Stri is a beautiful film about an infuriating relationship. K.S Sethumadhavan directs with restraint, and the intimate scale lets the cast really shine. The story feels complete, with the focus on the important things and people and a pleasing complexity to some of the characters. Maybe that’s because it’s an adaptation of Palagummi Padmaraju’s short story and not purpose built for a filmi audience. Stri won the National Film Award for Best Feature Film in Telugu in 1995, with leading actress Rohini also getting a special mention at those awards.

The film opens with no dialogue or music at all for the first 5 minutes or so as a girl on a ferry cranes her neck to look anxiously towards her destination. They arrive and she pushes her way through the disembarking ladies, hurrying to where or to who?

Rangi (Rohini) has come in search of Paddalu (Thalaivasal Vijay), who is getting out of jail today. He is not wildly attractive but has a roguish charm as befits a singer, actor, thief. She gets him cleaned up, dressed, and fed. Rangi beseeches and berates him to go straight and ditch his “other woman”. She’s left her family to be with him, is unmarried, and is very aware of what people think of her.

Paddalu is famed as a singer and actor in devotional and folk plays, but he is losing his audience to the movies and his old fashioned patron is short of cash. Rangi knocks herself out trying to think up legal and positive ways for them to make a living, but Paddalu simply doesn’t want to work hard. He comes up with a scheme to make some money and convinces Rangi to just go along with it. They scam a lift on a riverboat, meeting the author of stories about poor people just like them. The writer (S Bheemeswara Rao) clearly hasn’t mastered the art of ignoring ones neighbour when Rangi and Paddalu are up for some action. But he is a sympathetic audience when Rangi finds herself left behind as Paddalu scarpers with some of the cargo.

The film shows their intense mutual attraction, although nothing else about the relationship is healthy. And the more you find out about Paddalu’s behaviour, the more questionable and destructive it all becomes. Rangi continually alienates herself from others for the sake of his dubious affection. He tries to get her into bed and she demurs but says abstinence is hard for her too. She says she may as well sleep with all of his friends because he has turned her into a street woman, and if he likes variety why can’t she have some too. It’s a one way street of course – only Paddalu can sleep around. Rangi should either go back to her parents, or let him do as he will.

After a night of ‘celebrating’ Paddalu carefully feels under their pillow and searches around the waist of Rangi’s saree, looking for her purse. He tries to sneak out but Rangi has locked the door. She knows she can’t really hold on to him, but she tries so hard to stop him from running. Even when he abandons her on the boat she tries to believe that he will still be her man somehow and she will get him back. There are issues galore in this relationship.

Rangi’s behaviour fluctuates between immature and girlish to sadly knowing. Rohini is beautifully simple and raw as Rangi, emotions playing across her face in an instant as Rangi battles to hang on to her man. She judges the performance and characterisation to perfection. Seeing Rohini stride around, a diminutive figure with her saree tied in what I think is a Madurai style, she just exuded determination. I hated the relationship but I really felt for Rangi, and wanted her to come to her senses. And it was interesting to see a female who was a bit of an outsider behaving in an often aggressive and entitled way as she claimed Paddalu as hers. She is subservient to her man but a feisty woman to all others. I also liked seeing Rohini in a lead role as I’ve mostly seen her recent work like Ala Modalaindi and Baahubali.

Vijay gets the short end of the stick as Paddalu is utterly despicable, but he also gives his best to try and make the character a little more nuanced. He sometimes looks at Rangi with sympathy or regret, but nothing will stop him from chasing another woman or another scheme. He is a clown at times, but has a violent streak and seems to post rationalise his way out of accepting any consequences of his actions. He and Rohini have great chemistry and whether the scene is a light hearted tickle fight or an intense confrontation, there is always a sense of connection between the two.

P.L Narayana, K.K Sharma and S Bheemeswara Rao have the main supporting roles as travellers and crew on the boat. Their characters provide some backstory for Rangi and hear her version of life with Paddalu. The other women in the film are mostly Paddalu’s paramours or nosey neighbour ladies who taunt Rangi about her loser of a man. They all shout a lot.

The style is intimate and realistic, and there is no background music to obscure the sounds of village or river life. There are a couple of songs but they are part of the narrative and the style is in keeping with the characters. The rural setting is not overly sanitised and no one is glammed up or filmi looking.

See this for a strong female character played to perfection by Rohini, and for a beautifully made and quite depressing slice of life. I want to be moved by a film, even if that does mean feeling sad and angry. 4 ½ stars!