Every film starts with an idea, a spark that some writer had at some place at some time. For Annabelle Sethupathi, that spark seems to have come from this hotel where the film is shot. It is as if someone saw the property in the post-COVID era and asked, "What if a motley bunch of moderately likeable characters are locked inside a heritage hotel, and are seeking a way out?," and then they have worked everything around that.
Annabelle Sethupathi is the story of a dozen or so ghosts stuck inside an old palace. They do not know why or how they died. They also do not know how to get out. They wait for decades for someone to rescue them: Cue Rudra (Taapsee Pannu) and her equally motley family.
In theory, this is as good an idea as any. But in practice, this demands laborious explanations. For instance, in one of the flashbacks, there is a scene where Shanmugam (Yogi Babu), the cook, tells the new ghosts that they need to keep the palace clean " presumably because the hotel owners will not allow it to be converted into a haunted house!
In the present day, Rudra, her mother (Radhika Sarathkumar), father (Rajendra Prasad), and brother are supposed to be the cleverest of clever con-artists who can steal anything and escape unscathed. But all we see is them wearing burqas, snatching a necklace off a sleeping woman on a crowded train and walking away.
Instead of demonstrating their shrewd genius, the film resorts to explanations. Two men offer predictive running commentary. It is supposed to be a build-up, but it ends up appearing lame. Is the spiel with an uncomfortable Vennala Kishore the custom module for the Telugu audience alone? Because I did not get it.
Once we are past the introduction and world-building stage, you would expect the jokes to pour. But they end up being lukewarm. Most of the interaction among the ghosts themselves is in the insult comedy genre. Chetan plays the sexual harasser, who is laughed off. Devadarshini is supposed to be the speaker of chaste Tamil, but the gag does not play well. Insulting George Maryan for his height does not even make sense.
This is a shame, given how well-cast the film is. With Devadarshini, Babu, Madhumitha, Subbu Panchu, Radhika Sarathkumar, Rajendra Babu, and George Maryan, this could have been a terrific comedy. But it is not, which is why the elaborate flashback sequence is necessary " not because the story needs an explanation, they could have done that with dialogue. But because the narrative needs a breather. And the few minutes with Vijay Sethupathi playing King Veera Sethupathi turn out to be the best parts of the film.
It is almost as if Deepak Sundarrajan imagined Vijay Sethupathi and wrote the character around him. When we meet him first, he is feeding nuts to a squirrel. He spouts inane philosophy with a tint of fantasy " "When I first saw the mountain, it was sad and asked me to take it along with me," he tells Shanmugam, his friend and cook. He is a king but not a tyrant. He is a lover of Tamil but not a fanatic. He is a charmer and a feminist.
The romance track with Annabel (Taapsee) is endearing, mainly because of how much we learn about her. Love for architecture, photography, ability to fix a burning radiator " Annabel has a lot more to her than Rudra does. My favourite scene is when Veera Sethupathi mansplains her about sword fighting, and she asks, ever so patiently, "What makes you think I can't swordfight?" The reaction in Veera Sethupathi is ingenious. He embodies every nice-guy-who-is-an-inadvertent-mansplainer. It is a moment for eternity.
However, I wonder if a lot of Veera Sethupathi's character is coming from Vijay Sethupathi himself. He not only gives the star value the film needs but also the benevolence and generosity that the character needs.
When he is murdered, he holds an angry Annabelle in his arms, calming her down. There is not a sliver of anger or vengeance in him. It would have been absurd to see any other actor die in peace instead of reaching for the sword and slicing his murderer down the middle, but Vijay Sethupathi sells that unaffected calm with all his heart.
But it is time filmmakers understand that an earnest Vijay Sethupathi does not a film make, even if you put his name in the title of the film. More so in this case, because he only plays an extended cameo. Despite how much of him we have seen recently, Vijay Sethupathi indeed inspires affection when he is on screen. But if that is all we wanted, we could watch his interviews on YouTube. For an audience to invest time and money to watch a full-length feature film, the writing, the other characters, the suspense, the resolution, everything needs to work. In Annabelle Sethupathi, unfortunately, they do not.
That is not to say that the film is not entertaining. It is. It cleverly subverts the 'horror-comedy' genre. It is not going for much horror at all; there are no jump scares, no night sequences, no disfigured bodies, making it surprisingly child-friendly. In fact, the film is as bright and light as a trip to a heritage hotel. The ghostliness of the characters is simply a cinematic device.
Some of the jokes land, as do some of the goofy sequences. Like the scene where the ghosts forget they are ghosts, try to make contact with humans, and scare them instead. Or the exchange where a young girl's ghost claims seniority over a woman's ghost, claiming that she died young but is older by age!
Having Shanmugam, the cook, lead the king's family, giving them instructions, and making a fool of them is a nice way to imagine the afterlife as a more egalitarian one. The quip calling Yogi Babu 'pannimoonji vaayan' (pig face, a long-running gag in Tamil cinema making fun of his appearance) is self-aware " Yogi Babu himself walks away disapprovingly, "she called me pig face, come let's go to the terrace and cry a river," he says with his trademark disdain. The two dance numbers are utterly enjoyable, partly because you can see the actors having good fun. For instance, Radhika is evidently having a ball in Ginger Soda, and that energy transfers across the screen.
But Annabelle Sethupathi could have been a lot more. With a little more complexity in screenplay and some wit in dialogue, the film could have been an absolute feast. Instead, Annabelle Sethupathi settles for being the lukewarm, saccharine tea that you politely drink because the host has made it with love.
Annabelle Sethupathi is streaming on Disney+ Hotstar Multiplex.