By Deepa Gahlot
This film labelled by the makers as a horror-comedy, is set in the quaint town of Chanderi (in Madhya Pradesh), which immediately gives it the right look and atmosphere in which to play out the story of Stree, a female spook, who terrorises the town for four days each year, during an annual pooja.
The spirit calls out to men walking down dark streets, and if they turn, they vanish, leaving just a pile of their clothes behind. But if they have painted “O Stree Kal Aana” on their walls with bat’s blood (or some such), they are spared. Vicky (Rajkummar Rao), the cool dude of Chanderi, thinks he is too rational to bother about these superstitions, till he is confronted with the existence of Stree.
Meanwhile, Vicky (pronounced Bicky in the MP dialect) is the most popular tailor in town (“Chanderi ka Manish Malhotra”), when he gets besotted by a strange woman (Shraddha Kapoor), who appears and disappears suddenly, does not have a cellphone and won’t enter the town’s temple.
When she asks him to get her some odd things like a white cat’s hair and lizard’s tail, Vicky’s friends, Bittu (Aparshakti Khurana) and Jana (Abhishek Banerjee) are convinced this nameless girlfriend is a witch. Men start disappearing, but when Jana does too, friends have to put aside their fear and hunt for him and the chudail, with the town’s know-all bookseller, Rudra (Pankaj Tripathi) to guide them.
The screenplay by filmmakers Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK builds up the humour well and pokes fun of a town of sex-starved men terrified of stepping out of their homes to escape the ghoul on the prowl. But when it gets into its horror mode,Stree gets problematic. In spite of the disclaimer at the beginning that the film does not endorse superstition, it ends up doing just that.
The idea may have been to mock the myths surrounding vengeful female spirits out to punish men, but what it ends up doing is respectfully ticking all the ‘how-to-catch-a-chudail’ boxes. The talk about a woman’s consent and “yes means yes” is just a glib cover for pretending there is more to the supernatural mumbo-jumbo on screen than what horror films (remember the Ramsay Brothers?) used to dish out.
Its confused messaging aside, the film has Rajkummar Rao leading the exuberant male cast—Shraddha Kapoor is just the catalyst for what happens—all of whom catch the ridiculous tone intended and play it for laughs with all their might. Stree could have been a real woman-power film, peppered with ghost-busting wit, pity it falls short.
Director: Amar Kaushik
Cast: Rajkummar Rao, Shraddha Kapoor, Aparshakti Khurana, Pankaj Tripathi, Abhishek Banerjee and others
Deepa Gahlot is one of India’s seniormost and best known entertainment journalists. A National Awardwinning film critic, Deepa has watched more movies and theatre than most people in the country. An author of several books on film and theatre, she has had an extremely successful run as head of theatre and film at the National Centre for Performing Arts, Mumbai, during which she helped nurture several original productions. For Xyngr, Deepa Gahlot reviews theatre and cinema.