Cast: Rajkummar Rao, Shraddha Kapoor, Pankaj Tripathi, Aparshakti Khurrana, Abhishek Banerjee
Director: Amar Kaushik
Stree, starring Rajkummar Rao and Shraddha Kapoor, is a very unusual film. It marries elements of horror, broad comedy, dark humor, and social satire to create a cocktail that – believe it or not – mostly crackles. I say ‘mostly’ because the film isn’t perfect. But then what film is?
Scripted by Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK, the creative pair behind that bonkers zombie comedy Go Goa Gone, the film opens with a title card that says it’s based on “a ridiculous phenomenon”. That would be accurate.
Each year during a religious festival that lasts four days, a female spirit referred to simply as ‘stree’ descends upon Chanderi, a small town in Madhya Pradesh, and abducts men in the dead of the night, only leaving behind their clothes. Men are at their most vulnerable, advised by their women to return home early, to not venture out alone, and to not talk to strangers. It’s a fresh spin on the traditional Bollywood horror movie trope as per which ghosts and spirits preyed more or less exclusively on the fairer sex.
Rajkummar Rao plays Vicky, best tailor in town; so skilled he can gauge a woman’s measurements by merely looking at her. He’s gone all gooey-eyed for a pretty girl, played by Shraddha Kapoor, who requests him to stitch her a lehenga urgently.
When young men around him become victims of the feared spirit, Vicky’s friends force him to consider that there might be something fishy about this mysterious girl he’s been hanging out with whom no one else has seen, whose name he doesn’t know, and who’s given him a strange shopping list that includes cat hair, and a lizard’s tail among other things.
Director Amar Kaushik mines this bizarre but refreshingly original premise for both laughs and jump scares. The ‘horror’ in Stree is pretty tame, standard stuff, but the foolproof combination of screeching background score and sudden visual cues yields a handful of good jump-in-your-seat moments.
The laughs, on the other hand, are well earned. Dialogue writer Sumit Arora’s conversational humor is one of the film’s biggest strengths, and the film has a roster of terrific actors who make every joke land. A consistently disarming Pankaj Tripathi, in particular, playing local expert Rudra Bhaiyya, is a complete hoot, delivering what’s on the page with such deadpan wit, he steals practically every scene he’s in. Aparshakti Khurrana and Abhishek Banerjee as Vicky’s best friends also get some great moments to shine.
Frequently miscast or even misdirected in other films, Shraddha Kapoor blends in nicely as the alluring out-of-towner with an air of mystery around her. And then there’s Rajkummar Rao, who it appears can do no wrong. He invests Vicky with a sweet small-town simplicity, giving us another Everyman character that feels entirely real. Watch how he listens keenly as his father sits him down for an awkward birds-and-bees talk, or his reaction to the discovery of his true parentage. Or a scene late in the film in which he can’t fake romantic interest when he’s meant to. Each played to evoke different emotions, he never puts a foot out of place.
Tucked away beneath the scares and the laughs – but never buried out of sight completely – is the film’s feminist subtext. In some instances the case is made expressly, like Tripathi’s character pointing out that the spirit in question is a “naye Bharat ki chudail”, who, unlike men, doesn’t believe in “zabardasti” and understands the concept of consent. After all she calls out the man’s name first, waits till he turns and looks into her eyes before claiming her victim. Mostly though the message about how our society treats women is cleverly subverted through scenes like the one in which men across town are terrified to go out at night.
It’s a shame then that the film perpetuates some of the same prejudices that it so earnestly knocks. The female characters in Stree are largely ornamental, and an item song featuring a heaving-jiggling starlet seems like a bad choice here. The songs, in fact, are nothing but an impediment in the narrative, and a big reason why the film feels overlong at a little over two hours.
These problems aside, Stree is especially entertaining, packed with laugh aloud moments and a cast that’s on top of their game. It’s one of the most original films this year, and I recommend that you make the time for it.
I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five.
Rating: 3.5 / 5
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