'Not only are the concerns expressed in Stree (patriarchy, consent, prejudice against women) mere excuses to touch our 'sentimental hotspots', the movie itself is a few tricks cobbled together,' says Sreehari Nair.
Will the repressed ever return? If we were to take the Hindi film industry's word for it, they most probably will.
Pari. Ghoul. And now Stree.
All meditations on the horror film template. All examples of pop-culture telling us that we can expiate our past sins at the cost of a movie ticket. Or in the case of Ghoul specifically, at the cost of a Netflix subscription.
Though I have boxed them together here, unlike Pari and Ghoul, Stree is essentially a trick movie.
Not only are the concerns expressed in Stree (patriarchy, consent, prejudice against women) mere excuses to touch our 'sentimental hotspots', the movie itself is a few tricks cobbled together.
Rajkumar Rao is a prickly, wiseacre tailor named Vicky while Shraddha Kapoor is a strange, heavily kohl-eyed lady with stranger tastes -- she needs to down her brandy with a lizard tail.
They meet cute in Chanderi, during a four-day festival -- considered to be the Season of the Witch -- where she is trying hard to assert her status as the witch that Chanderi is trying to ward off.
She drops enough hints.
But this is a trick movie, and so, about Kapoor's witch-status, the audience knows better than poor Vicky -- who is busy pursuing lizards for her.
Her face tightens between sentences. It turns bloodless, almost.
Who in devil's name goes from smiling pleasantly to giving deathly stares to gazing five hundred years into the past to smiling pleasantly again, all in the space of a few seconds?
When she isn't 'changing states', Kapoor is rattling verbal clues in an echoey voice.
'Mujhe raat ka intezaar hai.'
'Bhagwan and I are at odds with each other.'
'You are looking at me, as if you just saw a ghost.'
This is a witch given to cracking expositional dialogues, but Rao's Vicky is clearly a bad movie critic and doesn't catch them.
In Stree, the audience is always kept two steps ahead of the characters -- not because there's some Hitchcockian virtuosity at play but because the characters are dumb or maybe because they haven't watched as many movies as we have.
The plot-movement is essentially a series of set-ups waiting for punch-lines which we know will arrive.
Even Rajkumar Rao, it seems, is not playing a real person as much as presenting a compilation of things he does best.
It's less a performance and more a 'highlights package'.
Rao needs someone to jeer at, someone to bounce his stutters off, but here he seems to be mostly acting with himself.
The scares and jokes in Stree have nothing to do with the characters who have been devised; they have to do only with the formula these characters are shoved into.
So there appears Vijay Raaz parroting declarations that have become commonplaces of women's liberation -- suggesting the movie's 'sensitive side'.
But when one of the characters is taken away for good by the witch, leaving just his clothes behind, the movie will see it as an opportunity to show how ridiculously his parents mourn his death.
This is a film that believes that as long as the grand statements are made, the small details can all be reduced to some jokes and a few chills.
There's often an internal logic to the best fantasy movies, to the finest historical fiction, to the most effective spooky stories.
This is the logic that comes from its creators having meticulously sculpted the worlds out of which these stories then emerge.
Here, we get the feeling that the writers Raj Nidimoru and Krishna D K just got hold of a rural legend (a witch who can be warded off by the line, 'Do come tomorrow, Madam' -- so that the line becomes a defensive formation that the witch never breaks) and went about turning it into a screenplay.
The director of Stree, Amar Kaushik, has assisted everyone from Mrighdeep Lamba to Majid Majidi, and his frames evoke the influence of many Gods.
Kaushik throws in a couple of visual surprises, though.
A pig randomly steps into a frame and steps out just as randomly, and nobody seems to mind its grunting intervention.
Rajkumar Rao's father, a devoted tailor, has in his home a shrine dedicated to his old Sewing Machine that spells out its life-span: 1964-1983.
Pigs and sewing machines don't talk, but people do, and Amar Kaushik's direction of the back-and-forth between characters tells you he is not completely assured when it comes to handling actors.
Every line 'cuts' to the next, and the expressions of actors aren't held consistent between successive moments (Shraddha Kapoor need not have tried to affect witch-acting; her director's discontinuous style does most of her work for her).
Stree is the latest in a sequence of movies that are as much a rebellion against old witchcraft sagas -- where the stories ended with the burning of witches -- as they are revolts against men-folk in general.
The shtick in these movies is that a witch burned in the puritan days comes back in the present age to teach the men-folk a few lessons and learn one lesson herself: That Love triumphs over Witchcraft!
The problem with films like Stree, however, is that the shtick dominates everything else.
Fight against patriarchy is turned into claptrap; with the women in these stories raised to 'beings of a higher order -- flawless, pristine.'
So, in a way, movies like Stree do to women exactly what those old witchcraft sagas did -- which is reduce their range of meaning.
There's a larger theme lurking somewhere in this movie that isn't quite given its due. And it's about repression in general.
Abhishek Banerjee plays one of Rajkumar Rao's two friends -- a neat, oily-haired guy, whose bunny teeth and bulging eyeballs have true dimensions and history.
Banerjee's character is the one who is slyly mocked at, made to run errands, and later carried off by the witch.
When he comes back from the hell-hole as a 'man possessed' and starts punching people down, the whole act feels like an uprising of the bullied, the rising of the repressed.
In a movie with a musical score which happens to be a wash of yelps, unearthly shrieks, and thumps, Abhishek Banerjee's is an atypically relaxed performance. He is more relaxed than even Pankaj Tripathi -- who is the kind of actor who can usually meditate his way through a bloody coup.
Tripathi plays a witchcraft specialist here, who has his 'moments' rather than a full-fledged personality.
There's a strange magic to some of Tripathi's utterances which is a mix of textbook words and daily-speak: 'Nimnalikhith' and 'Hello, Falaana Dimkana' both come out of his mouth like pure gold.
At one point, as he says the word 'Mudra', his hands assume a statuesque position and he gives the movie some breathing space. But with Pankaj Tripathi just some drop volleys won't do, you want the aces.
Shraddha Kapoor negotiates her way through the picture largely unhurt. Agreeing with lines spoken by better actors is a smart way to suggest, 'I fit in well here.'
In terms of styling, Kapoor gets the full star treatment -- she isn't a wife, or a girlfriend, or even a dream date, but an extract from an old painting with a smile that hides a thousand secrets -- the repressed woman transformed into a seductress.
She does, however, at one point, say firmly, 'Mujhe Stree ko Haraana Hai,' and her inscrutable charm dies a natural death. You can only wait for her to flash her Gymkhana Membership next!
By the end of Stree, the men in Chanderi are all reformed and turned into scared creatures.
One husband, fearful of the witch, says to his wife as she is stepping out at night: 'Please do come back quickly. I am all alone here.'
That moment is supposed to be a subversion of the typical husband-wife coquettish dynamic, but it is a subversion that arrives without a proper rite-of-passage.
It is yet another of the movie's many tricks and only reaffirms its operative procedure.
The applause for such scenes however told me that Stree, thanks to its show of ultra-feminism, would not be chastised for its numerous poor dramatic constructions.
This is what happens to a movie culture that had once played it real shallow. It is replaced by another movie culture whose acts of shallowness are forgiven because it simply manages to correct some very obvious mistakes of the past.
As with witchcraft, so also with movies: We continue to pay for the sins of our forefathers.