Among the list of upcoming film trailers, Phillauri was one of the few which had grabbed my attention. I am one of those paranoid movie-goers who is absolutely terrified of being prejudiced about the story before watching the actual film. So much so, that I refrain from reading any reviews or interviews or hearing even the slightest of rumors. For me, this paranoia doesn’t apply to trailers as I consider them a film-maker’s foreword before he/she presents his actual work to the mainstream audience. Phillauri’s trailer was unique. There was just the right sprinkle of mystery and comedy, not to mention the Casper-like friendly ghost which immediately brought it down on my ‘to-watch’ list.
Debutante Anshai Lal’s Phillauri begins with the story of a twenty-something NRI punjabi guy who is being dragged back to his hometown and pushed into a life of holy matrimony against his wishes. Even though he has known the bride-to-be since his childhood, he is just not ready to give in into that kind of responsibility and commitment at a time when he is fresh out of college and wants a chance to find himself. To add on to his woes, no one in his family acknowledges his predicament and the situation turns into a comic tragedy as the family hustles and fusses around him while he sits there with an unending constipated expression on his face.
Kanan’s problems were not going to end there. Amidst all the wedding hullabaloo, the pundit auspiciously apprises the family members that the groom was a manglik (someone who is born when the planet Mars in their zodiac sign…or whatever) and to ward off any bad luck from the couple’s life, a special ritual needed to be done – getting the groom married to a tree. Yes, you read that right. Effectively ignoring his protests, Kanan is whizzed off to a far off village named Phillaur where his wedding ceremony with a tree takes place, as a symbol of casting away his ominous birth to an inanimate object. As ridiculous as it may have sound, Kanan surrenders himself to the situation and gets married to the tree. What might seem like a nonsensical yet harmless tradition, soon turns out to be a nightmare for Kanan. The very next day, a most unlikely visitor calls upon him early in the morning. As he rubs his eyes shaking off his sleep, he sees a glittering, translucent apparition of a young woman floating near the ceiling. The frustration of a young man fighting his over-zealous family, suddenly turns into the tale of an uncanny haunting with a ghost who has an endearing story to tell about her unfinished business.
Lal’s unassumingly simple story starts off slow but takes on some fascinating turns with the appearance of the ghost of Shashi Phillauri who haunted the tree which Kanan gets married to. The use of this funny technicality through which Kanan becomes the husband of a ghost makes for an interesting narrative. The CGI of the ghost itself is very convincingly done and brings in the right amount of strangeness to keep you gripped. As we take the journey of this ghost of India past (had to use this reference), the central theme takes on a more nuanced personality. The backdrop of the Independence movement looms over Phillauri’s story and turns out to be the ultimate deciding factor of her untimely death. Just when you decide in your head that the story was predictable, the final twist hits you unaware. Lal elevates the story with this unexpected thread which binds Phillauri’s fate with one of the darkest events in India’s history. Even though the script is a novel idea, the overall execution lacks finesse. The film is riddled with scenes which are drawn out way longer than they should have. Just when you have a perfectly hilarious sequence, you realize that the shot which should have been cut right there, is continued for a good 2-3 additional minutes adding absolutely nothing to it. On the contrary, the scene itself gets diluted and loses its peak. This problem persists from the very first act right until the final act when a perfect tear-jerking ending is dragged out to get the maximum juice out of it, turning it into a test of patience. Secondly, the relationship between Kanan and his ‘spiritual wife’ is hardly explored and lacks the depth that would have been really appealing. Kanan’s character itself becomes slightly annoying with his singular act of cribbing about his marriage which continues even after the haunting manifests itself.
Having said that, Phillauri’s heart is in the right place. Suraj Sharma, who was first introduced to us through the oscar-winning Life of Pi, gives a measured performance as the harried groom Kanan. There were times when you’d wish him to be a little less squeamish but he grows on you, as you realise this is not his story. Anushka Sharma and Diljit Dosanjh as Shashi and Roop Lal Phillauri respectively, are as good as you’d expect them to be. Playing characters who are both passionate poets, they bring a lot of authenticity on screen. There were times when I wished that there were no angle of the Punjabi wedding and it were just a simple haunted house, just to allow more wiggle room in the script for the story of the two enstranged lovers.
Anshai Lal’s first step into Bollywood is impressive considering the kind of story he chose to tell. If you leave aside the screenplay for a bit, you’d be nitpicking if you went on to find more flaws in the film. Weaving the story towards that profound twist at the end was an intelligent move. Such imagination is what makes for compelling direction. Unique stories like this are exactly the kind of freshness that would open up the creativity in a stagnant Bollywood.
gobblpoint: The story makes you laugh and go fuzzy in the chest at the same time. Watch it for some unique story-telling and a mind-blowing twist at the end.
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