Just a few years into its revival, the Hindi horror-comedy has upped and died. The biggest blow was Laxmii (2020), with Akshay Kumar in a red saree, and now another is dealt by Roohi, starring Janhvi Kapoor as a human-witch hybrid.
It's fitting that her co-star here is Rajkummar Rao, and that the banner involved is Maddock Films. Having pretty much recouped the genre with the brilliant Stree (2018), they’ve now returned to tear it down. Bhawra (Rajkummar) and Kattanni (Varun Sharma) are a couple of small-town reporters and hired crooks. They pick up Roohi (Janhvi) and drive off in a van.
This is something they do: their boss (Manav Vij) arranges 'kidnapped' brides for paying customers. When the deal with Roohi falls through, the duo is forced to put her up in a cabin in the woods. The same night, while bringing her food, Bhawra sees her crawling up walls and is scared out of his wits.
He runs to Kattanni, who laughs it off as a 'hallucination'. The audience, though, knows what’s up: Roohi is not one but two. The film’s trailer had suggested a potential love triangle in the mix.
This is confirmed when Kattanni meets Afza, the sinister bride-stealing witch inside Roohi, and, instead of running, promptly falls for her. With Bharwa already smitten with her in human form, this creates a problem.
They try to fight it out - writers Mrighdeep Lamba and Gautam Mehra already struggling with the bizarre conceit. Finally, it falls on Bharwa to find a way to exorcise Roohi, which brings them out of the woods and into a nearby temple town. Roohi is directed by Hardik Mehta (Kamyaab), and his retro aesthetics bleed into the film.
The first time Kattani and Azfa come eye to eye, Tu Mera Superman plays on the soundtrack. It’s an absurdly silly moment that just about works. The constant nods to American pop culture, however, distracts from the folksy setting of this tale.
This is where Roohi falls short: Stree, set in Chanderi, had a host of local mythologies to play on. It had a keen sense of time and place that cannot be transported to a fictional town. Also, Amar Kaushik’s film had genuinely funny lines, whereas the humour in Roohi - though not slapstick - is all too rhyme-y and eager to tickle.
The Kattanni-Afza romance is a stretch; even inclined viewers will find their critical faculties challenged. And yet Varun, coyly nodding his head and making Bugs Bunny faces, sells it to us. It’s fun to see him play off Rajkummar, whose comic talents frequently demand a partner (the part where Bhawra goes off on his own is the dullest in the film). Janhvi gets stuck in a role riddled with technicalities: her transformations are achieved mechanically, via VFX, with growling noises to boot.
It isn’t a flamboyant switch, a la Jim Carrey in The Mask, but, repeated too often, loses its sense of threat. The film doesn’t bother to draw out its suspense gradually. By the time Afza is dangling off a ledge, framed by dark clouds, she’s as scary as a house cat. Like Jabadiya Jodi before it, Roohi is frighteningly casual about shotgun weddings.
The frankness with which Bhawra and Kattanni bundle young girls into vans isn’t met with any serious learning on their part. Hardik peppers their journey with all kinds of superstitious encounters; given the paranormal setting of the film, it’s hard to make much of these scenes. The climax, meant to ape Stree's feminist send-off, further confirms this scatterbrained approach. "Cliché hain tu (You’re a cliché)," Bhawra tells Kattanni at one point. He might as well be talking to the film.
Cast: Rajkummar Rao, Janhvi Kapoor, Varun Sharma, Manav Vij, Pankaj Tripathi, Aamna Sharif
Director: Hardik Mehta