Saavat Review: Could have been a brilliant novel, makes for a terrible film

Language: Marathi | Genre: Crime fiction, Supernatural thriller | Streaming on: Netflix

After a short prologue, Saurabh Sinha’s Saavat (2019) begins with a woman “penning her thoughts” which she claims “has been her only solace”. She questions her entire existence—am I a good woman? a good mother? a good daughter? who am I? When we come back to her monologue at the end of the film, it all makes sense to her. The writer finds herself.

The premise that any woman who doesn’t toe the line is branded a witch by this society and only empathetic sisterhood can save us all is something I’ll gladly get behind.

Saavat is the story of mysterious deaths in a Maharashtrian village—occurs once a year, same day every year, following a pattern, always leaving a witness. The villagers suspect its witchcraft, they blame Adhira, a young woman—who they call a witch—but she has an airtight alibi. A village leader pleads ACP Aditi Deshmukh, a decorated police officer, to solve the case and prevent further murders, which she reluctantly agrees to. Over the course of her investigation, she meets different kinds of people, faces uncomfortable truths, in the end, she redeems herself as much as the protagonists do.

In thought, Saavat is a brilliant film. The premise that any woman who doesn’t toe the line is branded a witch by this society and only empathetic sisterhood can save us all is something I’ll gladly get behind. The film presents this both literally and metaphorically, one seamlessly blending with the other. The fact that there is a satisfying resolution to the supernatural elements in the film, makes it a believable experience—unlike in a film like U-Turn (2016), for instance. The idea that ACP Deshmukh and Adhira are two sides of the same coin—that they’re both witches of their worlds—is an interesting, even if obvious, parallel.

Aditi is a moderately well-conceived character—she has a haunting past, the drive to keep moving, a loyal team and what I might risk calling the ‘female instinct’. While the film makes a comical show of her ‘brilliance’ in the first few scenes, it settles down once she’s adequately introduced. After that, we are left to see her for ourselves. She smokes, but the film makes no fuss of it. She is vulnerable, but the film doesn’t take her brilliance away for it. She sticks her stuff in her pockets, all of which hang uncomfortably—because women’s clothes don’t have functional pockets.

Adhira and her twin Aashna’s characters are also well-imagined. Their story stems from their mother’s, they respect her ‘legacy’. Their stories bring together the realities of modern Indian life—religion, land-grabbing, superstition, caste atrocities, violence against women, and the soul-crushing oppression at the intersection of caste, class and gender. The film does a fairly reasonable job of seeing everyday lives through the lens of crime fiction—in that Saavat is not just about the crime, it’s about the life and times of the crime.

A film like this should have been fantastic to watch. Sadly, Saavat is not. The biggest failing of Saavat is its casting. With the exception of Smita Tambe who plays ACP Aditi Deshmukh—I’m being very generous here—and perhaps her sidekick played her Sitanshu Sharad, no one seems to have the slightest skill for acting. Shwetambari Ghute, who has a central role in the film—a double role, no less—is like a thermocol cut-out with clothes. Each witness, each victim, even some of the antagonists hardly evoke any emotion—in a film with performances so bad, it’s impossible to suspend disbelief!

The staging is also a bit contrived. At one point, a bunch of officers bring a stand and whiteboard to the crime scene for ACP Aditi to write on. “Good,” she tells them, impressed by their ability to carry a medium-sized whiteboard around. Clues land too easy—like a phone number at the back of a library book. Some plot twists rather flat. Saavat plays out like a film student’s final year project—comical at its best, embarrassing at its worst.

This film, for me, was the true test for the ‘content-vs-form’ conundrum. As someone who always holds content above form—in my opinion, the idea and the underlying value system of the film are more important than skilful cinematic execution—I’m drawn to be generous with Saavat. I was willing to give the film credit in spite of its ‘upper-class saviour’ hero.

But even on that scale, Saavat fails to make for anything interesting. With little research, a little imagination and a little depth, Saavat might make for an extraordinary novel. As a film though, I recommend you gather patience by the bucket if you are going to get started.