Synopsis – In the small town of Chanderi, the menfolk live in fear of an evil spirit named “Stree” who abducts men in the night. Based on the urban legend of “Nale Ba” that went viral in Karnataka in the 1990s.
My Take – I personally believe horror and comedy are the two most difficult genres to work on, considering it’s a nightmare for the filmmakers to witness how the audience audiences stepping into a theater, seeking the former, end up receiving the latter, or vice versa. However, unlike most horror comedies (especially the ones from Vikram Bhatt), this feature film debut from Amar Kaushik, aims to alternate between the two a bit more unconventionally. Written by Raj and DK, the brilliant minds behind underappreciated films like Shor In The City (2011) and Go Goa Gone (2013), the film in question here is supposedly inspired by a ridiculously true phenomenon known as Nale Ba. The urban legend talks about a woman who knocks on the doors of houses at night and if you answer, you will never be seen again.
While the inspiration might seem hilarious and scary to a point, thankfully, director Kaushik, Raj and DK, understanding that, have made sure the film is extremely self-aware of how ridiculous and illogical the whole set up is, a solid reason why the film works well for everyone. Sure, it surely could’ve been tighter and could have explored different options to improve upon the story, but considering how the genre jelled together so well, it’s a commendable job on the part of the director, as the film manages to provide both spooks and laughs in equal measures for almost all through its run time of 128 minutes.
Set in the Madhya Pradesh town of Chanderi, the story follows Vicky (Rajkummar Rao), a whiz at tailoring, who is able to assess a woman’s measurements merely by looking at her, a talent his father (Atul Srivastava) believes is god-gifted. But Vicky inspires to more than just the Manish Malhotra of the small town, a thing he forgets as soon as he falls head over heels in love with a gorgeous and mysterious out-of-towner (Shraddha Kapoor), who he has been noticing for three years, who finally approaches him requesting with a design for her ghagra.
However, the whole town including Vicky’s closest friends Jana (Abhishek Banerjee) and Bittu (Aparshakti Khurana) are in a different mood, mainly as the annual 4-day local prayers are about to begin, a period when a bride’s wandering spirit also begins to haunt the streets of the town, calling out young, unsuspecting men and abducting them, leaving behind only their clothes. While Vicky tells them both about his new found love, they are initially happy for them, but soon start realizing how the mysterious girl’s appearance coincides every year with the start of the local festival and when she hands him over a weird shopping list which includes a lizard’s tail, they are convinced that Vicky has fallen in love with the spirit itself. Seeking the help of a local occult expert Rudra (Pankaj Tripathi), Vicky, Jana and Bittu set out to unravel the mystery of the woman who seems to hate men.
The film begins on a high and sets the eerie mood immediately. As the film has a heavily Hindi-heartland setting, it weaves in romance, song and dance into the horror-com plot. Filled with big and knowing winks at the preposterous of the plot and numerous jump scares to balance out the giggles, the film benefits from a top-notch cast, eminent technicians and a crisp running time of 128 minutes. As expected, Raj and DK‘s screenplay is very effective and entertaining, along with Sumit Aroraa‘s dialogues, that are hilarious and very witty. Few one liners are sure to bring the house down. Even when the plot threatens to teeter, the cast pull it back, delivering punchlines with aplomb. The banter between the three friends and their guru, Rudra keeps you laughing throughout, for instance, Vicky and his gang joke about the fact that titular spirit is an obedient and understanding spirit that stays away from men whose homes have the words “Oh lady, come tomorrow” written outside their walls.
At the same time, they call her a fool because she keeps coming back, and disappears soon after reading the same message over and over again. In another scene, when Vicky and the spirit comes face to face, he demands that she shuts up, calling out at her ghostly screams. What works for the film is that it doesn’t forget that it is first a comedy, never letting the scares overshadow the laughs. It even attempts to make some pertinent points – about women who drink, the state of emergency in the 1970s and women emancipation, but they are all in the guise of jokes, and hints at how the makers have a subversive endgame that’s spelt out very clearly. The idea of a town full of men afraid to go out at night is a potent one, and the film lays it on thick, with Rudra informing us that the spirit, unlike male predators, doesn’t attack without consent. I preferred the film’s smaller jabs at narrow-mindedness.
Yes, the biggest strength of the film is in the writing. The spoken word eschews all linguistic influence from ‘Bambaiyya’ Hindi, as the characters speak a pure language which becomes contextually quite amusing, especially when it is set in typically Hindi film situations, like an item dance number (starring Nora Fatehi) that the town’s young bachelors enjoy at a guest house in the forest, also a location for one of the early abductions executed by the spirit.
The mourners of these gradually disappearing men in Chanderi are left with nothing but jockstraps to weep into. In self-defense, the men start dressing in woman’s clothing to avoid capture. The women, as they leave home, advice their terrified menfolk to stay at home for their own protection. Signs are painted all over town begging the spirit to leave them alone. It is a hilarious take-off on the conditioning of women in small towns, with some contemporary references thrown in for good measure by the erudite Rudra, who makes learned references to the history of women in the town, and their suffering.
However the horror sequences are also neatly inserted in between. While I spent much of the film giggling, there were moments when I thought the proceedings on screen got a bit too chilly, especially the sequence where Narendra gets taken away. However the most chilling sequence of the first half is the pre-interval sequence where we finally get a complete look at the titular spirit. Amar Kaushik‘s direction is commendable, considering that this is his first film, he has handled the horror as well as dramatic scenes with panache. In fact, it’s his smart direction that saves the film from falling flat, as he was able to use a limited area and a handful of characters to maximize effect.
Nevertheless, there are certain factors that end up effecting the overall impact of the film. For example, in the second half, there are some unnecessary elongations of very obvious scenes, and a few unwanted repetitions of the more entertaining gags. Also the climax scene seemed kind of rushed, which also includes an open ending for a certain character, which seemed unnecessary and may send up confusing a major section of audiences.
Yet, what takes the film a notch above the usual fare, though, are the performances. Led by the ever likable Rajkummar Rao, who gets a chance to dabble in a new genre and excels thoroughly. He genuinely gives an earnest performance and it is a treat to watch him getting spooked, delivering monologues and behaving madly in love. He underplays his innocence very well & that’s what make this performance a memorable one. His crackling dialogue delivery is matched moment for moment by Aparshakti Khurana and Abhishek Banerjee‘s career-making performances as his cowardly buddies, and Pankaj Tripathi‘s genius in his role as the local know-it-all. While these four keep the fire in the film blazing with their flawless comic timing, Shraddha Kapoor leads the charge with a more composed performance.
Here, Shraddha looks gorgeous and shares a good chemistry with Rajkummar, all the while dazzling up the atmosphere with her cute smile and increasing the intensity with her mysterious glance. Vijay Raaz manages to leaves a mark in a lone sequence, while Atul Srivastava brings the house down in the scene where he talks to his son about sex and masturbating. Nora Fatehi sizzles in the item number. On the whole, ‘Stree’ is an entertaining horror comedy that manages to work due to its outstanding dialogues, chilling sequences and gut-busting performances.
Directed – Amar Kaushik
Rated – PG15
Run Time – 128 minutes