Phillauri Review: Shot In The Dark, Film Companion
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Director: Anshai Lal

Cast: Suraj Sharma, Anushka Sharma, Diljit Dosanjh, Mehreen Pirzada

Look carefully at the poster of Phillauri. On the surface, you’ll see everything you need to. A modern ‘manglik’ boy marrying an ancient tree, thereby stuck with a lonesome spirit that has long haunted this tree. Her glowing translucency perhaps alludes to the fact that she isn’t transparent enough about her story. “But who marries a tree, and why cut it down after that?” asks the bewildered ghost at one point, when told that it is an ancient custom to ward off bad luck in the future.

You’d assume she’d know this already, given that she existed a century ago. After all, we do equate age and experience with outdated heritage. But her quizzical tone clearly expresses that, somewhere along the way, the Indian concept of “tradition” went rogue after the British Raj and became a bastardized stepchild of history.

If you look beyond the obvious on the poster, you’ll see something familiar. A clueless millennial stoner looking at a beautiful, old-school, friendly ghost – for guidance, for confidence, for a way out of his rather complicated, self-created existential crisis.

That is: a comedy (present) looking at a drama (past), to become a little more serious, a little more self-aware and assured. Or, in essence: the turmoil of 2017 harking back to the black-and-white simplicity of pre-independence India. For this, he will “learn” from and be humbled by her story.

While her love story is meant to inspire him and clear out his muddled mind, his gift to her remains superficial and physical – more the joining-dots kind than the imparting of new-age wisdom. Both need closure – one from his own being, the other from her incompleteness. No guesses for which thread is more important, more timeless and cinematic. One presents itself as cinema, the other as a regular movie.

Much of this old-is-gold and new-is-flimsy template is down to the times we occupy. There’s a reason we are fascinated by lavish period biopics, and glimpses of the world that existed before us. We don’t laugh at them; on the contrary, history feels poetic and lyrical to us. Because it is beyond us, and heavy-handed by default. It reminds us of not how much we’ve evolved, but the chastity we’ve forsaken in order to evolve. Even its repressiveness feels nostalgic, because of how clear-cut and loud it was.

At no point does it attempt to strike a balance or create equal footing; the flashbacks are aesthetically designed, earthy and weighty, while the big-fat-Punjabi-wedding present is like a digital viewer in awe of its grainy 35mm memories

But you can be sure that 1919 will condescendingly laugh at 2017. There’s something inherently and tragically funny about this era, which is why most movie humour is contemporary and self-depreciatory. Phillauri embodies this perceptional divide; it uses the frailties of today to reminisce about the lost romanticism of yesterday.

At no point does it attempt to strike a balance or create equal footing; the flashbacks are aesthetically designed, earthy and weighty, while the big-fat-Punjabi-wedding present is like a digital viewer in awe of its grainy 35mm memories. Both portions combine to form a slightly inconsistent, indulgent and unevenly narrated desi fairytale.

Kanan (Life of Pi’s Suraj Sharma) is that classic internet-age prototype – amusing by make, an unwitting product of a post-liberalization country. In short, he is unremarkable because he isn’t very old. His reactions to the ghost, Shashi (Anushka Sharma), are incoherent and jumbled, much like his feelings towards childhood sweetheart, Anu (Mehreen Pirzada), who he seems to have developed cold feet toward.

Anu wants him to feel for her the way she feels for him, long after their archetypical families (who I’d loved to have seen – and laughed at – more of) have given their consent.

This same consent was a luxury and a ‘reward’ in Shashi’s previous life; much of what she’d have to overcome with her lover (a Ranbir Kapoor-ish Diljit Dosanjh) found its expression and language in artistry; he was quite literally her voice – a folk singer of her written words.

This is a companionship metaphor she can’t quite expect Kanan to fathom. In most ways, her world, including the quasi-patriarchal influence of her fire-breathing brother (Manav Vij; terrific turn), is more progressive than she remembers.

Though she changes her man, she instinctively understands that Anu can’t and shouldn’t change hers. To make it come from within, her tale takes the form of a sobering and mournful saga – the kind that should serve as a lesson and a reminder.

Most youngsters prefer to ‘find themselves’ these days when faced with conflict, and Phillauri symbolizes a rather unconventional take on this existential phase

As omnipresent as the background score is, this is a rare case where it actually lends some much-needed personality to the many elongated displays of melodrama. Some scenes, especially those involving moments of revelation and tears, turn into mini soap operas. Though I like the way Shashi curiously stares at her current environment, wordlessly, wide-eyed for long stretches of time – as if she were studying the strange, self-defeating elation of two families, and not individuals, entering into a union.

Most youngsters prefer to ‘find themselves’ these days when faced with conflict, and Phillauri symbolizes a rather unconventional take on this existential phase. Rather than a solo backpacking trip or melodramatic rom-com style awakening, I believe Kanan’s frustrated conscience assumes the vivid form of a legitimate ‘layered’ ghost. He doesn’t want to get married yet, but he doesn’t quite know why.

Given the amount of weed he smokes, you’d think Shashi was simply an elaborate figment of his overactive imagination, or even the result of mowing through a truckload of Punjab-history books from his colourful grandmother’s library.

And if that’s the (hidden) case, perhaps there is a method to debutant director Anshai Lal’s meandering and excitable vision. But at a stretched length of 140 minutes, the novel-concept drug wears off quite early. One almost wishes it were an all-out acid trip, but then its gravitas would be the first to be compromised.

The problem with being a fantasy film is that there can rarely ever be any middle ground with its mood. It automatically subscribes to the ‘dram-edy’ sub-genre: two polar opposite ends of the emotional spectrum, with one able to exist only without another.

What we’re left with eventually is the sound and the undying spirit of a hybrid fairytale, just not the consistency of one. Perhaps at another time, and an older age, or even a younger one (like I did with Chamatkar), I’d re-watch this film for what it is than what it should have been.

Rating:   star

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