Anshai Lal’s Phillauri is a lesson in committing wholeheartedly to your material. With a premise this farcical, the only way to succeed is if everyone from the director on down is convinced about what they’re doing and, at the same time, willing to look stupid. Then, if you’re lucky, somewhere along the line, because of this conviction, the viewer will suspend judgment and surrender, and the story will acquire a bit of resonance.
The dream sequence that kicks off Phillauri is almost Om-Dar-B-Dar-like in its accumulating strangeness. Kanan (Suraj Sharma) has visions of marrying a snake, finding himself in front of a wedding party without his clothes, seeing his fiancee trapped in a box and then drowning in it. Though the film settles down after this and operates in a broader, more commercially viable comic vein, the sequence shows that Lal, directing his first feature, doesn’t mind prodding audience expectations every once in a while.
Kanan, who’s flown in from Canada for his wedding, turns out to be manglik; he must therefore marry a tree before he can wed Anu (Mehreen Pirzada). He reluctantly agrees; the ceremony is conducted, after which the tree is chopped down. This frees a spirit that was trapped inside it, a development which might strike some as weird, but to me seems quite appropriate. In a world where it’s normal to marry a tree, who could possibly complain about the implausibility of a ghost?
After some inspired mugging from Sharma when his tree-wife floats into his life, another story begins to unfold. We learn that the spirit, Shashi (Anushka Sharma), was alive in pre-Independence India in Phillaur, Punjab (the same place where the tree stood), that she wrote and published poetry, and that she fell in love with a singer, Roop Lal “Phillauri” (Diljit Dosanjh). The narrative jumps back and forth in time – the transitions are jarring – as it contrasts the growing attachment of Shashi and Roop with Kanan’s doubts over his feelings towards Anu, whom he’s been dating since 10th grade, and who’s hopelessly head-over-heels for him.
While the visual effects look dated, the spirit Shashi is strikingly imagined – a shimmering vision that seems to be dissolving into gold dust at the edges. The character is beautifully realised too: Sharma’s performance is snappy, sardonic (but not cruel), dignified even in death. She looks like she’s lit from within (she’s lit beautifully from the outside by cinematographer Vishal Sinha). She finds an excellent foil in Suraj Sharma, who proves a deft physical comedian; someone ought to make a “Kanan panics” supercut. The supporting players are excellent as well: Dosanjh, with his low-key sex appeal; the wonderful Manav Vij as Shashi’s brother; the squeaky and touching Pirzada.
The film takes its chances with in its climactic scene: the metaphor will likely strike some as laboured, while others will find it apt and moving (I certainly did). Instead of discussing this, let me end with a mention of a short scene that occurs during one of the flashbacks. Shashi’s brother has just beaten her for daring to follow her heart – a scenario instantly familiar to any viewer of Hindi cinema. The scene that follows, though, isn’t one you get to see often. Shashi’s brother comforts her, brings her haldi doodh, talks with some vulnerability about raising her in the absence of their parents. He could have been a stock villain but instead, the film suggests that every relationship contains multitudes and everybody has their reasons. That a broad, mainstream comedy would take the effort to point this out is both unexpected and heartening.