Director: Hardik Mehta
Writers: Mrighdeep Singh Lamba, Gautam Mehra
Cast: Janhvi Kapoor, Rajkummar Rao, Varun Sharma
Cinematographer: Amalendu Chaudhary
Editor: Huzefa Lokhandwala
In one of the many promotional interviews for Roohi, director Hardik Mehta said that his lead actor Rajkummar Rao described him to his lead actress Janhvi Kapoor, as a “guy who knows all about world cinema but has the heart of Govinda.” Which seems about right.
Hardik was a script supervisor on Vikramaditya Motwane’s Lootera and Trapped. He’s made the terrific National Award-winning documentary Amdavad Ma Famous. His first feature Kaamyaab, was such a winning ode to the Hindi film sidekick that Shah Rukh Khan came on board as a co-producer. Roohi seemed like a solid next step – a bigger budget, A-list stars and a world that had already been successfully set up by director Amar Kaushik and writers Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK in Stree. This had the potential to be all sorts of sparkling. Instead, Hardik’s distinct sensibility has been flattened out by a film that wants to juggle many balls – horror, comedy, feminist messaging, a love triangle, a bromance – but ends up dropping almost all of them.
Like Raj and DK, Roohi writers Mrighdeep Singh Lamba and Gautam Mehra also go back to folklore. Once again, we are in small-town India. Once again, there is a chudail – she is a mudiya pairi, which means her feet are backward. Rajkummar and Varun Sharma play Bhawra and Kattanni, childhood friends who occasionally dabble in pakdai shaadi. They kidnap women and force them into marriage. One day, they pick up the wrong girl. Or girls. Roohi also contains within her Afzaa, who is described as Lady Hulk and Godzilli. At one point, Bhawra says about her: Woh ladki hai, koi dual sim ka mobile thodi na. Truthfully, I didn’t fully understand why Roohi came to be like this. Incidentally, the small town is fictional and the dialects we hear are a liberal mash-up of many states. But that is the least of this film’s problems.
The film tries to continue in the tradition of feminist horror forged by films like Pari, Stree and Bulbbul. Mrighdeep and Gautam use Roohi’s story to deliver a message of self-acceptance and finding your inner strength. The ending is terrific. I suspect it’s the reason why the film was made. But to get there, we must endure a screenplay that borders on incoherence – there are tantrik babas, exorcism, passages of love and longing, a smiling foreigner shooting a documentary and a villainous boss, played by Manav Vij, who seems as dazed by the plot as we are. Snatches of Hindi film songs are used to create comedy – at one point, sagar jaisi aankhon wali plays – and of course, there’s the DDLJ palat scene. Implanting a visual of The Exorcist on one of Hindi’s cinema’s most iconic romantic moments might be the most innovative joke in this film.
Rajkummar and Janhvi go at their parts with gusto. Rajkummar tries to make Bhawra different from Vicky in Stree but the Chanderi ka Manish Malhotra casts a long shadow. And Bhawra has so little to work with. His get up – the highlighted hair, heart pendant, which matches his red shoes and his denim jacket which has zalzala emblazoned behind – seems more thought through than his character. The writing also trips up Janhvi who is convincing in both avatars but trapped in scenes that lead nowhere. And I think Varun’s unique brand of comedy is starting to feel tired. The actor needs to stretch beyond the expressions which made him famous.
There are flashes in Roohi where you see the film it might have been – early in the film, Roohi demolishes platefuls of food, a little detail that gets lost in the cacophony. The idea that Kattanni falls in love with a chudail also had delicious possibilities – I wanted to know what enables him to see beyond her bloodthirsty exterior. But none of this emerges. Instead, we get three characters circling each other in a forest. And that gets dull very quickly.
Roohi is playing at a theatre near you. Do remember to wear a mask!