So excited to share this review and discussion with those of you who just were able to watch the movie because of Netflix!
Years ago, I heard someone quote a statistic that young men between 16 and 25 were more likely to die of snakebite, and lightning strike. Which brings a picture of some poor teenager being bitten by a snake at the same moment he is struck by lightning. But no, it doesn’t mean the same young man between 16 and 25 has both things happen to him (although I suppose that could be true). What it means is that young men are far more likely to randomly die.
Why is this? Well, it’s because young men are stupid. If there is a storm coming up, your 18 year old boy is the one who is going to go out on a boat anyway, be stuck in the middle of the lake, and end up struck by lightning. If there is a snake, it is the group of male college students who are going to dare each other to touch it. And thus, death.
(Stupid! That is what this poster is telling you, young men are stupid. Not heroic, not handsome, not any of those things, just dumb)
Women die as well of course. But less because they are being foolish, more because they are being too cautious. Too careful to run away from the abusive husband, be impolite to the attacker, and so on and so forth.
In a standard horror movie, the woman lies there and screams and screams, sometimes runs a little bit, and then is killed. This movie flips it around, asks “what is it that young men do that gets them killed?” Well, what they do is be stupid. And being stupid is funny to watch. There is a thin line between tragedy and comedy, and this film dances all over it.
With strong assistance from the cast. Rajkummar manages to age himself down, turning into an innocent inexperienced young man, strongly related to his character in Fanney Khan, in Bareilly Ki Barfi. He has perfected his dopey smile and stuttering eager voice. Pankaj Tripathi is, as expected, perfection in his role as the slightly over important voice of wisdom. But the real surprise were the solid performances by the two supporting players Aparshakti Khurana (Ayushmann’s little brother, he played the cousin in Dangal) and Abhishek Banarjee in his first major film role. They match Rajkummar step for step in the perfect creation of a group of dangerously dumb young men, not bad young men, not purposefully harmful, just really really dumb. And Shraddha isn’t bad! She has the same warm natural aura onscreen that she has always had. Her dialogue delivery and expressions are still the same familiar vanilla, but the role doesn’t necessarily require more than that, might almost have been wasted on another actress.
The writing, not just the overall narrative but the dialogue line by line, is perfect. And the songs are perfect as well, the kind of bouncy infectious stuff that young men from a small town would listen too. And the costuming is perfect, the pseudo cool clothing. And the set design, down to details like how the tailor shop is set up for maximum efficiency.
The one thing that was slightly not as good as it could be was the direction. Overall it was fine, there were just a few moments here and there when I was taken out of the film by a faulty eye line match or a shot-reverse shot that didn’t quite match. That would be the one area where I would say A Gentleman is ahead, not tied. I don’t remember those awkward moment in that. I guess a sign of Raj & DK directing, instead of just producing and writing.
(How did this movie flop???? It’s SO GOOD!!!)
But that is a small part of the film, most of it is perfection. And perfect comedy is a rare thing. The best kind of comedy is the one that challenges us a little bit, that gives you that gasping laughter partly out of the shock of realizing it is true. We laugh when Rajkummar chases a cat in order to pluck two hairs for his lady love partly because he is moving in a funny way and making a funny face, but also because we realize the truth that young men really will do anything without questioning it if a pretty girl asks them.
The best kind of horror movie is also one that challenges you by turning injustice into horror. In America we have the “ancient Native American burial ground” trope, or the “abused child ignored by society” trope. Or the many many variations on the history of slavery. Or, of course, the simple “sex=brutal death” equation. The audience is afraid of this horror, rising up out of our collective past, because we recognize on some deep level that we deserve it. A flavoring of guilt is mixed in with the fear, making it that much more potent.
This film manages to mix horror and comedy, by mixing the guilt and the humor. Young men can do stupid stupid hilarious things when driven by lust. And they can also do stupid stupid terrible things when driven by lust. One creates comedy, the other horror. This film has both.
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
Whole plot in two paragraphs:
Rajkummar is a brilliant talented tailor living in a small town that has a local ghost story. During the annual festival, all the townspeople put “Stree [woman] come tomorrow” on their walls to keep her away. Legend goes that she wants men, she takes them and leaves only their clothes behind. Rajkummar doesn’t believe this but his friends Aparshakti Khuranna and Abhishek Banarjee do. Rajkummar is distracted by a pretty woman, Shraddha Kapoor, who shows up when he is alone and asks for his help. First to sew a dress for her, then at their next meeting, she asks him for a list of strange items. In between he and his friends go to a party where one of the guests is taken by the ghost after Rajkummar pees on the warning sign outside as a joke. Rajkummar tracks all the things down for her while his friends make fun of him and delivers them and they go off alone again. His friends try to find him, afraid that she is the ghost in disguise since she asks for strange things and is never seen by anyone else. They can’t find him, but it keeps them out late, and Abhishek Banarjee is taken. Aparshakti confronts Rajkummar the next day, telling him that his girlfriend is the ghost and he must confront her and get their friend back. INTERVAL
In the second half, Rajkummar confronts Shraddha and gently tries to figure out if she is the ghost or not, but she doesn’t seem to understand his questions and then disappears. Rajkummar and Aparshakti go to Pankaj Tripathi, the local bookseller who has printed up pamphlets about how to avoid the ghost. He pulls out an old guidebook that tells the legend, she was a beautiful dancer and all the men wanted her. She fell in love with a man who saw her soul not just her body but the townsmen were jealous. They killed the couple, and now she haunts the town looking for for men to take her revenge. Rajkummar remembers an old mansion near where Shraddha took him and they go investigating there. Rajkummar is almost captured by the ghost, but is saved…BY SHRADDHA!!! Abhishek Banarjee comes out and is freed thanks to their weakening the ghost. They take him home and Shraddha explains that she isn’t the ghost, she is a ghost hunter, someone she cared about was taken by the ghost and so she comes back every year hunting her. Abhishek is still possessed, they tie him up and go looking for the author of the book for more information. He explains that there is a specific legend, someone with love in his eyes, the soul of an artist, an only son who lives like a prince, born by an oak tree, and the bachelor son of a courtesan is who will save the city. Rajkummar’s friends realize this is he, and break the news to him that his mother was a courtesan. Abhishek meanwhile has escaped and scrubbed the warning signs off the houses, allowing her in to take the men of the neighborhood. In this extreme circumstance, they decide to invite her in to Rajkummar’s house, use him as bait as a bridegroom, and then Shraddha will kill her. The plan works more or less, but Rajkummar can’t bring himself to kill her, seeing it as just another injustice done to her. Instead Shraddha suggests he cut off her braid, her source of strength. The ghost vanishes and the missing men return, Rajkummar and his friends are hailed as heroes and Shraddha leaves town. Rajkummar says good-bye to her, still not knowing her name. Shraddha gets on the bus and pulls the braid from her bag, merges it with her own hair, and vanishes. The next year, the ghost returns to the town gates to find a statue in her honor and the message “Stree, please protect us”. Rajkummar arranged for her to finally get the respect she deserved and never got in life.
Okay, I want to jump to the end. There are two themes in this film, the first is the stupidity of young men, and the second is how that stupidity can lead to not seeing women clearly. Rajkummar only sees Shraddha as the pretty girl who smiles at him, doesn’t even think twice about her strange behavior. But at the same time, it’s shockingly easy for his friends to convince her she is the murderous ghost. There is no in between, either they are so stupid that they think all woman are innocent, or they are so stupid that they think they are all evil. We get a little mini-journey of this in Rajkummar’s discover that his dead mother, who he always respected and loved, was a prostitute. He is shocked and angry at first, it changes everything in how he sees her. But then he talks with his father and quickly realizes that it changes nothing, she is still what she was, the same person. He had to look past his blindness. We see this same idea over and over again, the dancer hired for his friend’s party who they are all a little afraid of and excited by at the same time, the prostitute who demands money from Rajkummar after he causes her client to be taken, leading up to Rajkummar’s realization when he looks at the ghost, with her powers of ghostly seduction removed, that she is just a sad victim of male cruelty, and the solution can’t be more cruelty, it has to be acceptance and peace. That’s the key, once men see women for who they really are, with the haze of sexual attraction removed, they realize they are just people, fragile human people.
But, how does that theme work with the ending? It works beautifully with the lead up to it. Shraddha sincerely likes Rajkummar, but is also using him to help gather her supplies. He sees her as only a pretty girl and is blind to the fact that she has motivations of her own, a life of her own. If Shraddha had simply left town with a smile and an implied promise to return, that would have fit well with the rest of the film. She likes Rajkummar, but she has more happening in her life than he does, she is the mysterious hero riding into town and then out again, while he is the local staying behind. But, her pulling out and putting on the braid changes everything.
I see 3 possible meanings to it:
- She wanted the power, she wanted to defeat the ghost not to save people but just to get her braid and power.
- She was possessed by the ghost during that final confrontation, and once she puts the braid on, she returns fully to the ghost identity.
- She was the ghost all along in some complicated fashion I can’t even begin to untangle.
Any of these meanings have the same result, the woman who seemed harmless actually was evil in the end. Which leads down a dangerous path of maybe woman can’t be trusted. A dangerous path, and also one that doesn’t fit with the rest of the film. The very next scene is the ghost back in town the next year looking at her statue, finally given respect. How does that message, of a woman being more abused by than abusing, fit with Shraddha using Rajkummar and friends to get the braid? And with whatever it is she wants to do with it? I’m just at a total loss! Help me!
The reason this stands out so much is because the rest of the film is perfectly constructed, step by step the authors had figured it all out. For one thing, the idea that the ghost is just a local legend is dealt with early on, her appearance at the party neatly takes care of it. She can come in because the warning was destroyed, so that explains why she hasn’t been a problem in previous years. Abhishek sees her downstairs first, but only as a shadow on a curtain, which serves to build tension for this moment and also for the later reveal of her face. And when she takes the man (who was established as “bad” because he hires a prostitute so the audience doesn’t have to feel too bad about it), it is very dramatic with breaking glass and so on. So we know for sure there really is a ghost, no possibility of a misunderstanding. But at the same time the way it was handled means there are still thrills to look forward to, the reveal of her powers and her appearance and so on.
Shraddha’s behavior as written can play equally 3 ways, an innocent young woman in love, a ghost seducing a human, and a pragmatic ghost hunter using her feminine power on a local. That’s a tricky balance, but it is carried off through scenes that show us just enough but not too much. A shared headset listening to music, a comment about not having a cell phone, and so on. Until, again, the ending.
There’s also the essential flip of the script, taking the traditional hero of ghost films, the brave young man, and making him the cowardly victim. And taking the traditional victim, the weak beautiful woman, and making her the hero. I don’t know as much about Hindi horror tradition as I should, but I know that there is a trope of the young woman who is possessed and becomes overly sexual. It’s such an obvious social statement on Indian society, how mature female sexuality is the greatest danger, that it is hardly worth discussing.
(Fear the woman! Fear her!)
But in this film, it is the man who is possessed. And the woman who has to be the voice of reason and rescue him. It is the man who is set out as sexual bait, dressed up in wedding clothes and set on his bed (another trope, the innocent young bride is the one who is possessed. And again, blah-blah, India’s greatest fear is a sexually awakened woman versus an undemanding inexperienced bride). All the way to the end of the film when the terrified men of the town have taken to going around in saris, and hiding in their homes, begging their wives to come back soon. Vijay Raaz, in a cameo as the writer, foreshadows this. He gives a speech of how the men of the past saw Stree, they wanted woman to remain in their homes, off the streets, modestly covered in saris. And now it is the men who are doing that. While Shraddha strides around in blue jeans carrying a knife.
This is also not the first time the “tragic prostitute ghost” has come up in Indian film, it was the plot of Manichitrathazhu/Bhool Bhailayya after all. But this time they explicitly acknowledge that the ghost was “done wrong” in the past and there is a collective guilt for that, they should treat the spirit that remains better than they treated her in life, if at all possible. Her status as a tragic dancing girl is not treated as a poetic tragedy of the past, but as something that was wrong then and is wrong now.
(And in case we missed it, there was a dancing girl scene in the present too, showing how it still happens)
And it is not the first time the “I fell in love and then learned she was a ghost” idea was teased in Indian film. That is one of the most tenacious urban legends, there’s one of “Resurrection Mary” in my town, she asks young men for rides from the ballroom to the cemetery and then vanishes. Again, there is a clear logic behind it, young men are stupid and can be easily confused when confronted with a beautiful woman. They may not notice she is a ghost, but they also may find a late night drive with a beautiful stranger so magical that it is easy to be convinced it was mystical. This movie turns it around, makes us see it from the ghost’s side of things. Rajkummar is not a brave clean smart young man, he is as dumb as all young men are. And he sees Shraddha as a ghost simply because he isn’t smart enough to imagine any better explanation.
Really, there are so many things that are done well. Everything that is usually serious is turned into humor so we can see why we never should have taken it seriously to begin with. But then there’s the ending, with Shraddha. And it drops the whole film several points in my estimation. So, out of 100, I would have to give it only 90 instead of 99.