‘Stree’ has better comic timing than scare tactics
In the teaser for Stree, we were told that the events of the film are “based on a ridiculously true phenomenon”. In the film, however, the onscreen text has been changed to “a ridiculous phenomenon”. This is a smart swap, not only good for a laugh – the Hindi text says “vichitra ghatna”, an atypical or outlandish event – but also a clue to the essentially batty nature of this horror-comedy.
Amar Kaushik’s film is set in the small central Indian town of Chanderi, where men are being abducted in the dead of night by a creature known only as Stree (“woman” in Hindi). This is based on an actual legend, which exists across multiple states and languages, of a vengeful female spirit, who preys on male victims. The only solution – and here’s where the ridiculous comes in – is to paint ‘kal aana’ (come tomorrow) outside one’s home, an instruction which the spirit obeys, thus delaying her attack indefinitely.
Vicky (Rajkummar Rao), master tailor of Chanderi, is crept up on by a mysterious out-of-towner(Shraddha Kapoor) while on a smoke break. She wants a lehenga made double-quick; he protests,but melts when she says “please” and holds his hand. After a horny young man (as per horror tradition) is abducted from a house party, Vicky’s friends, Bittu (Aparshakti Khurrana) and Jana(Abhishek Banerjee), realise there’s something off about the girl he’s fallen for. No one besides Vicky has spoken to her, he doesn’t know her name, and he hasn’t seen her inside a temple (it’s festival time, and that sort of small town). When she gives him a weird shopping list – cat hair, lizard tail –they are convinced that Vicky has fallen in love with a witch.
As a horror film, Stree is rudimentary at best. It only has one scare tactic: something creeps up, the soundtrack becomes screechy, and it turns out to either be the ‘chudail’ or a false alarm. Luckily, Kaushik’s feel for comedy is surer. Sumit Arora contributes amusingly verbose dialogue, and Rao, Khurrana, Banerjee and Pankaj Tripathi (as a local scholar) have a great time chewing on words like ‘nimnlikhit’ and ‘mantramughd’. Tripathi in particular is a joy to watch, and the second half is invigorated by his increased presence.
The screenplay, by producers Raj and DK (who combined horror and comedy in their film Go GoaGone to better effect), has a subversive endgame that’s spelt out very clearly. The idea of a town full of men afraid to go out at night is a potent one, and the film lays it on thick, with Tripathi’s character informing us that Stree – unlike male predators – doesn’t attack without consent (“Yes means yes” is thrown in for a laugh). I preferred the film’s smaller jabs at narrow-mindedness. At one point, Bittu and Jana raise eyebrows about Vicky’s new friend’s request for brandy. So she drinks, Vicky shrugs.“Bhabhi is cool”.
Late in the film, Vicky finds out his mother was a ‘tawaif’. After his initial shock, he decides it doesn’t matter – she’s his mother, after all – and then realises the whole town’s been keeping the secret from him to save his feelings. It’s an unexpected plot wrinkle, not only unnecessary but risky to introduce, but handled with warmth and good sense. Moments like these make Stree more than what it is: an amiable comedy with a couple of good ideas, too many jump scares and the most confusing ending I’ve seen in a long time.