Laxmii, Starring Akshay Kumar, Is A Tone-Deaf Horror Comedy
Director: Raghava Lawrence
Writers: Raghava Lawrence, Farhad Samji, Tasha Bhambra, Sparsh Khetarpal
Cast: Akshay Kumar, Kiara Advani, Sharad Kelkar, Rajesh Sharma, Ayesha Raza Mishra
Streaming on: Disney+ Hotstar
The butchered craft of filmmaking – the camera sways like a drunk eagle, the entire cast seems high on muscle relaxers, the ghost is practically an energetic wig on a vacuum cleaner, the comedy is horrific and the horror is comical, the "masala" is actually coloured sawdust – is the least of Laxmii's crimes. Most self-respecting bad movies merely murder the grammar of storytelling. But Laxmii is offensive on such a basic ideological level that slotting it in the consolatory progressive-mainstream-film category is in fact a scathing indictment of how regressive we are to begin with. I'm sort of lost for words. And that takes some doing in a year like 2020.
There are some specifics that need not concern the viewer. Akshay Kumar plays Asif, a ghostbuster who makes his living by exposing fraudulent babas and rural superstition. (In most movies that's his endgame; now it's directly his job). Asif is in an interfaith marriage. He visits his estranged Hindu in-laws in Daman to win them over. He's twice his wife's age but nobody really cares. The adjacent plot is haunted. Booze is cheap in Daman but nobody really cares. Based on a Tamil film called Kanchana, Laxmii is essentially about a Muslim man who gets possessed by the ghost of a transwoman. As a result, it manages to be both Islamophobic and transphobic at once. Not to mention logic-phobic and taste-phobic.
At one point, in a gory flashback sequence straight out of the B-movie vault, we see an old Muslim man, a transwoman and a boy with cerebral palsy dying together. The problem is precisely this: the film's callous grouping of religious and gender minorities with intellectual disability. It's the treatment. The prejudice disguised as liberalism. There's an unmistakable sense that both Asif and Laxmii are "defective" people who must join forces to alter popular perception. Asif's sudden love for red sarees and bangles, and his feminine gait, is played for laughs in the scenes with his wife's family. The use of horror – to reflect the gaze of Indian society – is understandable. But the existence of comedy implies that the Muslim and transgender communities are the joke as well as the punchline. I found myself smiling in disbelief at the sheer tone-deafness of the writing/acting/breathing.
In the process, even the viewers are made to feel defective by being talked down to. Early on, Asif's 8-year-old nephew – literally a child – becomes the audience surrogate for him to drive home the interfaith marriage spiel. "Oho, they are still stuck on Hindu-Muslim?" asks the Navneet-Guide-like kid, when Asif tries to explain why his wife's parents disowned her. (Never mind the age difference). A relatively deeper metaphor unfurls in the form of the opening song, where Asif is seen beating Backstreets-Back-style vampires and ghouls with wet clothes in a dhobi ghat. Translation: He is rinsing the country of blind faith. In the end, his radiant wife mentions in a moral-of-the-story voice to her husband that "we just give them names, emotionally they are the same as us."
You have to give it to Akshay Kumar though. After years of being criticized for propagating the male saviour syndrome in his movies, he's found the simplest way to circumvent it. What's better than playing a hero who speaks for the marginalized? Playing a hero whom the marginalized – literally – speak through. Nobody and everybody can accuse him of stealing the limelight. The commitment is unerring. Even the end credits of Laxmii open with the "secondary" cast list.