones, succeeds in creating a disassociation between Chanchala and Bhagaamathie effectively.
Bhaagamathie is Anushka's film all the way and the actor's performance is what ultimately makes us stay till the end to find out what on earth happened in that bungalow – BHAAGAMATHIE's bungalow (all right, I shall stop).
Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Neither TNM nor any of its reviewers have any sort of business relationship with the film's producers or any other members of its cast and crew.