Amar Kaushik’s film Stree is fresh but struggles to go beyond the blueprint of horror films.
Amar Kaushik’s latest horror comedy Stree checks most of the boxes of its genre. That itself is surprising because Bollywood, more often than not, gets horror extremely wrong, forget horror comedy.
Rajkummar Rao is convincing and brilliant as always portraying a tailor in the small town of Chanderi and Shraddha Kapoor is the mysterious woman he falls in love with. Kapoor, however, struggles in many scenes. The plot revolves around the legend of a paranormal woman who visits the town during festivities and abducts men.
Bollywood horror films have, for the most part, dangled women as the carrot before a ghost to be possessed, exorcised, thrown around the room, grow long nails and inflict wounds on herself. But Stree turns that comically around. It is the men who get haunted by the dark soul of a sex worker searching for her lover. Refreshing to see a film where the men get scared too and the wall of machismo crumbles.
The men wear saris so that the ghost doesn’t recognise them, they ask their wives not to leave them alone at home, and all the supposed masculinity vanishes when the knocking on the door gets louder and the electricity goes kaput.
The film makes a statement against toxic masculinity when it reverses the gender stereotypes of who protects whom in the face of danger. Respect for women seems to be the over archaic lesson intended for the town in the film and audience. The concept of consent is wittily slipped in when a man says, “Stree isn’t a mard, she doesn’t force herself on anyone. She seeks your permission first and attacks with consent. Yes means yes.”
In many ways Stree is fresh, but it struggles to go beyond the usual blueprint of horror films. It uses the same stereotypical horror theme music for introducing the ghost, the same PoV angle of the ghost when she is sizing her prey, and the same trope of a witch’s power resting in her long black plait.
One wonders when Bollywood will grow up and go beyond its obsession with long hair and floating figures and use a bit of its imagination.
While there is little creativity used in terms of the ghost, the contemporary setting of the film is what I will raise my glass to. When 20 men from the town disappear, the script does not deter from showing the political reactions to the unnatural disappearances, with one group raising slogans donned in saffron and another group civilly making tall promises on stage. The film also slips in several hilarious but sarcastic references. For example, how does Stree know the names of every man in the town? Because aside from possessing phantom powers, some suggest she also has everyone’s Aadhaar details.
Stree is not without its set of jump scares, keeping up with the horror promise made in it trailer. While they are balanced out and served in instalments, the tricks of a shadow behind the curtain and swooshes of black figures across the screen limit the film.
For Bollywood horror films, it has been a year of highs and lows. Pari took the cake with its gore while Golmaal Again and Great Grand Masti reinstated fear of sequels in everyone. Phillauri, on the other hand, delivered a summer sweet love story with limited horror. Stree in that sense stands apart from the run-of-the-mill horror film. A vintage ghost takes you on a fun ride albeit with a dash of satire.