Director: Prosit Roy
Cast: Anushka Sharma, Parambrata Chatterjee, Rajat Kapoor, Rithabhari Chakraborty
It's an odd first thing to say about an original horror film, but reading Pari as a novel might have made for a more powerful experience. It's not that debutant Prosit Roy's "not a fairytale" isn't inventive or visually arresting. As an atmospheric piece alone, it could be to Hindi horror cinema what Kahaani was to thrillers. But its foundation derives a density rooted across so many sources – from Middle Eastern supernatural mythology to Bengali children folktales, from Swedish romantic vampire movies to Hollywood alien franchises, from genocidal rape subversions and the Bangladesh refugee crisis to menstrual cramps and campy black-magic cults – that its crowded newness feels somewhat shackled within the stylistic confines of moving images.
I suspect Pari is much more than its jarring jump scares and sound effects. A case in point is the situation of its enigmatic protagonist, Rukhsana (Anushka Sharma). Arnab (Parambrata Chatterjee) finds Rukhsana shackled in the back of a jungle hut after accidentally killing her mother. Driven by guilt, he allows this strange, curious girl – who exhibits the social expertise of a wild, caged creature – to stay in his Kolkata flat. Simultaneously, a one-eyed Bangladeshi professor (Rajat Kapoor) named Qasim Ali, once the brutal leader of the witch-hunting outfit called Qayamat Andolan, is still on the lookout for the one that got away.
The remarkable part about Rukhsana – a cross between lost little girl and deflected zombie – is that there is no point of reference for her character. Majority of the film has her home alone while Arnab is at work, where her identity remains a mystery to us. As a result, there is no wrong way to play her – and Sharma employs this freedom smartly. If her fondness of cartoons doesn't already suggest a stunted intellectual capacity, the fact that she understands the "concept" of love from an Akshay Kumar film certainly does. Either way, all of these familiar animal-in-civilization scenes – especially those of Arnab being disarmed by her innocence – could have gone horribly wrong in a horror-musical manner. Yet, the psychological flexibility of an unknown entity like Rukhsana is the clincher. She can sway from lover to villain to stalker and child within the same scene, and her story would be none the wiser.
Pari rivals in risk and imagination is M. Night Shymalan's tragically received Lady In The Water.
But again, there's so much subtext – Arnab naturally gravitates towards her because he is a friendless virgin – that perhaps Pari might have been a little more accessible through text. There's a lot going on between the pages. It suggests the existence of a parallel fantasy world with rules and history of its own – one that, if read, might have assumed the form of a gothic love story, gory revenge drama or even a ghostly psychological thriller in our minds. Filming Pari lends it a language that, in this country, is obliged to acquire the tropes of horror cinema. Apart from the fact that the mere anticipation of a deafening jump scare distracts us from its politics, perhaps this isn't such a bad thing. In fact, the one film Pari rivals in risk and imagination is M. Night Shymalan's tragically received Lady In The Water. Centered on a similarly atypical relationship between an apartment superintendent and a mythical nymph-like girl, Lady In The Water made the fatal mistake of designing itself as a 'dark fairytale'. Pari explicitly sheds the fairytale tag in its title; it is dark, too, but in ways that will never be qualified as attractive.
It's rare to see a successful mainstream actress not only believe in this as a producer, but strip herself of beauty so fully that her hideousness becomes beguiling. She makes it occasionally possible to forget that Pari decorates the same old gayatri-mantra-horny-ghost-exorcism formula through some clever Bengali posturing. It's not just the light eyes, the freckles and the bloody toenails; it's the way she throws herself into the physical core of what is essentially a well-informed, technically sound supernatural drama. There's barely a moment in which she isn't suffering, even when she inflicts it upon others.
It isn't often I feel nauseated by the graphic gravity of the action on screen. It's no coincidence, then, that the last Indian film that had me repelled and simultaneously captivated – despite not being entirely sure about its dynamics – was Mrityunjay Devvrat's soul-sucking Bangladesh Liberation War drama, Children of War (2014). In it, a brilliant Pavan Malhotra played a deviant extremist Pakistani officer – an "Ifrit" (demon) of sorts – who raped and impregnated the hapless Bengali women of his prison. Hence, the title. Pari is effectively a (super)natural extension of such despair, except it lays gory new ground for Hindi cinema's most bastardized genre.
It can be argued that the current standards are low, but try telling that to an amorous couple whose matinee-show hopes of hanky-panky will most definitely be dashed by Pari's uncompromising audacity. One can be sure they'd much rather read the book, too.