When the Ramsay brothers directed their first horror film in 1972, little did they know that it would spawn a stream of parallel cinema which would never become a part of mainstream Bollywood, but would rather create its own cult following. This cult following which may have started out by ardent horror enthusiasts doesn’t stand for horror as much as it does for campy special effects that would make you laugh (or cringe) rather than terrifying you. This tone that was set by Do Gaz Zameen Ke Neeche “inspired” an entire crop of films that relied on cliché-ridden tropes to make any sort of an impact on its audience. Well, alchemy gave birth to chemistry, and astrology to astronomy. You get my point.
In an industry where we have been so unimaginative with horror, the sub-genre of horror-comedy has done surprisingly well for itself. Priyadarshan’s 2007 film Bhool Bhulaiyaa was, perhaps, the first genuine attempt at juxtaposing comedy with horror. Even though the second act of the film became several shades darker than anticipated, the film had some of the most endearing comic characters like Dr. Aditya Shrivastav played by Akshay Kumar and Chhote Pandit played by Rajpal Yadav, among others. Through Priyadarshan’s immaculate comedic vision and great comic timing by the actors, Bhool Bhulaiya was a box-office success.
In the 1990s, the Nale Ba witch had become somewhat of an urban legend in the tech-metropolis of Bengaluru, Karnataka. ‘Nale Ba’ which means ‘Come tomorrow’ would be found written on the doors of houses to ward off this malevolent spirit that was said to roam the streets at night, killing off any untoward pedestrian who loitered alone.
More than a decade later, Amar Kaushik’s Stree attempts to revive this seemingly forgotten sub-genre through the re-imagining of the mystery of Nale Ba. In the 1990s, the Nale Ba witch had become somewhat of an urban legend in the tech-metropolis of Bengaluru, Karnataka. ‘Nale Ba’ which means ‘Come tomorrow’ would be found written on the doors of houses to ward off this malevolent spirit that was said to roam the streets at night, killing off any untoward pedestrian who loitered alone. Kaushik’s story is based in a small town called Chanderi in Madhya Pradesh where the legend of the ‘Stree’ has become a part of the folklore. Just before the annual festival, every household would paint the words ‘O Stree Kal Aana’ (Oh woman, come tomorrow), for during those four days of celebration, the witch was known to hunt unfettered, looking to claim a male victim. The people in the town would tell stories about how men had disappeared forever with nothing to show for their existence but the clothes that they last wore, which were always left behind by the ghost.
Vicky and his friends, Bittu and Jana, are the quintessential small-town lads who see themselves as the most eligible dudes in the whole of Chanderi. Things take a strange turn when Vicky meets a beautiful girl who has come to participate in the festivities. As smitten as he is by her, Vicky does not realize that he knows nothing about her. She doesn’t tell him her name, nor does she give him her phone number. Incidentally, men start disappearing in Chanderi. As the shadow of Stree looms over the town, Jana goes missing. Vicky and Bittu are devastated. Despite the terrifying possibility of having to confront the witch, they have to find a way to bring back their dear friend.
Despite its predictable plotline, the allure of Stree comes from its ethnic setting and its people. From the cobble-stoned streets of the fort town to the Bundelkhandi hindi dialect, Chanderi grows on you as a place of history and culture. Rajkummar Rao maintains impeccable comic timing throughout the entire screenplay, playing the part of a shy young lady’s tailor who narrates – “Mor hamara rashtriya pakshi hai..” (The peacock is our national bird) when asked if he had a problem talking to women. In a particular scene when he has to confront the witch with his “loving eyes”, you are left in splits as his fear-ridden expression of love feels like a man holding in a bout of chronic diarrhea. Abhishek Banerjee as Jana and Aparshakti Khurrana as Bittu are hilarious as his friends-cum-wingmen, unaware that they are talking through sexual innuendos from time to time. Pankaj Tripathi as Rudra is a treat to watch through his drunken quips that turn any tense scene into an unexpected gag. Shraddha Kapoor is, perhaps, the only uninteresting character that you would see in the bunch but does justice to her limited appearances.
Stree is an out and out entertainer that doesn’t intend to terrify you or even tickle all your funny bones. Rather it treads on the edge of thrill and comedy, giving each ingredient the right amount of nudge for the audience to stay invested. The characters of Vicky, Bittu, Jana, and Rudra are colorful enough to have their own ghost-busting spin-off or a web-series. Netflix, are you listening ?