Director: Amar Kaushik
Cast: Rajkummar Rao, Shraddha Kapoor, Pankaj Tripathi, Aparshakti Khurana, Abhishek Banerjee
The smart thing about Stree is its posture. It’s not just the fact that it is designed as a deliberate “horror comedy” in an industry notorious for unintentionally mixing up the two genres. Horror, after all, is simply comedy without the laughs. Perhaps it’s clever then, for a film to aim at making us do both. It’s also the fact that Stree is designed as a social satire under the guise of some ridiculous rural folklore. Writers Raj & D.K., along with dialogue writer Sumit Arora, essentially try to subvert the gender dynamics of small-town superstition. In doing so, they add a layer of storytelling that occasionally diverts our attention from Stree’s (the film and the lady) awkward physicality.
For example, take the setting: Stree is a jilted ghoul that picks up lone men at the dead of night. She leaves behind their clothes. She is said to be a vengeful result of an unfulfilled ‘suhaag raat’ (in big cities, Stree might be labeled as “free-spirited”). She can read; she respects the “Jao Stree, kal aana (Go, Stree. Come tomorrow)” signs on house walls. She understands consent: she abducts only those men who respond to their names being called out thrice. She haunts the town for four nights a year – a menstrual metaphor further extended by her presence coinciding with an annual ‘puja’. The protagonist is Vicky (Rajkummar Rao on autopilot), a gifted tailor of women’s wear: a good man who doesn’t need to touch their bodies to know their measurements. There’s even a character based in the mental space of the Emergency: another hint at the aborted masculinity (mass sterilization) of men.
The film works as a whimsical parable – that is, when the men on screen inadvertently react to the significance of Stree rather than Stree herself. Scenes of sari-clad husbands begging their wives to return home quickly, the town’s know-it-all bookstore owner Rudra (the actor for all seasons, Pankaj Tripathi) explaining the legend to others, and Vicky deciding to lead the way with his two bumbling friends (an in-form Aparshakti Khurana and Abhishek Banerjee), are clever – often bordering on smugness. Rao even manages to lend the loud climactic sequence the absurdist tone of a slapstick zombie comedy (the writers directed Go Goa Gone). Unfortunately, all these moments occur well into Stree’s second hour.
The first half is a pointless slog. There are a million over-smart songs (“Dil ka Darji,” “Aao Kabhi Haveli Par,” “Kamariya”), a jarring background score, and a crude item number that somewhat defeats the purpose of Stree’s feminist subtext. All this interminable setup conveys is that Stree exists, and that a mysterious (read robotic) Shraddha Kapoor and Stree might be the same person. Or un-person. Rao’s gooey-eyed moments with her are forced, unfunny and barely creepy. For those who’ve seen the unsophisticated trailer of this film, rest assured that the entire first half is just the trailer being repeated ten times over. Worse: Pankaj Tripathi has just one scene till the interval.
The first half is a pointless slog. There are a million over-smart songs (“Dil ka Darji,” “Aao Kabhi Haveli Par,” “Kamariya”), a jarring background score, and a crude item number that somewhat defeats the purpose of Stree’s feminist subtext.
By the time Stree locates its tone, the damage is almost irreversible. First-time director Amar Kaushik, though, learns to concentrate less on his film’s form and more on its self-awareness in the second hour. For instance, there’s a scene in which the team of men, in pursuit of defeating the spirit, discuss what they know about her so far. She is educated, her IQ is low, she senses pure love, today’s ghosts are so progressive – they rattle off one by one, in effect dissecting the clumsy culture of the classic Hindi film ghost. As a result, the actors have more to do than just react in various versions of shock and awe. And the musicians seem to have thankfully been abducted by the very Stree they were scoring.
There are times – especially during a pair of haunted-haveli showdowns – when Kaushik overemphasizes both the humour and the terror, thanks to the deafening sound cues and a hamming Rao. But this chaos only reinforces that the hybrid genre, no matter how cinematically schizophrenic it feels, is mostly foolproof. Think about it. Even if you chuckle at the ghouls and cringe at the humans, you’d still technically be reacting to the binaries of a horror-comedy. So what if Stree gets the roles jumbled up? At least it becomes a middling sum of accidental parts.