The title of this piece has just about a tenuous thread to what follows. Much like the no-connection between the trailer of Phillauri (citizen of Phillaur) and the movie feature. I’ve lamented about how misleading trailers can be, either upping your expectations only to realize the heights were but an illusion – flashback to my let-down for Kahaani 2 vis-à-vis the trailer; or, as in this case, the very foundation of what a movie is versus what its trailer conveys.
Right off the bat, Phillauri isn’t a comedy – there are strains of it, and it even strains to be one; it isn’t a rabble-rouser against rituals – the marriage-to-a-tree is but a djinn-and-bottle mechanism to let out producer Anushka Sharma’s character. And when it does find its groove in the second-half, Phillauri is a beautifully moving love story. And if you’re a sucker for this genre (I am), you will struggle unsuccessfully with your tears toward the end (I did). Director Anshai Lal and writer Anvita Dutt open with a big, fat, alcohol-drizzled Punjabi wedding between childhood sweethearts – Kanan (Suraj Sharma) flying in from Kanaida (Canada, to the Hindi film industry wedding playbook uninitiated) and Anu (Mehreen Pirzada) along with the bevy of family members, most of them quirky and loads of fun. Between sips of whisky and f(l)at(ulent) food, Kanan and his family are informed by Anu’s that the boy is a manglik (in short, his astrological planets were caught with their celestial pants down during the time of his birth), and that to annul this unfortunate screw-up, he must marry a tree, and then it’s all Anu and anew. That ceremony is marked by selfies, and to convey just how seriously the families take this affair, there’s a telling shot of a picnic basket bursting with wine bottles in front of the soon-to-be-wedded tree.
The ritual done, the tree’s chopped off and the families return to begin their festivities. And that night is when a ghostly apparition comes visiting and she’s here to stay with her husband, Kanan. The latter, who till now was only confused about his feelings about the marriage (to Anu, not the leafy beauty) is now horror-struck. You can see immediately that spending the rest of his life with an attractive version of the returned isn’t Kanan’s idea of bliss. Amidst some unnecessary comedy, you and Kanan come to know that the ghost is Shashi (as mentioned earlier, played by Anushka Sharma) and she’s now stuck to him because the tree’s gone and she lived there. And oh yes, she’s married to him now. Director Lal gives you just a brief flash of where Shashi could have come from, when, floating around, she attempts to blow out the lamps in a chandelier, and then gives it a puzzled look as it doesn’t bow to her airy machinations. A beautiful touch, that.
And between the familial wedding madness and this ghostly visit, you’re taken back into Shashi’s story, of when she was alive. And this is when the story is at its strongest and loveliest. The first shot of Shashi’s story has her writing on paper, and you realize its significance only much later, and director Lal does a feather-touch job of lovingly tying up that thread. Shot in a superbly tinted color-of-the-earth light brown, Shashi’s story, based in 1918-19, gets in the local town singer, ostensible poet (published in a Punjabi magazine) and coveted by all the girls – Roop Singh, with the sobriquet Phillauri (Diljit Dosanjh). Shashi’s indifferent to Phillauri’s overtures, indignant to the point of letting a tight one across his cheeky cheek when he attempts to woo her with one of his published poems – the significance of that indignation dawning upon you and Phillauri in another beautiful shot, at night, the fire sparking out embers of love and fiery passion in the scene and between them.
Shashi lives with her doctor brother, Kishan Chand (Manav Vij), he an upright man (not just in posture, but in morals as well) – so when he discovers Shashi and Phillauri one night, he unleashes all hell and fists.
Toggling between the Kanan-Anu and Shashi-Phillauri stories, director Lal creates a stirringly emotional depth for the latter pair that eventually soaks up the present pair of lovers. Phillauri is absolutely tops in the flashback, and cinematographer Vishal Sinha creates magic, as in where the anguished brother goes to Shashi with a glass of milk and turmeric, having beaten her in the earlier scene – he’s sitting across from her, she lying down on the cot, her face not covered by the lamp’s light, and all you can make out is Anushka’s face…until in the dark, her eyes open, her mouth sobs in pain and hurt – truly amazing movie making that. The director also lends superb heft to the scene where Dosanjh’s character comes to bid goodbye to Anushka and Vij’s characters, and the latter moves to beat him again. That scene alone is worth the price of your ticket.
The songs by Shashwat Sachdev are possibly this year’s best so far. Especially the soul-moving Dum Dum that uses lovely percussion and heart-and string-plucking guitars. Sameer Uddin’s background score is terribly redundant in the equally redundant comic scenes in the first half. However, he more than redeems himself later, especially in the climactic heartbreaker, where, using some haunting pieces of softly rising synths and strings, he makes you wipe your tears, as does that scene.
Phillauri’s emotional quotient is also upped by its mostly effective cast. Mehreen Pirzada is affecting as the innocent-eyed, pain-filled bride-to-be, stunned by her lover’s vacillation. Manav Vij as Shashi’s brother is absolutely tops – travelling the difficult path of protective brother to a loving one, from fiery reaction to one of acceptance, to one of finally beaten by fate, his is a fine performance. It’s only Suraj Sharma, who, though good, keeps up his perplexed act for far too long, almost hemmed in by this reaction. There could have been more shades to his acting, and you want to ask, (life of) why?
But the movie belongs to Anushka Sharma and Diljit Dosanjh. She, breathtakingly superb, breaking your heart even in her appearance as a ghostly visage, her performance lending such a palpable dimension of past hurt and variety – I can’t imagine how she pulled this range off, hanging by harnesses as she was, during the shoot. In her portrayal as Shashi, Sharma adds such sizzling power and energy combined with impish and unbridled joy, she sets you free. Watch her in the scene where her horrified friend, played by Nidhi Bisht, asks her if she wasn’t ashamed to make love to Phillauri before their wedding – and Anushka, at first coyly nods in agreement, then in a moment of mischievous truth, begins to shake her head and bursts out laughing. You are mesmerized. Dosanjh traverses from local, arrogant Romeo to a true lover with his eyes, they metamorphosing from haughtiness to tenderness in an act that’s simply stunning. In that sense, when you do finally realize the significance of that botanical wonder, between Anushka Sharma, Diljit Dosanjh, and Manav Vij, the tree’s heartbreaking company.
Phillauri is rated UA (parental Guidance for children below the age of 12 years). There’s some sensuality, but the slow pace will more likely be disturbing for children.
Director Anshai Lal Running Time 2h 18 min
Writer Anvita Dutt
Stars Anushka Sharma, Diljit Dosanjh, Suraj Sharma, Mehreen Pirzada, Manav Vij
Genres Comedy, Romance, Drama, Fantasy
Watch the trailer of Phillauri here: