It is not that often one comes across content so bad that the viewing experience eventually becomes unintentionally funny with nothing that could redeem the story. Athidhi is a Telugu-language horror drama, written and directed by Y.G. Bharath is a Disney+ Hotstar Special miniseries that was released on September 19, 2023.
Athidhi, which loosely translates to guest, is the story of an author, Ravi, who is trying to write a new book that could appeal to the current generation. The man is rich and lives in a huge mansion with his paralyzed wife, Sandhya. As a successful author, he strives to be better and is willing to add and make changes to his work as per his wife’s input. The mansion is close to a road that is known to be a haunted spot, but that does not leave Ravi unperturbed. One night, Ravi receives two guests at his home: a psychic healer and a ghost hunter vlogger. Both seem to have different reasons to believe that ghosts probably exist. Ravi is pragmatic and realistic in this matter. Will the guests believe his words, or do they have a bigger agenda than they let on? Their interactions and the events that follow make up the crux of the plot.
Athidhi has a decent start with a revelation about the existence of a paranormal power that is haunting many people walking or driving across a particular spot near the mansion. The screenplay by Y.G. Bharath is bizarre to the point that this subplot is simply cast aside very quickly in the show, and it soon becomes a show that is trudging through many genres at a time. It becomes a psychological thriller. It is a murder mystery and a historical horror drama. It is as if the writer-director wanted to add every element of all these genres but failed miserably to fit too many things into this six-episodic mini-series, with each episode having a runtime of half an hour. At one point, the writing and direction end up feeling tacky, which makes it hard to ignore the errors in the continuity, editing, and narrative, so much so that there is no recovery for Athidhi. Y.G. Bharath, as the writer of the show, resorts to male gazing, shaming women who drink alcohol, and trying to make the dialogues more OTT-friendly, but all these methods to generate interest fall flat.
Telugu cinema’s writing is obsessed with good-looking women taking center stage and utilizing their features to titillate the audience. It makes the viewing experience cringe and awkward at the same time. The writer and director have forgotten that female characters need not be eye candy to make sure the story seems substantial. The emphasis on Ravi being a new-age author using “romance” to garner an audience for his book in the show is an example of how many of the writers and directors like Y.G. Bharath is not in touch with what the current young audience wants from the characters of a show. The narrative is such that the half-hour runtime also feels like it starts to drag very early, and the audience impatiently wants to know what the actual plot is getting at.
The garish yet vulgar display of storytelling makes the viewing experience tiring after a point. There are two major twists in the narrative, but both are predictable and so is the lead-up to the climax. Telugu cinema is known for its convoluted kind of storytelling, which has some bizarre moral lessons tacked on, followed by many twists that make it hard for the viewers to connect to the actual plot and the characters of the show. The writing and the direction are so bizarre, resorting to unnecessary flashback sequences, which inherently spoon-feed the audience, who are clever enough to pick up on cues. The makers need to start treating the audience like an intelligent crowd. The high budget production at some points seems like a quality that makes the show slightly watchable, but the narrative aspect is so bad that none of the good qualities can actually act as a saving grace. From a plot point of view, it is only the story within a story style of narration that somehow works and does not derail the actual plot. But sadly, the rest of the facets, such as sound design, background score, and cinematography, are abysmal. There are so many unwarranted scenes added to the narrative, and it makes us wonder if they were added to increase the length of the episode.
Why is it that dubbing is still an issue in Telugu cinema? Why do the directors and the producers not adapt to sync sound to make the dialogue and the acting seem real? Athidhi is just one of the prime examples of many shows and movies from this industry where the dubbing makes the performances of the actors peculiar and uncomfortable. The acting is supposed to ease the delivery of the storytelling, but if the dialogues are not up to par, it makes it difficult for the performers to deliver a decent performance.
The production design of the show gets bizarre when one gets to see, in a rather dreadful manner, how a store-bought skeleton is used to create tense and scary moments. It genuinely felt like a gag stolen from Modern Family rather than something that was meant to generate fear as a horror drama. Ravi’s past in the show is explained haphazardly, and it was too late when this subplot was introduced. The audience, by then, had lost complete interest and would want this nightmare of a show to be over. The irony is that the show as a final product is scarier than the subject matter it deals with. The makers tried to emulate some good shows from the West and put forth the idea of connecting the history of the lead to paranormal activities happening inside the mansion. But this storytelling only works because the screenplay is tight and has a structured narrative, which is sadly absent from Athidhi.
The performances of the actors are borderline cringe-worthy. The actors in Athidhi do not act as much as perform as per the wooden instructions of the director, which feels unnatural from the start until the end. There was some potential for humor given to a supporting actor, but that alone could not sustain this show. None of the performances are worth mentioning because all of them were let down by pitiful writing and direction. They deserved a better platform to showcase their acting talents. Sadly, Athidhi is a letdown in every form and department; a show you can skip without any guilt.