Dhootha review: This supernatural thriller on paid media is too quaint to be incisive
Dhootha (Telugu)(2.5 / 5)
Episode 1 of Vikram K Kumar’s Dhootha begins with a journalist desperately trying to leave a voice note for his wife. His phone dies on him, and when looking for the charger, he chances upon a certain file. The title of Amazon Prime Video’s new Telugu web series translates to ‘The Messenger’, and is on a relevant subject – paid media and its increasing influence in shaping public opinion. If the messenger is corrupt, can the message be trusted?
Sagar (Naga Chaitanya) is a popular journalist who has everything – money, fame, and a loving family. But one night, his dog is killed in an accident. What’s strange about this is that he finds a newspaper clipping foretelling the pet’s death minutes before the incident. Not only does the prediction come true, but a few details mentioned in the clipping are so accurate that it’s clear something supernatural is at play here.
Over the course of eight episodes, Sagar has to uncover several disturbing truths about the past and the present if he has to change his future. Vikram’s 2009 supernatural thriller 13B (Yaavarum Nalam in Tamil) had a similar premise. In the film, the protagonist notices that events occurring in a TV serial predict what will happen in his family. Towards the end, it is revealed that the spirit is a wronged woman who wants the world to know the truth about a tragic event.
Dhootha has a loftier premise – it aspires to be a commentary on the state of the media today and wants to remind journalists about their responsibilities. This is an earnest ambition, but the series has only a superficial understanding of how the media functions in this day and age. At the heart of Dhootha is a printing press that features prominently in the opening credits. That story dates to the 1960s, but the landscape of journalism has changed so much since then. The series doesn’t look at how fake news is deliberately peddled on social media or politically funded digital media platforms; it also bypasses TV channels and their loud attempt to set the narrative and control it. Instead, it focuses on the print media, and even then, the writing doesn’t really get into the dynamics of the industry. At a time when fact-checkers are battling deep fakes and large-scale disinformation spread through viral hashtags, Dhootha presents a quaint world where the bogeyman arrives placidly in a newspaper. This is certainly no Paatal Lok (2020) which was far more incisive in its depiction of the media.
Parvathy Thiruvothu plays DCP Kranti Shenoy, a stern-faced cop who is called to investigate the suspicious death of a journalist. The actor is reliably good in the role, with a walk reminiscent of Mammootty’s Sethurama Iyer from the old CBI films. Kranti makes sharp observations that help her solve crimes, but at times, this ability seems too convenient. For instance, a very old case – and one that is of personal relevance to her – is solved in a matter of minutes. Considering the importance the case has to her life, it seems absurd that she has waited this long to piece together the clues that were always around – only to solve it all in a jiffy at a crucial juncture in the plot.
Naga Chaitanya’s Sagar becomes increasingly despicable as the story unfolds, and to the actor’s credit, he doesn’t pull back from underlining just how unethical he can be. The scene between Sagar and Amrutha (Prachi Desai) at the hospital is one such instance where the viewer feels compelled to give Sagar a solid thumping. Priya Bhavani Shankar plays Sagar’s heavily pregnant wife, Priya, a journalist who is currently on a break. The actor is convincing in her role but needed more to work with. The series hardly explores the layers in her character when there is plenty of potential to do so.
The spirit in Dhootha is highly principled and ethical – and yet, the deaths caused by it are far from deserving. Multiple children are crushed to death, and there’s even a foetus (shown in graphic detail) that isn’t allowed to survive for the spirit to prove its point. Kind of hard to empathise with such malevolence, no? This contradiction is explained away as the targets not caring for the families of others either, but if there’s no difference between the spirit and the horrible people, what is the argument? Violence can be used effectively to instill fear in the audience. The best films and series of this genre, though, understand that depicting brutality sparingly and in meaningful contexts allows the audience to imagine much worse. Dhootha goes overboard with the violence because it can – and this doesn’t help its cause.
Set in rainy Visakhapatnam, Dhootha carries a mood of impending doom throughout the episodes. The blue tint of the frames and the background score set up the slow-paced suspense, but the writing falls short. Revelations are made like information dumps when it would have been more interesting to work clues into the screenplay, giving a chance for the viewer to arrive at the truth along with the protagonist. For example, the long flashback is narrated as part of a conversation – and this becomes tedious when the viewer is one step ahead of the protagonist and has already figured out that such and such character holds the key to the secret. Some important plot threads are left hanging. One episode, for instance, ends with the death of a significant, well-known character, but nobody seems remotely interested in investigating the bizarre nature of their passing. There’s zero media interest in what would be treated as a sensational death in the real world, and even the police don’t seem all that interested.
Dhootha benefits from the strong performances of its cast, including Pasupathy, Rohini, Ravindra Vijay, and others. But the series struggles to stay afloat after a couple of episodes, becoming monotonous despite the shock value scenes it throws at us. Honestly, a prime-time TV news debate is far more horrifying.
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.
Sowmya Rajendran writes on gender, culture, and cinema. She has written over 25 books, including a nonfiction book on gender for adolescents. She was awarded the Sahitya Akademi’s Bal Sahitya Puraskar for her novel Mayil Will Not Be Quiet in 2015.