Director: Amar Kaushik
Cast: Rajkummar Rao, Shraddha Kapoor, Pankaj Tripathi, Aparshakti Khurana, Abhishek Banerjee
In a recent interview with the website filmstage.com, actor Ethan Hawke spoke about ‘Trojan horse’ movies. These are genre movies which turn out to be something else – like the Oscar-nominated Get Out, a terrifying horror film, which in fact is a blistering commentary on race relations in America. Stree is a Trojan horse. Director Amar Kaushik and writers Krishna D.K. and Raj Nidimoru create a horror-comedy, which turns out to be subversive commentary on the position and treatment of women in India. It’s clever and very funny.
A small town is being haunted by a chudail who descends on the four nights of an annual puja. She preys only on men, who simply disappear leaving their clothes behind. Basically, Stree is the desi version of Scarlett Johansson in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin. Johansson plays an alien who preys on men in Scotland. But unlike the alien, our chudail is emotional. She is described as pyaar ki bhuki. And, she believes in consent. In a terrific scene, we are told that she only abducts men who turn around when she calls. Because looking into her eyes is giving permission. Even when they are fanged monsters, women are more evolved. Yes means yes.
Filmmakers Raj and D.K. have an original, gleefully irreverent voice – remember Saif Ali Khan as Boris, the fake Russian zombie killer in Go Goa Gone or Tusshar Kapoor as Tilak, a petty criminal who likes to read in Shor in the City? But that sense of trippy fun got drowned by stars and big budgets in their last two directorial ventures – Happy Ending and A Gentleman. With this script, they are back in form. They take the urban legend of a mysterious woman on a killing spree and use it to create a role reversal – in this film, men are petrified about walking alone in the dark while the women move around freely. We are categorically told: purushon ka jeevan sankat mein hai. I’ll admit that it was satisfying to see men, for once, get the short end of the stick.
Kaushik takes their smart script and runs with it. He seamlessly blends horror tropes – the point of view shot, jump scares, the end twist – with droll humor. The dialogue by Sumit Arora is consistently first-rate. And pay attention to the throw-away lines. In one scene, they are discussing the fact that the spirit can read because when it is written, mat aana, she doesn’t enter the house. So Pankaj Tripathi, playing the local spirit expert declares that she is a ‘naye Bharat ki chudail’.
The irony is that in a film designed to give women the upper hand, the men do all the heavy lifting. Shraddha Kapoor is required to look mysterious and attractive, which she manages. But the men are on fire. Tripathi has become Bollywood’s biggest scene stealer. He gets some of the best lines and as usual, he effortlessly dominates with his comic timing and his unerring ability to locate the humor in the most mundane situations.
Aparshakti Khurana and Abhishek Banerjee, as the friends, have such an endearing simplicity that you smile even before they say anything. And then there is Rajkummar Rao who continues to go from strength to strength. This role doesn’t require him to have the flamboyance of Pritam Vidrohi in Bareilly ki Barfi. But as Vicky, pronounced Bicky, Rajkummar brings to the fore, his vulnerability and charm. He is eminently watchable as the sweet, ambitious, small-town tailor who likes to think of himself as ‘Chanderi ka Manish Malhotra.’
On the downside: the songs are forgettable and redundant. And don’t look for any genuine shocks here – Stree with her withered hands and rotting teeth seems like a 2.0 version of a Ramsay creature. The energy also dips in the second half. But thankfully the narrative rebounds and the humor keeps the film afloat.
With laughs and scares, Stree delivers an important message.