By Subhash K Jha
Film: Stree; Starring Rajkummar Rao, Shraddha Kapoor, Pankaj Tripathi, Aparshakti Khurrana; Directed by Amar Kaushik; Rating: ****(4 stars)
A new language in the horror genre burgeons as we watch this quirky cocktail — or shall we call it a quirk-tale? –of strange eerie mysterious goings-on in a minuscule town somewhere in Madhya Pradesh.
First off, the narrative acquires its judiciously-harnessed strength from the lazy serpentine locations. The congested claustrophobic gullies and lanes of Chanderi lend themselves effectively to the plot that quite literally loses it.
This is a film where supernatural beliefs are dragged to the extremes of self-parody and then dragged back up panting puffing and gasping for breath. It’s a delicious voluptuous mishmash of terror and titillation all titivated in loads of guffaws.
To sustain the mood of mirth during times of terror is not easy. Stree manages it. It also squeezes in a piercing message on gender dignity and women’s empowerment, proclaiming the ill treatment of women to be the root-cause of all evil perpetrated by ghoulish feminine spirits wandering aimlessly in the night.
The writing in this case is clearly and literally on the wall, as every home in the spooked town has a message ‘Stree Kal Aana’ painted on the raw brick wall. Well, Kal or not, this Stree rides the train of mystery with bloody-thirsty bravado.
Many passages play for anti-climactic scares. And these get annoying when repeated. Even when the deadends to the frights are too frequent the film never ceases to be fun. Barring Shraddha Kapoor who is listless pale and wan (and not necessarily because the script demands her to be these) the entire cast gets the spirit of spooked satire dead right.
While Aparshakti Khurrana has shaped into one of the strongest supporting actors of contemporary Bollywood, what appealed the most to me was this self-effacing actor’s accent. So North Indian in its wackiness, I was left decoding his words long after Khurrana finished uttering them. Pankaj Tripathi as a local scholar-exorcist with a penchant for alcohol and caller tunes that remind us of beautiful ghosts from Raj Khosla’s cinema, has the film’s best lines. Tripathy chews on them for all the meat they’ve got and spits them out with loving care.
As for Rajkummar Rao, he takes ownership of the film and its peculiar flavour of fear and fun, instilling the two elements simultaneously in several scenes. I dare any other actor to have so much fun with fear. Watch him and Atul Shrivastava in the sequence where ‘Deddy’ tells son to not go to prostitutes for ‘Frandship’, but opt for self-help instead. It is priceless.
Stree moves in mysterious ways through a labyrinth of lip-smacking interludes, some razor-sharp others blunt to the point of blandness. Even when the momentum of the eerie gets overly airy, there is still enough steam in the storytelling to keep us interested, if not enthralled, to the end.
And when all fails, there is always Rajkummar Rao. An actor we can depend on to rescue even the most inept scene from doom. Luckily Stree for all its audacious dips and curves through mofussil anxieties never stumbles too hard to fall fright on its face. And watch out for the final twist in the tale. You will agree this quirk-tale, shot with vinegary vibrancy by cinematographer Amalendu Chaudhary, is no mock-tale.