CINEMA || Stree
The debut feature of Amar Kaushik is an interesting mix of fear, fun and feminism. It subverses the ideas associated with the ‘mysterious feminine’, tracing the inherent power structures as the female (Stree) manifests herself as the ghost, lover, prostitute, absent mother and the omnipresent mother Goddess, whose yearly festival is when the spectre called “stree” visits the streets of a sleepy North Indian suburb, looking for men wandering alone outside their homes. The spectre calls out to them and whisks them physically away with her, stark naked, leaving the poor man’s clothes back at the scene of the crime as a testimony to the ghostly abduction.
The writers have been inspired by a real myth from the southern state of Karnataka, and thus they weaved the story of the “Stree” and at its centre, a gifted tailor named Vicky (Rajkummar Rao). He is enamoured by a nameless, mysterious woman (Shraddha Kapoor) who comes to town as the yearly festival comes by. While the spectre “Stree” begins to strike and abduct men as the festival comes by, Vicky begins to notice certain discrepancies about his mystery woman which prompts him to wonder whether she is the ghost “Stree” in human form!
Kaushik’s debut feature excels in its moments of clever humour, from the Vicky’s father (Atul Srivastava) who is in awe of his son’s weaving prowess and believes Vicky to be tailor-avatar of Vishnu, to the graffiti in red paint thay implores the ghost to “come tomorrow instead”. It is believed that the houses which has this message written outside are spared by the ghost who must have a sound sense of civil propriety.
Since we are speaking of humour, the brilliant Pankaj Tripathi deserves a special mention for his portrayal of Rudra – the alcoholic, lovestruck bookseller who specializes in the legend of the Stree. Tripathi’s performance strikes the perfect comic pitch throughout.
Rajkummar Rao has proven himself to be a gifted actor time and time again, and in “Stree”, he is no different. Aparshakti Khurana and especially Abhishek Banerjee, make their mark as two of Vicky’s friends. Shraddha Kapoor is as believable as a contender for the ghost as that which her character eventually turns out to be, which brings us to a particularly symbolic scene at the fag end of the film.
Without giving away any spoilers, let me say that the final scene deftly hints at the power struggle associated with women, their names or professions or simply their gender – how one of these variables forcefully create a limiting “identity”, which effaces the memory of a ghost to such an extent that she is simply called “Stree” (the female/the wife). Perhaps this is how it is believable that someone like Vicky can fall for a woman without even knowing her name.
Then again, “Stree” does not intend to preach. In fact, the film would rope in Vijay Raaz for a cameo to spew some (funny?) bile at women, the next moment delving into a touching tale of lost love and ghostly grudges.
To conclude, “Stree” deftly touches upon various aspects of suburban North Indian reality and its malleable form in the face of fear, faith and superstition. The best thing about this film is that its satirical target is ‘the culture of fear’ rather than fear itself.
The fear is good. It is the fear of the “Stree” that keeps the men off the streets at nights. In our society, now there shall be no need to warn girls to remain indoors at nights for fear of getting raped outside. It is the fear that prompts men to reprioritise their masculine identities, since they begin to believe that walking around in a Saree might fool the Stree. The fear, by and large, is harmless and good!
The culture of fear, however, isn’t. It is the culture of fear that fears change, that created the spectre Stree, a prostitute wishing to be a wife, who did not have the social standing to change her ‘identity’ at will. Thus her lover was killed and she died, vowing to exact revenge on men for aeons to come.
If women did hold historical grudges, men wouldn’t have remained in a social position for so long to rant against feminists. Then again, those ranting men often forget that the Stree has a confounding sense of ‘social propriety’. She would not come to haunt you if you simply write outside your home, “Oh Stree, come tomorrow instead!”
A NOTE ON INDIAN HORROR THAT ACCOMPANIED THIS ARTICLE:
India has had a long tryst with tales of horror, the ghosts and the supernatural – and they have come in so many shapes, sizes and storytelling garbs that this “culture of spooky tales” might merit a good article or two for a resounding academic discussion. The issue I am trying to point out, however, is the strange absence of the genre as far as the serious Indian filmmaking milieu is concerned.
Now don’t get me wrong. Since there has always been the demand for darker tales, a section of the moviemaking industry did churn out a selected number of horror fare every year. Most of them are not worth writing home about, not unlike the efforts of the Ramsay brothers in the 70s and 80s. The Ramsays are a family of filmmakers who were the Hammers of the East, sculpting horror films seeped in superstition, skin and gore for the conservative Indian audience. Many of their films have since achieved cult status.
There has been the odd original horror gem like Ramgopal Verma’s “Raat” or a classic like the final segment of Satyajit Ray’s “Teen Kanya” (adapted from a story by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore) but even the most successful of Indian supernatural efforts (Vikram Bhatt’s “Raaz”) were remakes of tried and tested Hollywood or Asian scare fare.
Even as I write this, I feel I should demystify the entire concept of “Indian films” before I can establish an objective plane to speak from. The Indian filmmaking audience has broadly been divided into those who speak the Dravidian school of languages in South India and those who speak in tongues belonging to the Indo-Aryan family of languages in the North.
We who (roughly) belong to the North seldom watch South Indian films, unless they are badly dubbed or shoddily remade in other languages. Thus, when I speak of the drought in the genre, I am ignoring the smart, clever and twisted South Indian films that often breach the fine line between the natural and the supernatural.
The drought has been so severe that for most (North) Indians, the term “Indian horror film” often manages to conjure a disdainful smile on their faces that is reminiscent of the chuckles that intense scenes of horror in those films would (inadvertently) inspire.
Meteorologically speaking, 2018 was a pretty good year. We were treated to two well crafted fares in the genre, two radically different pieces of Art that manage to get themselves clumped together in this little column of ours! Woe this mad obsession with genre!