There is the disclaimer at the beginning of Stree, that states that the film does not encourage superstition and so on. But in a country where the dayan or chudail is a figure of fear and loathing, with a mythology all its own (power in braid, inside-out feet and so on), a film that does not condemn these ideas firmly, does end up strengthening them.
This film, directed by Amar Kaushik, has been labelled by the makers as a horror-comedy. The screenplay, by filmmakers Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK, builds up the humour well, and pokes fun at a town of sex-starved men terrified of stepping out of their homes to escape the ghoul on the prowl. But instead of ridiculing these fears, the film takes its horror seriously and there’s where it flounders.
Stree is set in the quaint town of Chanderi (in Madhya Pradesh), which immediately gives it the right look and atmosphere in which to play out the story of Stree, a female spook, that terrorises the town for four days each year, during an annual puja.
The spirit calls out to men walking down dark streets, and if they turn, they vanish, leaving just a pile of their clothes behind. But if they have painted “O Stree kal aana” on their walls with bat’s blood (or some such), they are spared. Vicky (Rajkummar Rao), the cool dude of Chanderi, thinks he is too rational to bother about these superstitions, till he is confronted with the existence of Stree.
Meanwhile, Vicky (pronounced Bicky in the MP dialect) is the most popular tailor in town (“Chanderi ka Manish Malhotra”), when he gets besotted by a strange woman (Shraddha Kapoor), who appears and disappears suddenly, does not have a cell phone and won’t enter the town’s temple.
When she asks him to get her some odd things like a white cat’s hair and lizard’s tail, Vicky’s friends, Bittu (Aparshakti Khurana) and Jana (Abhishek Banerjee) are convinced this nameless girlfriend is a witch. Men start disappearing, but when Jana does too, friends have to put aside their fear and hunt for him and the chudail, with the town’s know-all bookseller, Rudra (Pankaj Tripathi) to guide them.
The idea may have been to mock the myths surrounding vengeful female spirits out to punish men, but what it ends up doing is respectfully ticking all the ‘how-to-catch-a-chudail’ boxes. The talk about a woman’s consent and “yes means yes” is just a glib cover for pretending there is more to the supernatural mumbo-jumbo on screen than what horror films (remember the Ramsay Brothers?) used to dish out. Stree could have been a real woman power film, peppered with ghost-busting wit, pity it falls short.
What Kaushik gets right though, are the performances. Rajkummar Rao, playing the aspiring lothario, is pitch perfect from the accent, mannerisms and nervousness in front of a woman. Tripathi, Khurana and Banerjee whoop it up with Rao and make their characters believable.
Despite misgivings, it’s a fun and slightly scary watch.