Stree (2018)

Stree

Amar Kaushik’s Stree starts with the intriguing message that the story is based on a ‘ridiculous true phenomenon’, apparently referencing a folk-tale from Karnataka, but which really could be any one of a number of similar stories world-wide. The film is billed as a horror comedy, and manages to be both funny and scary, which is an excellent achievement in a genre that generally manages one or the other, but rarely both. The story takes place in the wonderfully atmospheric town of Chanderi, making Stree worth watching just for the architecture alone, but in addition, Rajkummar Rao is excellent, Pankaj Tripathi and the rest of the support cast are brilliant, and the blend of social commentary, dark humour and ghostly appearances makes for an unusual but entertaining film.

The basic premise of the story is the annual haunting of Chanderi by a female ghost that preys on the men of the town. For the first four nights of Navratri, Stree calls to any men she sees alone at night stealing them away and leaving behind nothing but their clothes. The best part about this is that she calls their name three times, and if they turn around, she takes that as consent. Naturally then, all the men have to do to be safe is not turn around – but somehow they seem unable to manage this. I love the idea of a female ghost that looks for consent, particularly in Hindi cinema where the men don’t usually give women the same consideration, which is of course the whole point.  But also, and more subtly, there is the message that the men are so desperate for love that they can be easily seduced by the ghost despite knowing the consequences.

Protection from Stree can also be gained by writing a message outside the house asking Stree to come back the following night. Surprisingly the literate Stree obeys, keeping the menfolk safe from her clutches as she continues to follow the directive and return the next night until her time is up. The presence of Stree means that the tables are turned and in this story it’s the men who are terrified and unable to go out alone at night. Some even resort to dressing as women to be able to venture outdoors at night safely, while the rest huddle behind their womenfolk in fear. The film has a lot of these ‘role reversals’ that shine the spotlight on the treatment of women in India. There is even an item song with Nora Fatehi gyrating away in front of a crowd of young men, but at the end she is politely escorted away by bodyguards, totally in control of the situation, while one of the men ends up as Stree’s first victim.

Against the backdrop of the ghost, the film follows Vicky (Rajkummar Rao), a ladies tailor who can gauge his clienteles’ measurements with just a glance, and his romance with an mysterious woman. Despite his obvious talent, Vicky feels that he is destined for bigger and better things, but while he’s waiting for them to happen, he spends his time in Chanderi stitching clothes and hanging out with his friends Bittu (Aparshakti Khurana) and Jana (Abhishek Banerjee). At the start of Navratri, Vicky meets an enigmatic female visitor (Shraddha Kapoor) who has come to the town for the festival, and who commissions Vicky to make an outfit for her. Although his friends are sceptical and even suspect the newcomer may be Stree, Vicky is instantly smitten and ends up on a couple of dubious ‘dates’ with the mysterious stranger. At the same time, Stree has started her annual haunting, although Vicky denies her existence until Jana is one of the men taken by the vengeful spectre. Suddenly Vicky has a reason to find out more about the ghost, and he enlists the aid of local bookstore owner Rudra (Pankaj Tripathi) and even his mysterious girlfriend to track down Stree and rescue the men she has taken.

Part of what makes the film work so well is the humorous dialogue between the three friends and the mix of jokes, physical comedy and deliberate misdirection. When interspersed with some hair-raising moments as Stree creeps up behind yet another victim, the relief gained makes everything seem even funnier and also serves to exaggerate the horror element even more. The first half in particular is well written to blend story development with comedy and horror, and although the repeated attempts to lay the ghost start to drag a little in the second half, there is still enough that is unexpected to give a few shocks right up to the very end. Rajkummar Rao is in his element and he is brilliantly funny as a small-town tailor who is mostly oblivious to the world around him. His reaction to discovering a pretty girl seems interested in him is entertaining and his slave-like devotion to her every wish is cleverly milked for every last drop of humour. Aparshakti Khurana is also excellent as Vicky’s cynical and more sceptical friend, while Abhishek Banerjee is hilarious as the more gullible and susceptible of the trio. I love the contrast between their friendly banter and the more serious discussions going on around them as Stree makes her reappearance into the town while they seem totally oblivious of the danger.

When it comes to the more spooky elements of the story, Shraddha Kapoor does a good job of shrouding her character in mystery without overdoing the ‘silent stranger’ vibe. Although she doesn’t have too much to do other than appear mysterious, her character does keep you guessing, particularly since writers Raj Nidimoru and Krishna D.K. throw in some lovely red herrings (or are they?) along the way. I really enjoyed their previous film Shor in the City, which had a blend of action, violence and comedy, but Stree is a gentler watch that adds more social commentary into the mix. Part of the novelty of the film comes from the tweaking of stereotypical gender roles and the subtle but definite insistence on women’s rights (including the right of a prostitute to insist on the use of a condom) throughout the screenplay.  Although much of the film is very dark, Amalendu Chaudhary makes excellent use of the old buildings as a backdrop, while maintaining a suspenseful atmosphere even during the daylight scenes. Director Amar Kaushil does a good job of keeping everything together with only the odd misstep towards the end of the film.

It’s not a perfect movie, but it’s a good entertainer and the digs at patriarchal society add an extra dimension to the story. Worth watching for clever dialogue, plenty of laughs, a few good scares and excellent performances from the cast. 4 stars.

Stree

Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga

Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga

Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga deserves praise for daring to tackle same-sex relationships in a film industry where gay people have mainly seem to appear only as comic relief. Although Shelly Chopra Dhar’s film is a sanitised and strangely unemotional journey, showing even a fraction of the prejudice and discrimination faced by anyone who does not follow cultural norms is surely a step in the right direction. The story is kept safe and family-friendly with the actual romance not getting much attention, while most of the light and shade comes from the excellent support cast. Rajkummar Rao is outstanding, Anil Kapoor and Juhi Chawla bring warmth and real affection to their roles while Abhishek Duhan manages to encapsulate every negative thought or emotion pertaining to homosexuality within his character. This is definitely a film worth watching, although I wish it had shown more of the heartache and allowed the lead character to fight her own battles rather than relying on the various men in her life to shape her destiny.

Sonam Kapoor plays the character of Sweety, the daughter of businessman and garment factory owner Balbir Chaudhary (Anil Kapoor). She lives with her father, brother Babloo (Abhishek Duhan) and grandmother (Madhumalti Kapoor) in the Punjabi town of Moga but her path crosses with Sahil Mirza (Rajkummar Rao) during a visit to Delhi. Sahil is the son of a rich producer, but he’s trying to make his own way in the world as a writer and playwright. Unfortunately, the film he wrote for his father has been wildly panned and his new play doesn’t seem destined to reach any great heights either, given the small theatre where it is being produced and a seemingly limited budget. However, a chance encounter with Sweety intrigues Sahil and as he aids her escape from her brother, he decides he wants to know more about her self-described long and complicated story. A few vague ideas about producing a play in a regional town with local actors is enough for Sahil to travel to Moga with the theatre caterer Chatro (Juhi Chawla). Once in Moga he finds Sweety easily enough but as he learns more about her Sahil becomes drawn into her struggle to be the person she really wants to be.

What works really well in the film is the character of Sahil, and Rajkummar Rao is fantastic, infusing Sahil with understanding, empathy and a good sense of humour right from the start. Although initially he is smitten with Sweety, his transformation to her champion is very believable and done with plenty of humour and warmth. Even his brief interactions with his own parents have some clever by-play that gives further insights into Sahil’s character and provide an interesting contrast with Sweety’s family. Anil Kapoor is another major strength in the film and he strikes exactly the right note as a wealthy businessman who only wants the best for his daughter. In a nice parallel he has had to hide his love of cooking all his life as his mother doesn’t find the kitchen an appropriate place for a Punjabi man. Although I did find that odd given that most top chefs are in fact male. Perhaps it was more of a status thing (which didn’t come across with the subtitles), but it does mean that Balbir has experience of hiding the thing he loves from his mother, something that gives him the ability to develop an understanding of his daughter’s problems later in the film.

I love Juhi Chawla and she is brilliant here in a role that allows her to showcase her excellent comedic talents. Her Chatro is convinced she is a mind-shattering actress, although no-one else believes in her talent. She is a superb cook however, and this is the talent that’s appreciated by Balbir and leads to some hilarious interactions between the two. Chatro is confident in her abilities – whether it’s cooking or acting, and Juhi makes her a wonderfully warm and likeable character to boot. It’s no wonder Balbir is smitten, and the scenes between these two brilliant actors really are the absolute highlight of this film for me.

Sonal Kapoor is a little more disappointing as Sweety, which is a shame as writers Gazal Dhaliwal and Shelly Chopra Dhar have given her some great material to work with. The stories Sweety tells Sahil about her life and the difficulties she has faced should have been some of the most heart-wrenching moments of the entire film, but the emotion never goes quite deep enough. Although this is probably the best performance I have seen from Sonal, there doesn’t seem to be any real pain behind her dialogues. Although she is obviously trying hard, Sweety appears just sad, not anguished or distraught, even when she was discussing such monumental decisions as ending her life or marrying anyone just to get away from the constant pressure from her family. While I can accept that a lifetime of repression would make someone less prone to show their emotions, to make the film more effective, I really needed to feel her pain much more deeply that she ever manages to express here. Where Sonam is better however, is during the climax of the film where she responds to her father disapproval, and here she brings the emotion and drama that’s missing elsewhere in her performance.

What I really like about the film is the depiction of how difficult it is to reveal homosexuality to family, friends and the community in India. With the recent decriminalisation of homosexuality in India, perhaps there will be some changes, but given how much prejudice and shame there is still attached to same-sex relationships in the West, I feel this will be a long and difficult process. The first Hindi film I saw that touched on this subject was Onir’s excellent My Brother… Nikhil, which also starred Juhi Chawla, but this I think is the first main-stream Hindi film that has tackled the subject of lesbianism within India. In Margarita, with a Straw for example, the character was only able to embark on her same-sex relationship when she left the country and was studying overseas. From that perspective I think that this is an important film, as it does bring to light the difficulties experienced by people who identify as LGBTQIA and openly shows the prejudice and discrimination they receive. The need to keep everything secret and repress their sexuality is clearly discussed, even if only briefly. Sweety’s brother Babloo is vehemently opposed to her relationships and this character allows some of the range of hate against homosexuality to be exposed, even when disguised as concern for the person or their family. Babloo is an unpleasant character, but there is a lot of truth in Abhishek Duhan’s portrayal and I felt that he totally nailed the animosity and disgust his character felt while projecting care and consideration for Sweety and the entire family. This bigotry is effectively done and is one of the important points that Shelley Chopra Dhar gets across so well in the film.

I also love the response of the audience to Sahil’s play about Sweety and how Shelley Chopra Dhar captures the conservative ideas and morals of a small town. The contrast between young girls with their faces full of rapt attention as they followed the story, with the adults in the crowd who got up and left with angry gestures, sums up the story beautifully and illustrates just how far communities need to change to overcome these unreasonable and biased attitudes.

In this way it’s the subject matter and the idea of the film that is important, and in this I think Shelly Chopra Dhar has exceeded expectations. The film itself doesn’t fare quite as well, given the rather conservative approach to Sweety’s relationship. Her partner Kuhu (Regina Cassandra) only appears onscreen briefly, which is rather a shame since Regina sparkles when she is on camera and I would have liked to see more of her character and even heard Kuhu’s story too. Instead the film concentrates on the family relationships, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but some of the romance needed to be included to give some balance to the story. I can understand that the director probably didn’t want to alienate main-stream audiences, but it does mean that the film is lacking emotional attachment.  It’s still an enjoyable film and one that can be watched without delving too much into the politics and societal issues, which hopefully means it will reach a wide audience. It deserves to.

CityLights (2014)

CityLights

In his reworking of Sean Ellis’s award winning social drama Metro Manila, Hansal Mehta moves the story from the slum areas of Manila to the seedy streets of Mumbai. It’s a tale of grinding, remorseless poverty and the desperation such hardship brings, but there are some lighter moments too and the film morphs into a crime drama about half way through. City Lights is perhaps not quite as effective as the original in telling the story of a young naïve family and their move from the country to the city in search of a better life, but what the story has lost in adaptation is more than made up by the strong performances from the lead actors Rajkummar Rao, Patralekha and Manav Kaul.

City LightsCityLightsCityLightsCityLights

The story opens in Rajasthan where Deepak Singh (Rajkummar Rao) has a clothing shop in a small town that he is forced to close when he cannot afford to pay off his debts.  Since there appears to be no hope for any work in his village, he sets off for Mumbai with his wife Rakhi (Patralekha) and small daughter Mahi. Rakhi is reluctant to move, once in the city she seems less naïve than Deepak so perhaps she is well aware of the difficulties of trying to live in Mumbai, but ultimately she has no say in the decision. These first few scenes are full of light and laughter, and in just a few brief moments Hansal Mehta paints a picture of a happy family where there is a lot of love and hope that better days will come.

Deepak plans to meet a friend from his army days in Mumbai, but when Omkar fails to turn up at the railway station the family has to find their way in the big city alone. After being swindled out of what meagre funds they have, a chance meeting with a bar dancer leads them to a temporary refuge in a half constructed building.  While Deepak spends his days trying to find any kind of a job anywhere, Rakhi manages to get employment as a dancer in a bar. However this is not work she finds easy to reconcile with her conscience and she continually struggles with the leers of the men and their attempts to get more from her than she is willing to give. Deepak too is not happy about his wife’s job either, but the family is in such desperate straits that he has no other option but to let Rakhi work. Both actors do a fantastic job here of getting the depth of their emotions across using facial expressions with excellent body language and minimal dialogue.

Although their situation seems unlikely to improve, the couple never give up hope, even if it’s a very compliant and resigned kind of hope. There are no impassioned speeches or battles against authority here, but rather calm acceptance of their place in society and the belief if they just keep trying then eventually God will provide a solution for them. It’s frustrating viewing at times when Deepak is unable to push himself forward when looking for work and Rakhi cannot put aside her inhibitions to make more money when she is dancing, but they are simple everyday people and Hansal Mehta portrays them just the way they are. No more, and no less.

Their blind faith appears to work and things start to look up when Deepak gets a job as the driver for a security firm. The money seems good, and Deepak’s new partner Vishnu (Manav Kaul) even offers the family a place to stay. However Deepak comes to realise that his new partner had an ulterior motive for recommending him, and it is Deepak’s innocence and naiveté that got him the job rather than his previous army experience. Vishnu has a plan which needs the co-operation of his partner, and he’s been waiting for an innocent like Deepak to manipulate into following his commands. Deepak is reluctant, but when Rakhi loses her job in the bar it seems as if he has no other option but to go ahead with Vishnu’s plan if he wants to make sure his family survives.

Rajkummar Rao and Patralekha both suit the role of poor immigrants to the city. They both look skinny and malnourished with beaten down postures and downcast eyes, and both achieve that calm acceptance that extreme poverty seems to bring. It’s only with each other that they seem able to look straight ahead and even then Rakhi rarely looks her husband in the eyes. Both exude innocence effortlessly, even in the rather ham-handed treatment of their love scenes, and Rajkummar Rao in particular never puts a foot wrong. Manav Kaul is also excellent in a role that gives him plenty of opportunity to develop his character. He’s the man who knows the ways of the city, and is patently more sophisticated and knowledgeable than his partner from the country. He has a wife and a mistress, but despite his city veneer he also deeply resents the people whose money he delivers every day and despises his own circumstances. In his way, Vishnu is just as desperate and defined by his poverty, even if it’s not as extreme as that experienced by Deepak and Rakhi, and Manav Kaul does an excellent job with the characterisation.

The film does have a couple of songs which are either used over montages of the couple’s life in the city, or to highlight certain moments in their lives. The problem is that the music and lyrics are overly dramatic, particularly in scenes where the actors have already displayed plenty of genuine emotion and the music ends up detracting from rather than enhancing their performances.  The track below which plays over Rakhi’s dancing and Deepak’s drinking in a bar does work better, but most of the other songs are too loud and intrusive to suit the action. The film is also very dark at times; to the point where it is difficult to see what is happening let alone the actors expressions, while the final climax seems rushed and too contrived compared to the rest of the story.

These small issues aside, the film is an insightful look at the dark side of Mumbai and the realities of living in unrelenting poverty as Hansal Mehta successfully translates Sean Ellis’s story from the Philippines to Indian soil. Rajkummar Rao is definitely the standout as he once again completely immerses himself in his character and delivers an amazingly realistic and believable performance as he did in Shahid. Manav Kaul and newcomer Patralekha are also impressive in a film that raises questions about morality, ethics and poverty even if it does turn a tad Bollywood at the end. 3½ stars.