Twenty minutes into Stree, the film breaks into a steamy, slinky item-number. The song — tritely titled Kamariya — is composed by Sachin-Jigar and features Nora Fatehi. The lyrics speak of rolling hips and broken beds, while the camera swoons on a throbbing chest.
In the surrounding swirl of lecherous men, we spot Rajkummar Rao lusting and gaping. Thrown off by this swell in tone, an unsuspecting viewer is compelled to guess… Is this another of those Bollywood barbeques sold off as new-age comedy? Is a film about wronged, wandering witches also invariably servicing the male gaze?
These doubts, though well-founded, are dispelled in the following scene. As the rose-lipped seductress calls it a night, the men resume dancing by themselves. Then, suddenly, the electricity conks off. An eerie silhouette closes in on the house, followed by violent thuds on the door. The men — no more ravaged by lust — huddle up as panicky sheep. Hips shake, but in horror. Looking on closely, the men come to discern the object of their fear – which, much like the object of their desire — turns out to be a woman.
2018 has been a year of subversions, especially for Indian horror. First arrived Prosit Roy’s Pari, starring Anushka Sharma, which soaked its blood and gore in dense allegories about genocide. Then came Netflix’s Ghoul, set in a dystopia that bears out India’s political climate. And now, marking off new territory with its sly modulations, is Amar Kaushik’s hilarious Stree, written and co-produced by crossover duo Raj & DK.
Stree begins as an observant account of superstition in small-town India. Vicky (Rajkummar Rao) is an expert tailor in MP’s Chanderi who scoffs at the oldies in his town. All of them, including the local pandits, have a common watchword outside their house — ‘O stree kal aana’ (O woman, come tomorrow). As the word goes, a tormented soul is roaming the streets, calling out names of men. The phenomenon, as claimed in a disclaimer, is ‘ridiculous’, but the makers fly with it all the same. This isn’t a satire on blind faith (the supernatural is taken at face-value) but on something a little less obvious — gender.
The film takes a ludicrous urban myth —variations of which are felt in almost every Indian state — and turns it on the very patriarchy that sustains it (rebellious women, for centuries, were branded as ‘witches’ and burned at the stake). In a world haunted by Stree, the roles have starkly reversed; men must now drape sarees and wait on their wives to keep them ‘safe’; when venturing out at night, they must seek the company of a female companion, lest a vengeful apparition whisks them away.
The subtext is heavy, but not heavy-handed. The film swings intently between humour and exposition: there’s depth to be explored, but also fun to be had. The mood is understood and shared by the actors, including female lead Shraddha Kapoor. For once Shraddha seems incredibly comfortable in her skin, always approaching her character with a playful veracity that keeps you guessing. Rajkummar, for his part, aces his earthy charmer bit, stuttering out tailoring terms and pulling a Shah Rukh Khan squint in the face of danger. Pankaj Tripathi drops by as the truth-telling bookseller Rudra, a man of measured Hindi eloquence and cutting wit, who lends delirious timing to joke and jump-scare alike.
Kaushik builds up his world with suspense, sewing in smart touches on the absurdest of scenes. “Stree isn’t a mard, she doesn’t force herself on anyone,” explains Tripathi in his sour, bookseller voice, “She seeks your permission first, and attacks with consent. Yes means yes.” These clever insertions, used sparingly and effectively, make the film a tasteful ride. Stree folds up predictably, but the aftertaste is sweet. You come out wishing for a sequel, instead of fearing a potential one. Where Raj & DK’s Go Goa Gone was a dopey parody of India’s Hollywood fixation, Stree is an all-out punch on its obsessive hyper-masculinity. The horror, this time around, hits right below the belt.