By Poulomi Das Aug. 31, 2018
In Amar Kaushik’s Stree, gender roles are reversed: Men are forced to comply with society’s impractical rules and police their behaviour for no fault of their own. The film uses its supernatural spirit to imagine a safer world for women, but fails to eventually carry it through.
The opening credits of debutant director Amar Kaushik’s Stree asserts that the film is based on a “ridiculous phenomenon”. It refers to the Telugu urban legend “Stree Re Pura” (Stree, come tomorrow) that Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK (the film’s producers, also credited for the screenplay) encountered in Tirupati in 2013. It piqued their curiosity and they learnt from the locals that the words were scribbled on the walls of their houses to ward off the evil spirit of a woman who would abduct men at night.
Five years on, that phrase makes it to the big screen as “O Stree, kal aana” (Stree, come tomorrow). In the film, residents of Chanderi, a small town in Madhya Pradesh, religiously inscribe the words on the walls of their home during an annual four-day-long puja to protect the town’s helpless men from a female spirit called Stree. She haunts the town during this puja – a clever play to imply menstruation maybe. Stree terrorises men by calling out their names thrice before taking them hostage and leaving behind only their clothes. The film’s writers confidently label this as the spirit “asking for consent” from its victims, proving that there’s still a long way to go before we all grasp that consent is a two-way street. They mine the leftover clothes – the underwear and vest – for humour and as you can probably tell, it doesn’t elicit a laugh.
Despite the horror-comedy’s tendency to over-explain, it’s hard to not be amused by Stree’s imaginative premise: A world where men are afraid to step out of their homes after dark. A world where women have the luxury of roaming about freely in the night without worrying about any untoward incidents. A world where women instruct men to not step out after 7 pm because “it won’t be safe” for them and the men beg the women to “come back home soon” because they’re scared of being home alone. In short, a world where gender roles are reversed — and men are forced to comply with impractical rules of society and police their behaviour for no fault of their own.
Just like Ghoul, even Stree takes forward the baton of employing a supernatural intervention to imagine a better and safer world. It implies that Stree petrifies the town’s men to avenge the disrespect they’ve meted out to her, but it might as well have been motivated by her need to make the streets safer for women. Stree exploits this subversion rather smartly: In one hilarious scene, a group of macho men, including the film’s lead Vicky (a hammy Rajkummar Rao) chickens out of venturing into the jungle to confront the evil spirit. In another, Dana (Abhishek Banerjee), Vicky’s goofy sidekick, fears for his life on a deserted street, and screams when he spots a woman. It’s not everyday that you witness a film that demands that men walk a mile in a woman’s painful shoes: In the climax, a man is even asked to sacrifice his body to save the honour of the town.
Pankaj Tripathi and his “Hum sab jaante hai” single-handedly invigorates Stree’s second-half with personality, charm, and all-out humour. Image Credit: Maddock Films
Pankaj Tripathi and his “Hum sab jaante hai” single-handedly invigorates Stree’s second-half with personality, charm, and all-out humour.
Image Credit: Maddock Films
But it is Pankaj Tripathi’s pitch-perfect Rudra (completely outshining Rao) – the town bookstore owner with a “Hum sab jaante hai” attitude – who single-handedly invigorates Stree’s second half with personality, charm, and all-out humour. It is here that the film’s nicer moments occur in the little details: A widowed father sitting his son down for an impassioned talk about sex education and masturbation. A quaint town that treats the son of a sex worker like any other ordinary guy, pushing him in the process to look at the relationship that his parents shared as just another love story.
Perhaps the most strident parallel in the film is how it uses the message on the wall to expose the dilemma of women who can’t reject outright, the advances of men for fear of consequences. Just the way most women find politer ways to say “No” in the hope of not angering their admirers, the town’s residents mirror that behaviour with a “Kal aana” even when they really want Stree to leave them alone.
But there’s only so much an exciting premise can do for a bloated film that frequently loses its grip on its plot. Stree suffers from the bane of underwritten women characters, glaring loopholes, needless sub-plots and songs, and a weak ending. It also doesn’t help that a loud, jarring background score over-enthusiastically predicts every big moment. The worst part is that for a film that wants to change the way conservative society views women, Stree dissolves into a problematic objectification of women: An item song with money shots of the dancer’s cleavage and butt and Rajkummar “measuring” Shraddha Kapoor’s body by touching her. It’s this double standard that ensures that the world Stree builds will remain nothing more than a fantasy for women.
When not obsessing over TV shows, planning unaffordable vacations, or stuffing her face with french fries, Poulomi likes believing that some day her sense of humour will be darker than her under-eye circles.