Life is a Cinema Hall rating: (4 / 5) (This rating is only a snapshot. The details are in the words.)
Be it the legend of Naale Ba (Come tomorrow) in the state of Karnataka (specifically the city of Bangalore) and similar stories across Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, or the writing of the line “O stree kal aana” (O woman, come tomorrow) on the walls of houses in central India, the theme is startlingly and eerily similar: staving off the angry spirit of a woman wronged and ensuring she doesn’t enter residences and let all hell loose. The lodestar of the stree legend is the town of Chanderi in Madhya Pradesh, India, where menfolk supposedly began disappearing, falling prey to the irresistible beguiles of the spirit.
And Chanderi is where director Amar Kaushik and writers Raj Nidimoru and Krishna D.K. land up to create Stree (Woman), their wickedly comic take on the phenomenon, the legend, and the hypocrisy of society that propagates subversive behavior and ironically perpetuates the spirits. Opening on a night where something evil and horrifying strikes, the pitch darkness sets the tone for future chills and you shiver in anticipation. But you’d first have to meet Vicky (Rajkummar Rao), he the don’t-wannabe Manish Malhotra of Chanderi—when he flies on his sewing machine, his threading, sewing, and measurement skills get deddy (daddy for you)—played with subtle beauty by Atul Srivastava—waxing Javed Akhtar-like on his son’s skills. But Vicky isn’t simply interested. He doesn’t know what he wants, but this, not. But he doesn’t have a choice because the annual ritual in Chanderi is around the corner and the women folk need their new clothes in time for their four nights of temple run.
This is also the time the Stree comes for her town visit and the painter who paints the “O stree kal aana” line across residential walls is raking in the moolah. Vicky doesn’t give a piss—literally— about this either, but he does care about the girl (played with a detachment by Shraddha Kapoor that’s not really complimentary) who wants her lehenga (a full ankle-length skirt worn by Indian women) in a jiffy. He falls for her thread, needle, and presser foot. And this he shares with his best buddies Bittu (Aparshakti Khurana) and Jana (Abhishek Banerjee); the former’s disdainful of Vicky’s love at first sight, the latter vicariously happy for his friend. There’s also the town wise man, Rudra (Pankaj Tripathi) who owns a bookstore, seems to know a lot more about Stree and how to handle her, and has his own mysterious caller set to a ringtone that’s classic Kalyanji-Anandji with Lata Mangeshkar.
Set across four nights of murder and mayhem, Stree is deliciously dark, satirically funny and has the crackling writing to thank for it. When it’s not making you jump in sheer terror—the first couple of encounters are especially very effective—it’s making you titter in schadenfreude nervousness. Writers Raj and D.K. keep the pace and the energy up and away, and even the interval calling card is classic horror—the attack on a major character that promises more darkness and madness in the second-half. And if you like your ghost-hunting and supernatural chases served on creaking doors, and in ominous mansion set pieces, this is just what the exorcist ordered. Only here, there’s tons of fun to be had as well, and it’s upped by some fantastic acting. If Shraddha Kapoor doesn’t appear weak, it’s because her co-actors are all magnificent with a capital M.
Aparshakti Khurana as the know-all sceptic is terrific, playing off with Abhishek Banerjee with electric timing; Banerjee shines brightly in his likeable dim turn that’s laced with irresistible goofiness. Pankaj Tripathi is brilliant, yet again. He chews dialogue writer Sumit Arora‘s sparkling lines as he would his favorite paan, relishing every word and nuance as he delivers them to hypnotically comic effect. Watch him size up his quarter bottle of drink after Bittu and Vicky take swigs from it; or when he delivers a devastating piece of news to Vicky and then leapfrogs on to the floor in preemptive defense; or when he’s reading out an old piece town literature in his store—the sound design is superb here, the chirping of a lizard, and then the sound of a tremulous cowbell in Ketan Sodha‘s background score.
Even if horror films aren’t your trembling cup of tea, you could do worse than hitch a ride into Chanderi—for, Rajkummar Rao summons far more gumption in signing up for this project- truly, he’s Hindi cinema’s Captain Courageous. Which other actor would turn up in a wedding suit, pearls, and other paraphernalia and offset them with his sneakers, or then strip down to his boxers later? Every nuance and act that the actor delivers onscreen is masterclass stuff. Be it his flustered, love at first sight act, him muttering “theek theek” (Okay okay), in his tongue-tied nervousness, his wannabe-cool act, him having a ball during the Aao Kabhi Haveli Pe number, or his riotous, show stealing act of a mix of terror and forced love expressions, Rao proves that you don’t have to be heroic to be a hero. He makes the small-town act the new awesome.
Behind its facade of a screwball comedy, Stree also masterfully flips the horror genre and cocks a snook at society, jibing at modern India, the Aadhar project and sighs in satisfaction at giving it back to the patriarchal system that’s more an excuse for crimes against women; it even turns Amitabh Bachchan‘s classic courtroom line in Pink on its head. What it throws in disturbing relief is this: that we, collectively, continue to choose to paint O stree, kal aana on our walls rather than break down walls of subversion, indignity, and disrespect towards women; that even a horror like the killer spirit of a woman done wrong isn’t enough to deter us from continuing our horrifying crimes against her; that mortifyingly for us, intervention is better than prevention.
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Life is a Cinema Hall ratings chart
(1 / 5): Don’t bother
(2 / 5): Not too great
(3 / 5): Worth a watch
(4 / 5): Very good
(5 / 5): Drop everything else NOW
Stree is rated U/A (Parental Guidance for children below the age of 12 years) There’s bleeped adult language, some frightening scenes, and hints of sensuality.
Director Amar Kaushik Running Time 2h 8min
Writers Raj Nidimoru, Krishna D.K.
Stars Rajkummar Rao, Shraddha Kapoor, Pankaj Tripathi, Aparajit Khurana, Abhishek Banerjee
Genres Horror, Comedy
Watch the trailer of Stree here: