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Stree and Its Politics

Samvartha Sahil (crazymindseye@gmail.com) is the author of Rooparoopagalanu Daati (2017; a collection of translated poems in Kannada) and Baalkattey (2019; a non-fiction collection). He has also worked on films such as Harikatha Prasanga (2015), Double Life (2016), and Epil (under production) in various capacities.

Stree, the blockbuster horror film, has a political message at its core and speaks for women’s rights and consent eloquently.

In a country where superstitions are deep-rooted, at times when champions of rationality are being killed, to make a film like Stree (2018) is undoubtedly an act of bravery. In Bollywood, the horror genre has always played to the gallery, using superstitions to its benefit, and has, in effect, strengthened these superstitions. Stree breaks away from this tradition and subverts this genre, and more.

Over the last few years—specifically after the 2012 Delhi gang-rape incident and the nation-wide protests that followed—Bollywood has also started catering to the newly awakened feminist thinking among the masses. If one were to look at it just as a response of popular culture to this sentiment, without diving deep into discussions about feminism and feminism in popular culture, one can say that films like Gulaab Gang (2014), Pink (2016), NH10 (2015), Queen (2013), and Highway (2014) have tried to make a point in their own ways and have attempted to puncture the prevailing patriarchal ideas and beliefs. However, all these films have been two-dimensional and have even resorted to sloganeering. Stree does what all these films attempted to do, in an engaging and convincing manner and without reducing the thought to slogans or sermons.

Very few imaginative writers and directors are able to make a larger point through the horror genre. Under the Shadow (2016), written and directed by Iranian film-maker Babak Anvari, for instance, is one of those exceptional cases. Ours is a nation where stories of ghosts and spirits abound and we have a robust tradition of A- and B-grade horror films. Yet, we have not been able to do much to turn superstitions on their head and through them make a comment on our realities. In this context, Stree is an important intervention.

Written by Raj Nidimoru and Krishna D K, and directed by Amar Kaushik, Stree is refreshingly original. At the very beginning of the film, the makers declare that it is based on “a ridiculous phenomenon.” Making its position clear, thus, the film goes on to weave together horror, humour, and satire in the right amounts, resulting in a film that is hilarious, spooky, and also political.

Set in the small town of Chanderi, Stree revolves around the myth of a ghost, known just by the name Stree, who visits the town during a festival every year and picks up men, leaving behind only their clothes. To save the men, each household writes on its walls, “O Stree, Kal Aana” (Oh Stree, come tomorrow). Writing this, it is believed, will keep the ghost away. There is no way one can save the men on the streets during the four nights of the village festival. The men of the town decide that it is easier to stay alive by not stepping out of their homes after sunset. If they have to step out, it is believed that they should not meet the eyes of Stree, who calls out to men from behind thrice before abducting them.

Vicky (played by Rajkumar Rao) is a popular tailor in Chanderi. His friends are Bittu, who owns a ready-made clothing shop, and Jaana. The friendship of these three men and their acquaintance with the town scholar Rudra (played by Pankaj Tripathi) acts as our window to small towns, and the world views and lifestyle of its people.

One day, Vicky meets a girl (played by Shraddha Kapoor) who wants to get a dress stitched before the last day of the festival. A fond relationship develops between the two. Her refusal to reveal her identity and her phone number, and her strange demands for the tail of a lizard, hair of a cat, etc, in her first letter to Vicky, which he and his friends understand to be a love letter, make his friends conclude that this mysterious girl is Stree and is after his life. What adds strength to their conclusion is the fact that this unnamed girl doesn’t enter the temple or take the prasad offered by the temple. And, more importantly, nobody except Vicky has seen or met this girl.

When his two friends arrive at this conclusion, Vicky is not around. He has gone to meet this girl in an abandoned place. His friends go in search of Vicky to save him, and fail to find him. Scared of being spotted by Stree, they return and in the last leg of their way back take different routes to go to their respective homes. This is when Stree makes Jaana her catch, leaving behind only his clothes.

Vicky and Bittu go in search of Stree and Jaana. For this journey, they take Rudra’s help and, after making a surprising discovery, the three along with a fourth comrade don’t just fight the ghost, but also discover the past of the ghost, which holds up a mirror to societal values and hypocrisy.

This entire journey is thoroughly funny and scary. Short, but powerful dialogues that are in tune with the storyline also echo larger political commentary. While lines like “Andh bhakti buri cheez hai, kisi ko bhakt nahi hona chaahiye” (Blind devotion is a bad thing, nobody should be so devout) are comments on political worship, lines like “Stree ijaazat kay bagair haath nahi lagaati” (Stree does not lay hands on someone without their permission) underline the issue of consent. Stree is, in essence, a political film presented in the horror genre. For a film which otherwise speaks about women’s issue with such conviction, Stree could have avoided the “item number” in which the camera reduces women to an object, and the demonising of one of its central characters. These wouldn’t have taken away anything from the film and avoiding them would have made the film even more likeable.

 

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