Director: Hardik Mehta
Writers: Mrighdeep Singh Lamba, Gautam Mehra
Cast: Janhvi Kapoor, Rajkummar Rao, Varun Sharma
Cinematographer: Amalendu Chaudhary
Editor: Huzefa Lokhandwala
The recent barrage of hybrid-feminist stories in Hindi cinema poses some interesting questions. For instance, how far into its narrative should a genre movie reveal its feminism? Most films wait a lifetime. A whodunnit like Raat Akeli Hai holds back till the final twist. As does a slice-of-life dramedy like Gulabo Sitabo. The women emerge as the punchline. The male smokescreen aspires to be dense enough to pass off as a parallel film; hindsight simply redefines it. But the marriage of horror and feminism is a naturally compatible one; patriarchy is the real monster, the medium merely gives it an ornamental voice. Consequently, feminism isn't a late twist but a persistent metaphor – of menstruation (Pari, Stree), of agency (NH10, Phillauri), of abuse (Bulbbul). The subtext stays tragic: women cannot afford to be anything less than demons, ghosts, witches and killers to overcome their oppressors.
In that sense, Hardik Mehta's Roohi is so many things that it ultimately becomes an approximation of nothing. On one hand, it adopts the Stree-style tone of a horror rom-com. On the other, the chaotic premise – centred on an abducted witch who believes that marriage will exorcise her – hints at the social stigma and trauma experienced by rape survivors. On yet another hand, the film wants to be a cultural satire on Indian customs inherently stacked against womanhood. And on yet another hand (any more hands and this review might morph into an alien thriller), Roohi is also a send-up of the quintessential Bollywood love triangle where the woman is a shiny trophy for the winner of two warring heroes.
Not to mention that the film waits and waits till the very end to unleash its truth. By which point it's less of a twist and more of a muddled afterthought. By then, the smokescreen – featuring two men relentlessly pursuing the affections of a girl they've kidnapped – becomes the entire film. The problem is blatant: the deliberate misogyny of the comedy is at odds with the belated feminism of its horror.
This mismatch of language reaches its peak when the audience is pushed to derive humour out of boys being boys. Roohi opens with childhood buddies Bhawra (Rajkummar Rao) and Kattanni (Varun Sharma) explaining to an American documentary maker (Alexx O'Nell) the time-honoured tradition of their land – the "pakdai shaadi," or the business of kidnapping girls to marry them off to lovelorn potential grooms. (The white camera-wielding man appears solely as an exotic exposition device.) Bhawra and Kattanni, too, work in the business. Their process – of physically manhandling and forcing girls into a vehicle headed for the wedding venue – is punctuated with cartoonish sound cues. The two stooges invite trouble when their latest captive, Roohi (Janhvi Kapoor), looks to be possessed by a spirit.
For reasons best left unexplained, Bhawra falls for the poor, suffering, hungry and chained Roohi (maybe he's a closet dom), while Kattanni falls for her bloodthirsty alter-ego (maybe he's a closet necrophile). They argue over who will marry which half of her and dismiss proposals of a threesome in between lines like "she's a woman, not a dual-sim network". Almost half the film unfurls at a hideout in the jungle – a rinse-repeat cycle of the two crude fools seeking absurd characters to cure her, failing which they continue paying ode to retro-Bollywood love. The "palat" scene in particular gets a gory update. Once they leave the forest for a village where exorcism is a full-time profession, Roohi becomes an incoherent mash-up of morbid events – the cinematic equivalent of a man trying to speak while chewing paan.
What doesn't help matters one bit is Bhawra's unnecessary speech impediment. It's supposed to be comic relief, but most of Rajkummar Rao's dialogue is impossible to understand. Between his reverse-lisp and the witch's garbled voice, half the technicalities and superstitions of the story get lost in the wind. It also doesn't help that, owing to new India's trigger-happy outrage mobs, the geography remains largely fictional – the allusion is to Uttar Pradesh, but the customized dialect also evokes a mix of Rajasthan, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar. I tried to lip-read, though my eyes kept glancing to the bottom of the screen in the hope of subtitles magically materialising. Maybe the lockdown has spoilt us, or maybe the intention is to amuse us with the linguistic secularism of the characters. Either way, the result is far from desirable.
Given Fukrey director Mrigdeep Singh Lamba's involvement as co-writer and producer, it's not surprising to see both Rao and Sharma bring a similar school of spoof-acting to the fore. It's the kind of performance that wants the viewer to see just how hard they strive to entertain. I'm personally not a fan. Much of it is aimed to distract us from what the film really wants to say. The few good quips (like the girl's freakish appetite) are diluted by their deeply masculine sense of timing. It's brave of Janhvi Kapoor to do a role that only requires her to sway between Bambi and zombie. The film, however, gets so busy mansplaining the rules of her condition that it forgets to treat her as a full-blooded human. The climax is designed as a reward for tolerating the make-up and prosthetics – and for being held hostage while the heroes milk the shock-and-awe aesthetic.
I believe there is a clever, subversive film somewhere in Roohi. But the version we see is confused, crowded, callous and not self-aware enough to recognise the horror-comedy paradox. The comedy is scary because a girl fears men more than men fear witches. And the horror is funny because today's ghost is a millennial verb. Somewhere in between, a movie lost its spirit.