A female ghost with sexual desires, who abducts men, and cheerfully leaves Exhibit A behind? That's certainly a first for Bollywood
I cannot stand horror films. Yet, I found Amar Kaushik's horror-comedy Stree an absolute hoot. I kept laughing out loud throughout.
In Chanderi, in Madhya Pradesh, lives a ladies' tailor Vicky (Rajkummar Rao), who can accurately gauge ladies' measurements with just a glance, and his two buddies Bittu and Jana. A mysterious, pretty out-of-towner (Shraddha Kapoor) suddenly turns up, asking Vicky to make her a lehenga urgently — and Vicky melts. Meanwhile, there's a chudail, a female ghost, haunting the town during the four days of its annual religious fair. Simply called Stree, she's a ghost with desires, who hypnotises men: soon they vanish, and only their clothes are found the next day. A female ghost with sexual desires, who abducts men, and cheerfully leaves Exhibit A behind? That's certainly a first for Bollywood.
Vicky's friends have doubts, whether his new girlfriend, who has no name, whom no one has seen, could be… ulp? So, Vicky hesitantly asks her, "Aap Stree ho kya? Bas, aise hi pooch raha hoon, GK ke liye."
The horror-comedy genre is a tricky combination to pull off, but Kaushik succeeds with verve. To top it all, it is an explicitly feminist film. A situation in which the town's men are terrified of a female ghost who desires men, yields pure gold, as it flips stereotypes: women tell their menfolk to stay "surakshit," bolted at home, not to venture out late, or talk to strangers. A 21-gun salute for this.
So, our trio hatches a plan to trap Stree, guided by Pankaj Tripathi as Rudra Bhaiya, the town gyani, and Vijay Raaz as Shastriji, a writer. Tripathi observes that Stree is a "naye Bharat ki chudail" who doesn't do zabardasti like men, but believes in consent: she calls out men's names, and waits till they look into her eyes, before abducting them.
There's plenty of scary scenes with loud music and jump cuts. The climax is a bit muddled, involving chopped chotis and messaging about women wanting respect, but overall, Kaushik pulls off the film with elan.
Remarkably, this delicious genre-bending feminist film is Kaushik's debut feature. It could not be further removed from his previous short, Aaba, about a young girl in Arunachal Pradesh and her dying grandfather, that won Best Short in the Berlin Film Festival's children's section in 2017.
Rao is terrific and carries the film; and Tripathi is brilliantly deadpan, but ironically for a feminist film, Kapoor has little to do. Stree's marvellous story and screenplay are written by Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK, with comic dialogue by Sumit Arora. 'Raj and DK' are also co-producers, with Dinesh Vijan. Pity they ruin it by including a heaving item number. It is the duo's ninth film, and their filmography includes the zombie comedy Go Goa Gone.
You get the feeling the crew had a blast making the film — and that's infectious.
Meenakshi Shedde is South Asia Consultant to the Berlin Film Festival, award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. Reach her at email@example.com
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