Stree review: Shraddha, Rajkummar's spooky comedy needs more spirit

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By Hindustan Times

Legend says the people of Chanderi are so naive, they believe that the moon — referred to in nursery rhymes as Chanda Mama — is their literal uncle. This preposterous idea is found in a book of village lore, a half-torn volume kept inside a copy of the Kamasutra in the local library. 

Most of its pages have been turned into paper-boats by deviant children, but the book matters because Chanderi is haunted by a malicious feminine spirit who terrorises the men in the town. Sighted only on the four nights of the annual puja, she abducts only the menfolk while leaving their clothes behind. It is therefore a tricky time for boys who walk home alone at night.

Stree, directed by Amar Kaushik, is a comedy about a lovelorn tailor who falls for a girl who may or may not be the ‘Stree’ the town fears. She visits the town annually on the days of the festival, keeps vanishing in mysterious ways, never enters the temple, and, perhaps most damningly in the eyes of the tailor and his friends, doesn’t own a mobile phone. Could young Viki, a tailor so accurate he can measure women with his eyes, have found himself a potential girlfriend? Or is this girl who wants him to make her lehenga the kind of bhoot who likes her clothes bespoke?

Based loosely on an urban legend from Bangalore, it is a potentially hilarious setup, and Kaushik has a solid cast with Rajkummar Rao as Viki, flanked by Aparshakti Khurana and Abhishek Banerjee as his two buddies, but despite the immediate likeability of these performers playing off one another with small-town gusto, Stree doesn’t bring down the house. 

The dialogues don’t do justice to the absurdity of the situations, and the lines feel sometimes too basic — which is less evident when greats like Pankaj Tripathi and Vijay Raaz show up. The laughs are inconsistent, and despite a breezy-ish momentum, the plotting feels sloppy and rushed. The ideas are fine, but the writing needed work.

Rao is likeable as ever, especially when rattling off types of blouses, though this is too over-eager a performance to be entirely convincing. Shraddha Kapoor, in fact, brings a certain charm with her initially inscrutable character, but once the truth becomes clearer and she has more to do, her inadequacies show through, especially with the great actors around her.

Khurana is wonderful as a guy who sells readymade clothing and believes in only filling fifty bucks worth of petrol in his bike, while much of the show is stolen by Banerjee, a gangly actor with a zany and unpredictable energy. 

Tripathi is a fine choice to play that horror-movie cliché — the wise man who knows all and guides the heroes to their destiny — simply because he can render any line irresistible, but it is disappointing, for instance, to watch him have to spell out the basics of the local legend to young men who have grown up in that town and should know better.

Stree is all about men who should know better. Kaushik’s film gives us not only a pleasant/terrified town, but a place that is both sexually repressed as well as sexually keen: old men have birds-and-bees conversations with their sons, grown men aren’t allowed to watch lovemaking scenes in the movies, and yet the word ‘friendship’ implies a relationship between young men and local prostitutes. The ideas, as I said, are there.

I wish the first half of Stree made me laugh more often, and I wish the second half — which is quite outrageously quirky — was plotted more cleverly. The film hurtles toward a messy climax that feels like a cop-out, because of cheesy predictability but more because the red herrings used in the film may have led to more satisfactory outcomes. There is a character, for example, who seems to be speaking to a dead woman on the phone… but nothing is made of this.

In one remarkable gag, Vijay Raaz plays a writer who lives “inside The Emergency”. He’s an old loon hiding out in a room, wondering if The Emergency has been lifted. People reassure him that it has, and that we are in better times now but he (wisely) does not believe. Earlier in the film one friend tells another that blind faith is dangerous, and that one should “be anything but not a bhakt,” a follower. 

These are fine touches to a madcap comedy, but they jar with the rest of the film and come across like liberal lip service. Still, it is heartening to learn that a fearsome ghost refuses to abduct her prey without consent. She may be evil but she is feminine, and what this vengeful spirit wants is respect. #StreeToo.