It’s like all of Bollywood has conspired to make twenty-somethings feel old. As I write this, Kartik Aaryan is slated to resume Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2, a sequel to the 2007 film that defined the horror-comedy genre of today. And now, Akshay Kumar turns up in Laxmii, leaning laboriously on his past charms but failing to land a single laugh or scare.
Almost everything in Raghava Lawrence's film proceeds as a throwback: inane plotting, humour built around a famous leading man in drag, a mawkish supernatural revenge plot to shame the Ramsay movies of old (the 'Laxmii' of this film is literally buried Do Gaz Zameen Ke Neeche - Two Yards Under The Ground). When Rashmi (Kiara Advani) decides to visit her estranged parents for a few days, her husband, Asif (Akshay), joins her on the trip.
As their names suggest, the couple was shunned by Rashmi’s orthodox father (Rajesh Sharma); the trip is Asif ’s chance to win over his in-laws. This proves difficult when he gets posessed by a transgender ghost named Laxmii and starts exhibiting feminine traits — which, to Lawrence’s mind, amounts to Akshay shasaying in a red saree and hissing out his words.
This is where Laxmii gets truely bizarre. The film (adapted from the Tamil hit Kanchana and co-written by Farhad Samji, Sparsh Khetarpal and Tasha Bhambra) treats its characters as cartoon figures, not just Asif but everyone else around him. Convinced her house is beset by ghosts, Rashmi’s mother calls in an array of babas and fakirs; it leads to odd exorcism routines and a cow running amok in the house.
If the intention was just silly slapstick — and it often is — this would all be fine. But Laxmii also wants to be a conversation- starter of sorts, picking the cause of India’s transgender community and having Akshay back the whole thing. In Stree (2018), this balancing of messaging and fun was achieved via smart writing and characters who stood out on their own.
Lawrence, on the other hand, has little idea how to fuse both. Instead, he relies on screechy exposition and a 20-minute flashback to summarise his point. The film is littered with references to Akshay’s earlier works: when Asif is first possessed by Laxmii, we see the portrait of a classical dancer in the room, like Manjulika’s in Bhool Bhulaiyaa. In another scene, Laxmii crawls out of a refrigerator to overwhelm a goon, much like the corpse in Sabse Bada Khiladi.
One of Laxmii’s hairstyles as Asif is a sleek middle part, the same as Professor Aman Verma in Sangharsh. The film is also echoed near the end, when Akshay wiggles his tongue and lets out a loud shriek, like Ashutosh Rana. I could go on, but there’s really nothing here for ardent fans to cherish or fete. For Kiara fans, meanwhile, there’s the Burj Khalifa number and baffled stares at her husband’s antics.
In the opening moments of the film, Asif exposes a baba claiming to exorcise ghosts. Towards the end, he opens a centre to empower many more like Laxmii. For a brief moment, Lawrence’s film appears to have found its heart. Except we are all grown up now and can see through the ruse. As the horrors of 2020 have shown, there’s nothing hollower than plain good intentions.
Cast: Akshay Kumar, Kiara Advani, Sharad Kelkar
Director: Raghava Lawrence
Streaming on: Disney+ Hotstar